My investigation of Rathjen revealed, among many other things, that he had been found culpable of sexually assaulting a student at the University of Melbourne; that reporting ended up playing an important role in the Australian authorities' own investigation, which led to Rathjen's firing from Adelaide.
As a result, officials at the University of Tasmania began looking into Rathjen's time there as vice-chancellor, before he was at Adelaide. The university has now announced the results of its investigation, which found eleven complaints against him.
To the university's credit, it has done a serious mea culpa about its failure to catch out Rathjen during his time there and properly protect students and staff. I am reproducing the key documents below.
Before I do, however, I hope readers will indulge me in a personal aside. As many know, I am currently being sued for defamation by University of California, Santa Barbara archaeologist Danielle Kurin, for my accurate and well supported reporting on her own long history of abuses and enabling abuse. In her Complaint against me in federal court, Kurin actually cites the cases of several sexual predators I investigated as examples of my alleged false reporting, including that of Rathjen, even though all of the individuals she mentions were severely sanctioned by their own institutions.
On the contrary, my reporting on Rathjen, which was at the urging of colleagues in Australia, led to a concrete result that will from now on prevent future victims.
With thanks to colleagues in Australia who provided them to me, here are some relevant documents in the Tasmania investigation of Rathjen: A summary of the findings, followed by the university's mea culpa.
The Independent Review of the University of Tasmania’s management of issues surrounding Peter Rathjen’s leadership
On August 26, 2020, South Australia's Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) found former University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Peter Rathjen committed serious misconduct by sexually harassing two women. Commissioner Bruce Lander also found Professor Rathjen did not reveal he was also being investigated about historical allegations he sexually harassed or abused a postgraduate student at the University of Melbourne.
The University of Tasmania appointed Maree Norton, an independent barrister at the Victorian Bar to independently review the University of Tasmania’s management of issues surrounding Peter Rathjen’s leadership between 2011-2018. Ms Norton received eleven formal complaints as part of that process. The complaints concerned allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying and other forms of Unacceptable Behaviour under the University Behaviour Policy. Three of the complaints made allegations directly concerning Professor Rathjen. The remaining eight complaints did not involve him directly, but broadly concerned culture and complaints handling at the University during his tenure as Vice-Chancellor. All complaints were made on a confidential basis.
The University did not ask Ms Norton to investigate the complaints nor speak to Professor Rathjen or others named in complaints. Each of the complainants now has an opportunity to request the University to investigate their complaint; if they choose to do so.
Ms Norton then reported the complaints to the University but made no findings as to the allegations made.
At a general level, the complaints raise questions concerning conduct which, if proved, would constitute Unacceptable Behaviour, enabled by a bystander culture and failures at times in complaints reporting and handling at the University, particularly in relation to the conduct of senior University community members.
Having regard to these matters, best-practice materials, and the recent recommendations of the South Australian ICAC, Ms Norton made seven recommendations to the University as to the steps we should take to strengthen our governance structures, policies, procedures and training to better serve its community in future. These recommendations are set out below. The University Council has accepted all of the recommendations and endorsed an action plan for full implementation of the recommendations by 1 July 2021.
1. The University ensure that all University community members can easily access the University’s definition of sexual misconduct and examples of behaviour that may constitute sexual misconduct.
2. The University review its policies, procedures and education program to ensure that they provide appropriate guidance on the steps that should be taken to avoid conflicts of interest where two staff members enter into a relationship.
3. The University review its policies, procedures and education program to ensure that appropriate emphasis is given to the circumstances in which Unacceptable Behaviour (as defined in the University Behaviour Policy) might constitute improper conduct by a public officer in respect of which a disclosure may be made under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2002 (Tas).
4. The University review its existing complaints procedures and governance frameworks to ensure that they provide effective pathways for complaints concerning senior University community members to be made and investigated.
5. The University review its education program to ensure that it provides appropriate education on the new University Behaviour Policy and University Behaviour Procedure. (a) Education to members of University Council and the University Executive Team on their role in providing cultural leadership concerning the University’s intolerance for Unacceptable Behaviour, and in responding to any such behaviour they observe or of which they are made aware.
- Education on upstander awareness and intervention strategies more generally, to encourage all University community members to act in response to Unacceptable Behaviour they observe or of which they are made aware.
- Education to staff and student representatives who are most likely to receive or be required to deal with complaints about Unacceptable Behaviour, including on the features of a victim-centred and trauma-informed approach and the need to take appropriate action to enable complainants to feel safe attending the University while complaints are investigated. (a) Where a University community member wishes to make a formal complaint, the University will offer to appoint a support person to provide practical guidance and support throughout the complaint process.
- Support persons appointed under (a) will be appropriately trained to receive complaints in a victim-centred and trauma-informed way and will be familiar with the University’s processes for dealing with complaints and available counselling services.
- When a formal complaint is submitted, the complainant will be given a timeframe within which they can expect a response. If it becomes apparent that a longer period will be required, the complainant will be advised of the revised timeframe.
- Persons responsible for investigating formal complaints will be appropriately skilled to conduct investigations and make findings.
- As part of that review, the University consider whether the existing education program should be expanded to provide education (or enhanced education) in the following key areas:
6. The University ensure that the University Behaviour Policy, and the University Behaviour Procedure that is currently in development, make appropriate reference to the following procedures and commitments in relation to formal complaints.
- Complainants will be advised in writing of the outcome of their complaint. Where a complaint is substantiated, the University will take appropriate action against the perpetrator. Where a complaint is dismissed, the University will provide a meaningful explanation of the reason(s). In all cases, the University will outline any steps it has taken, or proposes to take, in response to the complaint and will inform the complainant when those steps have been taken. All complainants will be given an opportunity for a verbal “debrief” in relation to their complaint.
- The range of actions or sanctions that may be applied where a complaint is made or substantiated will be communicated so that University community members can better understand the potential consequences of Unacceptable Behaviour.
- (e) Complainants will be advised in writing of the outcome of their complaint. Where a complaint is substantiated, the University will take appropriate action against the perpetrator. Where a complaint is dismissed, the University will provide a meaningful explanation of the reason(s). In all cases, the University will outline any steps it has taken, or proposes to take, in response to the complaint and will inform the complainant when those steps have been taken. All complainants will be given an opportunity for a verbal “debrief” in relation to their complaint.
- (f) The range of actions or sanctions that may be applied where a complaint is made or substantiated will be communicated so that University community members can better understand the potential consequences of Unacceptable Behaviour.
7. The University:
(a) review its internal reporting processes in relation to complaints of Unacceptable Behaviour to ensure that members of University Council and the University Executive Team are appropriately informed of the potential prevalence of such conduct; and
(b) commit to regular anonymised public reporting of complaints of Unacceptable Behaviour to provide greater transparency regarding the number and type of complaints received and the steps taken in response to substantiated complaints.
And here is the mea culpa, which more institutions might consider issuing, instead of the usual minimal release followed by a refusal to answer any more questions:
Friday, 11 December 2020
University: Our processes did not protect people, we are sorry
The University of Tasmania today released its response to a review covering the period of former Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Rathjen.
The review was commissioned in August in the wake of an ICAC South Australia investigation which found Professor Rathjen engaged in serious misconduct with two female staff members while Vice-Chancellor at the University of Adelaide.
Alumna and respected barrister Maree Norton, who has experience dealing with similar reviews, was engaged to provide an independent review of the University of Tasmania’s management of issues surrounding Peter Rathjen’s leadership.
Ms Norton reviewed 11 complaints, 3 of which related directly to the former Vice-Chancellor.
The remaining 8 related to workplace culture more broadly and people’s treatment within the University during Professor Rathjen’s tenure as Vice-Chancellor.
Themes in the complaints include sexual misconduct, bullying, discrimination and failures in complaints systems and handling.
The University of Tasmania Council has issued a formal apology to victims and survivors from the period.
University Chancellor Michael Field AC said the University would accept and implement each of the recommendations arising from the Review by July 1, 2021.
“The University Council is ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of people of the University,” Chancellor Field said.
“This Review has highlighted that as an institution we failed in these responsibilities. Our systems and processes in place at the time were not effective in protecting people.
“We are deeply sorry for all the distress these failures have caused. To each person affected: I am very sorry.”
Chancellor Field said recommendations from the Review would result in changes including:
- • Better protections for people who are vulnerable through situations, including power imbalances
- • Targeted training for University Council and Executive Leaders to ensure they understand what constitutes unacceptable behaviour in the current setting and understand their obligation to intervene
- • New governance arrangements to ensure people could feel safe in bypassing senior management to report concerns
University Chief People Officer Jill Bye said with the close of the Review, people who reported would be offered a supported pathway should they want to proceed with a formal complaint about their experience.
“We want to be clear this Review was not a formal investigation into individual complaints. This was an investigation into the University and its handling of issues that arose at the time. As a result, the specific complaints have not been put to anyone but should anyone who came forward wishes to pursue a complaint, they will be supported to do so.
“We are sorry for what has happened and we will demonstrate our respect by using their experiences to build a better organisation.”
The recommendations of the review include clearer pathways for complaints, and a review of behaviour policies and procedures.
The University of Tasmania review also considered the recommendations of the ICAC SA report in relation to its own systems and approaches to ensure any lessons from it could be incorporated into its response.
“This review makes clear that our systems were not sufficient and that we did not have clear processes in place, and people were let down,” Ms Bye said.
“We will use the work of Maree Norton and the experiences of those covered in this review to ensure we honour our intent to be a deeply people-centred, respectful organisation in which people can thrive.”
Media contact: Jason Purdie – 0455 838 945
Information released by:
University of Tasmania
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