Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Peter Rathjen: Serial sexual predator, pedophile protector, and manifestation of all that is rotten at the University of Adelaide? [Update July 20, 2020: Rathjen resigns due to "ill health"]

Peter Rathjen is a well known biochemist and molecular biologist, and, most recently, was a Vice-Chancellor and president of the University of Adelaide in Australia. Earlier this month, however, he was forced to step down when he became the subject of a misconduct investigation by South Australia's Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC.)

ICAC investigations are normally top secret, with serious penalties for journalists or individuals who divulge confidential information. Although the inquiry has been widely reported in the Australian press, as far as I know only The Australian has provided a reason for it: That Rathjen had engaged in "a personal relationship with a staff member." (Depending on where you access this article, it may be behind a paywall.)

(Just 24 hours earlier, the university's Chancellor, Kevin Scarce, resigned his position. While the reasons are still unclear, there are no allegations of misconduct being reported as of yet.)

Although I have talked to sources at the university, I cannot claim to know more than that at the moment, as information concerning the matter has been closely guarded. I do, however, know something about Rathjen's long history of alleged misconduct, which includes chronic and widely known sexual harassment at the University of Adelaide during his earlier tenure there as a professor and department chair; a misconduct case at a major Australian university which found him guilty of sexual assault against a student; and, while Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania, his alleged protection of the notorious pedophile Nicolaas Bester, who re-offended while a PhD student at UTAS.

Rathjen first came on my radar last year when I was reporting on the case of Alan Cooper, formerly chief of Adelaide's ancient DNA center, who has since been fired for misconduct. A number of women who had been at the university during Rathjen's earlier tenure there (1990-2006) approached me, concerned that Rathjen would be making the final decision about Cooper's fate. At that time, I was told by multiple sources, Rathjen had developed a well known reputation as a sexual harasser. The sources included individuals who had directly experienced this behavior.

The Alan Cooper case revealed that misconduct, including bullying and sexual harassment, had been tolerated at the University of Adelaide for many years. Thus, while complaints against Cooper were made to the university administration beginning in 2006, the first full year that he was in charge of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), administrators ignored them until last year, when survivors of the abuse finally began to go public. Media coverage in the Australian press, along with major scientific journals such as Science and Nature, made it impossible for Adelaide officials to continue covering up for Cooper, despite the major prestige that ACAD had brought to the university.

(Cooper is currently appealing his firing, and a hearing on the matter is expected around July. University staff have been interviewing and re-interviewing many of the original complainants to get their case ready.)

Faye McCallum

Bullying and nepotism in the School of Education, abuse of staff at the Adelaide Dental School.

Soon after I began reporting on Alan Cooper, sources within the university began to approach me with allegations of misconduct in other schools and departments. The first such case concerned the head of the School of Education, Faye McCallum. Again, multiple sources testified to an atmosphere of bullying and harassment in the school; in August 2018, the National Tertiary Education Union NTEU), which represents employees in Australian higher education, was forced to write to Jennie Shaw, executive dean in the faculty of arts, because no action against the numerous complaints of bullying, overwork, abuse, and questionable staff appointments had been taken despite numerous complaints. Unfortunately, on May 15, Shaw announced that McCallum had been given a two-year extension of her appointment as head of the School of Education. That fight goes on.

Meanwhile, very similar complaints have arisen in the world-class Adelaide Dental School, which over the last few years has seen its autonomy eroded by the edicts of university administrators. Earlier this year, NTEU conducted a confidential survey which included questions about health and safety, bullying, and confidence in senior school and faculty management. About 80% of staff gave negative responses, according to an April 6, 2020 letter from Cheryl Baldwin--division industrial organizer for the NTEU's South Australia division--to Benjamin Kile, executive dean of Adelaide's Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. I have considerable documentation of the alleged abuses and will be reporting on them in more detail soon.

Grace Tame

Peter Rathjen: Sexual assault, protecting a pedophile, ---?

As I mentioned above, during Rathjen's tenure at a major Australian university, he was found guilty of sexual assault against a student. As this is a very sensitive matter, kept strictly secret, I am not identifying the university in question to protect sources. I hope to be able to say more soon, but there is no doubt about the truth of the matter. Australian academic culture, like the academic culture of most countries, is rife with retaliation and threats of retaliation. The level of fear about speaking out is quite high, especially as Australian science is still largely ruled by an old boys' club in which women (and many men) are the subject of constant intimidation.

This brings us to the case of Nicolaas Bester, one of Australia's most notorious pedophiles. Bester was convicted of grooming and sexually assaulted a 15 year old girl, Grace Tame, while a teacher at St. Michael's Collegiate School in Hobart, Tasmania. In 2011, Bester was sentenced to two years and ten months in jail for his crimes. But due to archaic Tasmanian laws (also enforced in Australia's Northern Territory) that purport to protect victims but actually mask the identity of abusers, Tame had to wait nine years before she could speak out about what happened to her. With the help of journalist and anti-sexual assault advocate Nina Funnell, Tame scored a historic win in the Supreme Court of Tasmania, winning the right to identify herself and name her abuser.

(Funnell wrote a number of articles about the Bester case, including one in which Bester claimed to have been the real victim.)

Bester later entered a graduate program in chemistry at the University of Tasmania (UTAS.). And in 2016, while a PhD student there, Bester was sentenced again to four months in jail for remarks he made on social media about his abuse of Grace Tame, including calling his abuse of her "awesome" and "enviable." A judge ruled that this behavior amounted to the production of child exploitation material online, which seems a reasonable decision at the very least.

Enter Peter Rathjen again. After Bester served his new jail sentence, he returned to the University of Tasmania campus, where Rathjen was Vice-Chancellor, to continue his PhD work, unimpeded by any action from the university administration. That failure to protect students led, in spring of 2017, to a petition campaign calling upon the university to ban him. The campaign was led by the UTAS Women's Collective, and ultimately gathered more than 1600 signatures. "Myself and many others are incredibly disappointed with the University of Tasmania for not removing Nicolaas Bester from campus," said Heidi La Paglia, a member of the collective who started the petition.

The university refused to take any action. According to my sources, Rathjen was instrumental in the decision to allow Bester to finish his graduate work. But both he and Bester had their supporters. Chief among them was the well known Australian barrister Greg Barns, an advocate for prison reform and staunch defender of Julian Assange. In a Twitter exchange with me after he saw my social media posts on Rathjen and the Bester case--in which he accused me of engaging in a "sleazy trial by media campaign"--Barns praised the former UTAS Vice-Chancellor, saying that "Rathjen behaved impeccably and in accordance with the rule of law and fairness."

To sum up simply: It appears that Peter Rathjen has been involved in sexual misconduct, both as an abuser and an enabler, for most of his career. There may be some irony in the fact that his career will probably end in Adelaide, where his reputation as a serial sexual predator first began.

There will be more to say about this soon, and I will post updates here.

Update July 20, 2020: Rathjen resigns.

Peter Rathjen has resigned, supposedly due to "ill health," while still under investigation for serious misconduct. I won't comment on his health issues, other than to say that his abuse of women, over  his entire career, caused ill mental health to many.

Here is Chancellor Catherine Branson's announcement to the university community. Some readers of this blog might have comments on how well Mike Brooks,  who has been serving as acting Vice-Chancellor in Rathjen's absence, has upheld the university's purported principles of fair treatment of students and staff over his years as an administrator at the university.

Resignation of Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Rathjen AO Dear Colleagues I am writing to inform you that the University’s Council has accepted the resignation of Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Rathjen AO, due to ill health. The University extends its appreciation for the contribution Professor Rathjen has made since taking up the role in 2018. Professor Mike Brooks has been Acting Vice-Chancellor since Professor Rathjen was granted leave of absence in early May 2020, and I am grateful to Professor Brooks for the seamless continuity of leadership he is providing to our University community. The University will make an announcement about the search for a new Vice-Chancellor in due course. In the meantime, our focus will remain on the continued delivery of high-quality teaching, learning and research, supporting the State’s social and economic needs, and responding to the challenges faced by our community from the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. Kind regards Cathy -- The Hon. Catherine Branson AC QC Chancellor Office of the Chancellor and Council Secretariat The University of Adelaide, AUSTRALIA 5005 Ph: +61 8313 5668 Fax: +61 8313 4407 Email:

Monday, May 11, 2020

On not being reappointed: A farewell message to my university department at City College of New York

Some weeks ago, I was informed by my department at City College of New York, that I would not be reappointed to teach my Introduction to Journalism class. Today I had the opportunity to address a "farewell" all of my fellow faculty and staff members. Here it is below:

It has been a great pleasure and honor for me this past academic year to teach Introduction to Journalism and work with [dept chair Jerry [Carlson] and acting journalism program director Barbara Nevins Taylor.

I hope you don't mind my saying a few parting words, as I have not been reappointed to teach again in the fall due to projected budget and enrollment cutbacks (although the enrollment is not at all sure at this point.)

This is despite my receiving the highest course evaluations last semester than in my entire teaching career (a career which spans Boston University and New York University, where I taught before coming to City.)

PSC-CUNY, and its president Barbara Bowen, are on record opposing any and all layoffs of adjunct faculty and other staff. Although the pandemic provides a "good excuse" to the CUNY administration and to Albany to make life for our working class students even more difficult than it already is, I want to make a plea to all of you to not let this happen without a fight--a serious fight.

Over the past academic year I have attended most of the MCA department meetings, which was easy for me to do since my Thursday class down the hall ended just before they began. I have been witness to the frustration of the full-time faculty that few to none of our reasonable requests were being addressed seriously by the administration, long before this pandemic became yet one more rationale for ignoring or refusing them.

Now, more than ever, the fate and working conditions of full-time and part-time faculty, along with students and staff, are bound up together. That means the conditions are better than ever for a common fight against cutbacks and layoffs. We are already in a situation where working class students get a raw deal while private universities with huge endowments and the pick of the relatively well off students sail on merrily; and those universities will no doubt survive this crisis relatively intact.

To tell our working class students that they must bear the brunt of yet another wave of cutbacks is unconscionable. We have too easily accepted the "there's no money" excuses we are handed every academic year, while tax rates for millionaires and billionaires are ever more generous, and Albany seems to find money for the projects it deems of highest priority to politicians and their donors.

Can we not, for once, just take this lying down? If you are not a member of the union, please join, and push its leadership to be as militant as possible in opposing cutbacks. Don't tell students, oh, there's nothing you can do about it, because that would be a betrayal of young men and women who have made great sacrifices to get the education I know we all want to give them. And, quite frankly, it is not true. There is plenty we could do about if we had the will and the determination to fight not just for our own jobs and working conditions, but for the students whose welfare and future is our chosen mission.

With best wishes to all,

Stay safe and well,


cc. Pam Stemberg [PSC-CUNY campus chair]

Michael Balter
Writer/reporter (anthropology, #MeToo, mental health, environment)
Adjunct Lecturer (Journalism),
   City College of New York
Paris correspondent, Science 1991-2016
Adjunct Professor of Journalism "emeritus,"
   New York University and Boston University

"Lying is done with words and also with silence." --Adrienne Rich