Peter Rathjen: Adelaide crisis forces sector-wide soul-searching

Interstate universities drawn into scandal amid questions over how serial predator kept getting promoted

September 11, 2020
Peter Rathjen

A crisis at the University of Adelaide has raised difficult leadership questions for the sector as the scandal surrounding a former vice-chancellor entangles two other Australian institutions.

Peter Rathjen resigned on 20 July, citing “ill health”, amid a misconduct investigation by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC). The following month, commissioner Bruce Lander found that Professor Rathjen had sexually harassed two female staff, had engaged in inappropriate sexual relations with another woman and had lied about these matters to the chancellor at the time, Kevin Scarce.

Mr Lander also revealed that Professor Rathjen had been investigated in 2019 over “very serious” allegations of sexual misconduct against a University of Melbourne postgraduate. The allegations reportedly related to Professor Rathjen’s tenure as Melbourne’s science dean between 2006 and 2008 and were upheld, but Adelaide’s governing council and chancellor were not informed at the time.

The commissioner made eight recommendations about sexual harassment policies, conflict of interest, reporting of misconduct and engagement of external lawyers. Adelaide has pledged to adopt all eight, while the universities of Melbourne and Tasmania – where Professor Rathjen was vice-chancellor from 2011 to 2017 – are examining whether their policies accord with the recommendations.

Melbourne said it had “cooperated” with the ICAC investigation and had provided a report of the 2019 investigation. In a message to staff and students, vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell stressed the university’s “unequivocal commitment…to a culture of safety and respect for all”.

Tasmania announced a review to uncover “unreported or undetected issues arising from Peter Rathjen’s term here”. Vice-chancellor Rufus Black said Melbourne barrister Maree Norton had been appointed to take reports from people who did not want to disclose grievances directly to the university, and to advise on measures Tasmania should take “in light of any complaints”.

Meanwhile, Adelaide’s council has disclosed details of Professor Rathjen’s A$326,400 (£182,300) severance package – covering his statutory leave entitlements and “reduced notice period” – and explained why the council decided to pay him out while he was under investigation.

A “substantial specialist medical report” had “supported the claim of ill-health”, the council told staff, while ICAC secrecy provisions meant that the university was “unaware” at the time of his “additional misconduct”.

The episode has prompted soul-searching over how an apparent serial sexual predator continued to secure promotions and rose to lead one of Australia’s elite universities.

Commentators have asked whether sufficient due diligence was undertaken before Professor Rathjen’s appointment at Adelaide, and what steps selection panels should now take to ensure that their leadership picks have unblemished backgrounds.

Karin Sanders, a human resources expert at UNSW Sydney, said sexual harassers were likely to be skilled at “window dressing” and making themselves attractive to appointment panels. “It is the same capability they use on women,” she said, adding that universities where such individuals have worked might not be keen to warn recruiters about their behaviour because “people are so happy that the person is leaving”.

She said one solution might be a registry where universities were obliged to record sexual misconduct perpetrators to apprise potential recruiters. But only proven allegations should be recorded, she stressed.

Another suggestion is that panels could crowdsource the problem by asking people to share adverse details about leadership aspirants. But such an approach could trigger floods of claims that made the recruitment process unwieldy, while subverting natural justice by denying people employment because of unproven allegations.

Liwen Zhang, a UNSW Sydney human resources lecturer who specialises in recruitment, said selection committees should question applicants’ referees rather than seeking public feedback.

Dr Zhang also recommended scouring the internet for evidence of candidates’ misdeeds.

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Reader's comments (2)

Good due diligence means going beyond nominated referees. It requires off the record, confidential discussions with a number of the candidates present and former associates. Universities need to look closely at the experience of the individual consultant who leads their search. Highly experienced search consultants have, over time, built strong relationships and networks and the trust required to have these discussions. They have also gathered extensive market intelligence over many years. This sort of behaviour is not easily hidden.
If this individual's behaviour was so appalling, why were the police and courts not involved? Without due legal process, this is all rumour and innuendo however much people may be convinced that the allegations are true.


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