Murdoch withdraws financial pursuit of whistleblower

Perth university offers concession ‘in the spirit of moving towards a resolution’ with Gerd Schröder-Turk

January 13, 2020
Source: iStock

Murdoch University has abandoned its pursuit of academic Gerd Schröder-Turk for the millions of dollars the Perth institution claims he cost it when he publicly criticised its international student recruitment practices.

In an announcement to staff on 13 January, Murdoch said it had advised lawyers for Dr Schröder-Turk that it was withdrawing the “financial component” of its counterclaim against the legal proceedings that he started last year after the university took steps to remove him from its senate.

Murdoch said it was keen to bring the legal proceedings to a conclusion and was withdrawing the financial claim “in the spirit of moving towards a resolution for all parties”. It said the financial pursuit had become “a focus of commentary” even though it was “not the central matter at hand”.

This, rather, was whether Dr Schröder-Turk had breached his duties as a senate member in accordance with the Murdoch University Act. “The university is of the view he has done so repeatedly,” the announcement says.

“There is a requirement as both a matter of law and a matter of principle that members of the senate must at all times act in the best interests of the university and not use their position to cause detriment to the university. There are important principles at stake…[this matter] is not and has never been about academic freedom. It is simply about senate governance.”

Murdoch’s move is the latest step in a legal saga that began in May last year when an ABC current affairs programme aired allegations from Dr Schröder-Turk and two other staff members that the university was enrolling international students who did not meet admission requirements.

The university subsequently attempted to remove him from his position as academic staff-elected member of the senate, the university’s governing body, prompting him to launch action in the Federal Court. Murdoch filed a cross-claim seeking “equitable compensation” for the “loss and damage” caused by Dr Schröder-Turk’s actions.

It said that as a result of his media statements, the university had incurred reputational damage and “significant operational costs” in responding to regulatory enquiries. It also blamed him for a slump in international student recruitment in the second half of last year, and for an unfavourable visa risk rating from the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

DHA has since confirmed that media coverage does not influence its visa risk ratings.

Dr Schröder-Turk claimed that the issues he had raised warranted his attention as a member of the senate because they posed a risk to the reputation of the institution. His media disclosures were “made honestly and in good faith…to protect the welfare of students and staff” after his attempts to raise his concerns in the senate had been “investigated and dismissed”, court documents say.

The National Tertiary Education Union welcomed Murdoch’s decision to drop the financial claim, but said the university must cease all actions against Dr Schröder-Turk, including the bid to remove him from the senate.

“This was nothing more than a legal tactic to intimidate Gerd,” general secretary Matthew McGowan said. “It was patently absurd to think that a university would sue a staff member for millions of dollars in damages.

“We fundamentally disagree with Murdoch management about the real essence of this matter. This is about the right of a staff member to speak openly about issues and concerns about their institution without fear or favour.”

Changes that Murdoch made to its governance guidelines last year restrict the avenues available to senate members seeking information about the university’s operations.

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