The UK's new agency for promoting best practice among academics faces potential embarrassment after inviting an Australian academic accused of bullying to speak at its inaugural conference.
Craig McInnis, who three months ago relinquished his post as director of Melbourne University's Centre for the Study of Higher Education, will be a keynote speaker at the Higher Education Academy's national conference in June.
Professor McInnis stepped down after an inquiry into claims of bullying at the centre.
Senior staff complained that a number of valued academics and administrative workers had quit their jobs after being subject to what they saw as bullying. They also highlighted the increased stress on those remaining and the low morale and decreased quality of work.
An independent consultant is understood to have obtained evidence from 17 current and former CSHE staff. Professor McInnis denied the claims but agreed to stand down as director. He retains his position as a tenured professor of higher education and a policy adviser to the deputy vice-chancellor (academic).
This week, Paul Ramsden, the HEA's chief executive, disputed claims that inviting Professor McInnis to speak gave the wrong signal to the academic community. "We were quite keen to get someone from another country with the right background. He will help us to emphasise the broader aspects of the student experience, which is a key part of the academy's remit," he said.
Professor Ramsden added: "I personally know Craig McInnis and his international reputation for scholarship and research. If there was any substance (to the allegations), then we would want to look into it in detail. My understanding is that he remains a valued member of the university.
"We will keep a watching brief on this, but at the moment we do not have enough evidence to suggest he should not be invited."
Professor McInnis's international reputation was well established and he was frequently invited to speak at conferences all over the world, Professor Ramsden said.
Melbourne University confirmed that Professor McInnis left his post last November. A spokeswoman for Glyn Davis, the vice-chancellor, said: "During the latter part of 2004, issues brought to the attention of the university were resolved according to university procedures. Professor McInnis, who has an outstanding international reputation in his field, remains a valued member of the university staff."
Asked about the charges of bullying and his departure from the centre, Professor McInnis refused to speak about the circumstances.
"I've taken up a number of new projects at the university, and I've stepped down after a number of years (as head of the CSHE) and am moving on," he said.
One former staff member, who asked not to be identified, said she had witnessed frequent instances of what she regarded as bullying behaviour.
"I've seen him shouting at a staff member in the corridor and making belittling comments such as 'Can't you get anything right?'" she said.
Professor McInnis is one of three keynote speakers who will feature at the conference, which is due to take place in June at Heriot-Watt University.
Also billed to speak are Diana Laurillard, professor of educational technology at the Open University, and Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University.