UMSU Condemns the University’s Handling of Alleged Sexual Assault Against PhD Student14 April 2020
The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) has condemned the University’s actions following the revelation of a $700,000 payout to a former international PhD student and survivor of alleged sexual harassment and assault.
According to The Age’s exclusive report from April 11, Professor Ramamohanarao Kotagiri allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted a student under his supervision between 2014 and 2016.
The professor from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering has been accused of inappropriate touching while demanding private meetings at his office and home. The student stated that he also sexually assaulted her on campus grounds.
The student submitted formal complaints to both the University and Victoria Police against Kotagiri in 2016. She said that after going on stress leave due to the alleged assaults, the University threatened to cancel or suspend her doctorate studies.
According to The Age, Kotagiri continued to mentor female students while these allegations were being made to the University. The University reportedly failed to disclose complaints made against the professor previously by other female students.
As stated by her legal representative, the former PhD student insisted on Kotagiri’s resignation to protect other students and staff.
UMSU President Hannah Buchan criticised the University’s reluctance towards penalising the accused academic, citing a university email about the professor’s “retirement”.
The email said: “We thank Roa [Kotagiri] for his dedication and service over the 40 years and wish him all the best for his future endeavours.”
The March 20 email placed additional emphasis on his credentials, referencing the students and fellows he supervised. The correspondence mentioned neither the allegations nor the monetary compensation.
“It is absolutely appalling that this professor was allowed to keep teaching even after the University was aware of the reports,” Buchan told Farrago.
“All of the University’s action towards sexual violence is incredibly tokenistic if this is the way that they act.”
UMSU Women’s Department Officer Bearers Aria Sunga and Naomi Smith also denounced the lack of support that the University offered to the survivor. The Department released a statement on its Facebook page two days after The Age’s report was published.
“The University has shown a lack of action in improving their policies, primary prevention, and responses to sexual assault and harassment. They are behind other Universityʻs [sic] in their response to sexual assault and harassment,” Sunga and Smith said.
“The University of Melbourne has not yet implemented a stand-alone Sexual Assault and Harassment Policy, something that other universities in Australia and New Zealand have done. They have also done little to improve their consent training and education for students. Beyond the Universityʻs inadequate consent modules there has been little development in this space.”
The University did not respond to Farrago’s request for comment by the time of publication. However, the University of Melbourne confirmed that Kotagiri was no longer working at the University.
UMSU Women’s Department told Farrago that it is committed to continuing the Safety on Campus campaign to push the University to take action in responding to sexual assault and harassment.
In the past, the Department has criticised the University’s inaction after the 2017 ‘Change the Course’ report. A new survey around sexual assault and harassment was scheduled for this year, although it is now experiencing delays due to COVID-19.
Farrago also reached out to the University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association (GSA).
“We cannot comment on this individual case, as it is a legal matter resolved in court and we are not privy to the details,” said the GSA Women’s Officer, Eliza Colgrave.
The National Tertiary Education Union, Professor Kotagiri, and the student’s legal representatives did not respond for comment.
A survey conducted by the Australian Women’s History Network in 2018 revealed that academics and PhD students experience a high level of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Australian universities. It found that approximately fifty per cent of the participants experienced sexual abuse or harassment in the workplace.
UMSU Women’s Department has provided the following support services.
- Centre Against Sexual Assault House http://www.casahouse.com.au/
- Phone 24 Hour hotline: 03 9635 3610
- 1800 Respect: https://www.1800respect.org.au/
- Phone: 1800 737 732, Interpreter: 13 14 50
- UMSU Sexual Harm and Response Coordinator, Dr Patrick Tidmarsh
- Unimelb Safer Communities: https://safercommunity.unimelb.edu.au/
- Phone: 9035 8675
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image from The University of Melbourne.
April 15, 11:03 AM Update
A university spokesperson has provided the following response.
“We can confirm the Professor is no longer working at the University of Melbourne. The matter has been settled and it would be inappropriate to comment on specific details of the case. We are committed to ensuring that the University of Melbourne is a place where all students, staff and visitors are safe and are treated with absolute respect and courtesy. Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell has made it clear that he is committed to tackling sexual assault and harassment head on and the University will not tolerate this behaviour. The University has a range of support services to help anyone that has experienced sexual assault or harassment.”
April 15, 9:05 PM Update
The student’s legal representative, from Arnold Thomas & Becker, has provided the following response.
“We will not provide further comment on the specifics of this case and the settlement.
“We have been approached by a number of other former students alleging other instances of sexual harassment/ abuse and are investigating those cases with the view of initiating further legal action.”
April 16, 3:21 PM Update
Canvas post from Kotagiri titled “I am retiring”:
“I hope all is well with all of you and you are all keeping good health.
I am retiring after serving the University for more than 40 years on the 17th April, 2020.
“I am so sorry that I am not available to complete the course for you. I built the ADS course several years ago and has helped many students to build their careers. I am hoping that Hairuo will basically use my lecture material for the rest of the course. All my lectures were prerecorded (last year) and can be used by you if you wish.
“Try to understand the basics and the rest will be easy to understand. My email of the University will be working for the next one year and you can always email me about the subject content doubts. I will not have access to LMS very soon and I would not be able to know your concerns or doubts. Only way to contact me is by my email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). I can answer you all technical aspects but not any permissions like extensions, etc. as I am not an employee of the University after 17th.
“This email is farewell and a good bye.
“I wish you all the best and successful in your life.
“Best wishes, Prof Rao Kotagiri.”
Screenshot of the message is attached.