Murdoch University appears lost at sea in the face of a tidal wave of controversy. Disgraced former Murdoch University Vice Chancellor Richard Higgott has described the University Senate-based Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) report as naive and misleading. Meanwhile, Murdoch University continues to attract criticism for its handling of a damning report into the leadership of one of its senior Directors and for its interference in the promotion of a junior staff member, as new details emerge of current senior management not following due process and mishandling investigations, suggesting that little has improved at the troubled university.
In an opinion piece published in today’s Higher Education section of The Australian newspaper, Professor Higgott rejected the CCC’s findings of serious misconduct for the improper appointment of Professor Ann Capling, stating that he was not involved in Professor Capling’s appointment by the selection panel, a fact that he says was omitted in the report (in fact, it flatly contradicts what is said in the report).
Higgott also takes issue with the finding that he had a “close personal relationship” with Professor Capling, arguing how such a relationship might be defined, why his prior declaration of knowing the candidate was not sufficient, and why the nature of his relationship with a person applying for such a senior appointment should be a factor anyway? He felt the same rationale applies to his appointment of Jon Baldwin.
On the matter of Jon Baldwin’s excessive severance payment, Professor Higgott passes the blame onto Karen Lamont, former Director of Human Resources, who had approved the deal as a way of ensuring a smooth exit for Baldwin and avoiding controversy around the matter. Higgott claims that if he knew he was breaching Senate regulations, he would have handled the matter differently. Ms Lamont resigned from the University in the wake of the fiasco, but her own actions are not fully documented in the CCC report, which is mostly focused on Higgott.
Finally, Professor Higgott sought to clarify that his viewing of adult content on his work laptop occurred after hours, away from the workplace (again, flatly contradicting the CCC report), and, in any event, was a matter that could have been dealt with internally. In fact, Higgott pondered why the matter required an external investigation at all, including referral to the CCC. He remarks, “The affairs of Murdoch raise an issue of why would a university senate choose to investigate its senior officer(s) via external and clandestine, forensic and legal means (with obvious attendant massive financial cost) and little consideration for the inevitable negative consequences for the university.”
Clearly, Higgott feels that he was set up by the Senate, although he restrains himself from squarely pointing the finger at Senate Chair and University Chancellor, David Flanagan, who spearheaded the investigation and whose troubled relationship with Higgott features prominently in the CCC report. (Incidentally Flanagan, who has been busy saving his iron ore company Atlas Iron from receivership, was this week appointed University Chancellor for another three-year term).
While attempting to exonerate himself from blame, Higgott displays an ambivalence, even contempt, towards University regulations, which is what landed him in trouble to start with. Western Australia’s state division secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Gabe Gooding, has commented on the hypocrisy of Higgott’s behaviour and attitude, stating that Higgott and his deputy, Ann Capling, pursued certain senior staff at Murdoch University ruthlessly on the pretext of only minor breaches of the University’s code of conduct.
In what is likely to cause further turmoil at Murdoch University, Higgott casually remarked, after arguing that prior interaction with senior applicants is “standard practice”, that the same process surrounding Ann Capling’s appointment also occurred “with all other senior appointments including the other deputy vice-chancellors, the deans and some professors.” The CCC report had noticeably omitted this matter from its report. The Deans, whose contracts will soon expire, may well be feeling nervous as a result of Higgott’s admission.
One wonders how much input the new Murdoch University Vice Chancellor, Eeva Leinonen, had in what got included in the final report and what got omitted (most likely, the evidence submitted to the CCC by the University Senate was already cherry-picked to begin with). An article in The Australian published on Monday noted that the release of the report, which was being held back by the CCC until it had conferred with Professor Leinonen, was “timed for it to garner as little media attention as possible — late on a Friday afternoon the day before a federal election.”
Meanwhile, criticism of Murdoch current senior management’s handling of the Paula Barrow matter continues. Senior management courted controversy by refusing to release the external report after an investigation into Ms Barrow’s leadership of the Marketing, Communications and Advancement Directorate, citing potentially defamatory material within the report as the main reason for not releasing it. Ms Barrow was an appointee under Higgott. It now turns out that the report also contains paraphrased excerpts from the informants who complained about Ms Barrow to the investigator.
Although aggrieved staff members are referred to anonymously in the report (as “Interviewee #1,” “Interviewee #2,” etc), they are in many cases identifiable by context and (it has been claimed) misquoted in some cases. Given that Ms Barrow was given full access to the report, the question is why did senior management not take steps to redact the staff members’ comments from the report prior to providing her access?
Staff members involved are highly distressed about the matter. They feel they are working under a Director who is aware of who made the complaints directed against her, thanks to the failure of senior management to ensure confidentiality.
In further controversy, the Ombudsman has decided after almost eighteen months on the case not to take action in the matter of senior management’s alleged interference in the promotion application of a junior staff member. Apparently they were advised by Murdoch University Secretary Trudi McGlade that due process was followed in permitting a re-hearing of the application. However, this is disputed by the applicant who asserts that Professor David Morrison (another of Higgott’s appointees) was not provided with the full documentation by then HR Director Karen Lamont and, consequently, dismissed the application due to the missing information.
During the case, the Ombudsman appears to have been reluctant to get involved in the particulars of Murdoch’s promotion policy and procedure, and instead simply took University management at their word that the re-review was conducted above board. This is despite deliberate efforts by University management to avoid making records of the proceedings or permitting an independent observer to be present, despite protests from the NTEU. It is noteworthy that Ms McGlade was one of those accused of being party to the improper interference with the application to begin with, raising questions about a conflict of interest and whether the Ombudsman has been misled.
The suggestion that the Western Australian CCC and the Ombudsman are deferring to the advice of Murdoch University senior management and are being led – even misled – on various matters is concerning but not all that surprising, given those agencies’ ill-informed understanding of university affairs and their lack of resources (and/or interest) to investigate such matters themselves. Hopes that Murdoch University’s own Senate might continue to perform the role of watchdog, as it did in the case of Higgott, might also be under threat due to current initiatives by the Western Australian government to reduce the number of freely elected representatives to the Senate board, who the NTEU warns may in the future be fully appointed by senior management if the government gets its way.
As events at Murdoch University clearly show, more oversight rather than less is needed to ensure transparency and due process are followed. While new VC Eeva Leinonen has promised commitment to “integrity, respect and professional conduct” in the wake of the release of the CCC report, it will take more than aspirational statements to right the Murdoch ship.