Tag Archives: Ombudsman

Former VC hits back at CCC report as Murdoch ship sinks even deeper

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.

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Murdoch Uni still embroiled in controversy

As Murdoch University (Perth, Australia) seeks to appoint a new Vice Chancellor after the resignation of Richard Higgott in October 2014 on allegations of misconduct, the university finds itself unable to extricate itself from ongoing controversy.

The Western Australian branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has announced an external investigation into bullying complaints against the University. Additionally, revelations emerged this week of a complaint against acting Vice Chancellor Andrew Taggart and senior staff members in the former School of Social Sciences and Humanities under Taggart’s supervision.

Taggart is named amongst a trio of senior staff members accused of colluding to undermine the promotion application of a junior academic staff member in 2011-2012. One conspirator, Helena Grehan (now Associate Dean Research in the School of Arts), is alleged to have made misleading claims about the applicant to members of the promotion committee and to Andrew Webster, the dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities. Webster then urged Taggart not to support the junior staff member’s promotion in 2011, which Taggart appears to have gone along with.

The trio are accused of thwarting a second attempt by the junior staff member to apply for promotion the following year. The Appeals Committee initially ruled that Taggart and Webster’s reports on the applicant were unsatisfactory and that the application should be reexamined. But questioning of the Committee’s recommendation by Brendan Cusack (Manager of Equal Opportunity and Industrial Relations) and Trudi McGlade (Director of Governance and University Secretary) resulted in the Appeals Committee controversially reversing the decision.

Evidence obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) also uncovered promotion committee notes that indicated further misleading comments were made by Grehan about the applicant at the lecture promotion committee meeting held in November 2012. Provost Ann Capling, who was chair of that committee, rued the exposure of the notes and proposed that in the future they should be destroyed shortly after meetings, seemingly contravening legal requirements for the university to retain promotion notes for several years. Capling was also accused of selectively withholding documents requested under the FOI application, including the very documents in which she made the remarks, although Capling claims to have previously deleted them to save server space.

The matter ended up with the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) after Higgott refused to act on the complaint and suggested the complainant had the option of taking the matter to the Ombudsman. In late 2013 the complainant did just that, but due to the possibility that some of management’s actions might be forms of misconduct, the Ombudsman referred the complainant to the CCC (some aspects of the case not followed up by the CCC have since been referred back to the Ombudsman).

It is not clear if the case was related to the events that followed (as the CCC process is shrouded in secrecy), but it appears that the CCC became aware of a number allegations against senior management around this time. David Flanagan, Murdoch University Chancellor (and Managing Director of struggling iron ore company Atlas Iron), has reported that he was contacted by the CCC in January 2014 to look into allegations against senior management. Flanagan later told a Perth radio station: “We went in looking at matters that the CCC asked us to, which I was expecting to be completely resolved. They weren’t.  So they were genuine matters which needed to be addressed.”

Unrelated to the case, Flanagan received a petition from a group dubbed the “Murdoch Meta Management Group”, an anonymous group of 35 university staff members disillusioned with the management style of the senior leadership, which led Flanagan to extend his investigation to broader allegations. Flanagan has said that the initial matters “ended up becoming a bit secondary, because while we were looking into those matters, we stumbled across a couple of others, which were new.”

Flanagan has revealed that his investigation, undertaken initially by Price Waterhouse & Cooper before taken over by KPMG, uncovered serious problems among senior management related to rigging appointments, mishandling university records, mismanagement of university expenses, bullying, excessive redundancy packages, and misleading the CCC. Critics of Flanagan have suggested that there was a clash of personalities between Higgott and himself, and that Flanagan was trying to find a way to remove Higgott. Flanagan stated that he felt he had a good working relationship with Higgott and supported his strategy for the university, but the CCC’s request to look into certain matters gave him little alternative other than to carry out an internal investigation.

By September 2014 the writing was on the wall for Higgott. He was suspended by the University Senate (chaired by Flanagan) pending the outcome of the investigation into his activities as well as three other senior staff members, thought to include Provost Ann Capling and Human Resources Director Karen Lamont (nee Cooper). Higgott resigned in October, followed by Lamont and Capling in the following months. Andrew Taggart was chosen to serve as interim Vice Chancellor.

Despite the departure of the core senior leadership group, it appears that the interim management under Taggart has done very little to address the culture of bullying and questionable conduct by senior officers at the university. The WA office of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) announced last week an investigation into alleged bullying and staff mismanagement within the Development and Communications directorate at Murdoch University. The external investigation follows senior management’s alleged inaction in dealing with several complaints. Murdoch NTEU branch president Anne Price said that “some quarters” within Murdoch University management have downplayed the significance of the complaints and hindered redressing the problems.

Meanwhile, the CCC’s investigation into the allegations against former management has not yet been concluded, but a report is believed to be due within the next few months.  The appointment of a new Vice Chancellor, which is expected to be finalised in December, cannot come soon enough for the university.

Apart from a strategy to deal with the university’s deepening financial woes, the new Vice Chancellor will want to act decisively to clean up the university’s troubled management culture in order to avoid ongoing controversy. By the sound of it, the incoming Vice Chancellor will have their work cut out for them.

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