Arts Academic in Controversy28 February 2015
For the past year, Murdoch University has sunk deeper into scandal. Towards the end of 2014, an investigation by the Western Australian Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) has been under way. According to Murdoch Chancellor David Flanagan, the investigation has found evidence of excessive termination payments, anomalies in credit card use, conflicts of interest in appointment procedures, destruction of documents protected under the Freedom of Information Act, provision of misleading information to the CCC and bullying.
In February this year Ann Capling, the University’s Provost, Vice-Chancellor Richard Higgott and senior human resources director Karen Lamont all resigned.
In an FYI statement shared on Murdoch University’s “staff announcements and coming events” it was made public that Ann Capling accepted an unpaid honorary position at the University of Melbourne. Prior to being recruited by Higgott in 2012, Capling was a professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne for several years. The decision to re-appoint Capling was made with a recommendation from head of the School of Political and Social Science (SSPS) Adrian Little. It is a decision that has been met with confusion and disappointment from some of Capling’s former colleagues here.
Last October, an anonymous letter claiming to be from a group of 35 academic and professional staff was sent to Murdoch’s Chancellor Flanagan, accusing Vice Chancellor Higgott and Provost Capling of being “arrogant poor listeners who had systematically destroyed the colleague culture of the university”. Through interviews with colleagues of Capling’s during her time at the SSPS at the University of Melbourne, Farrago has been informed that controversy surrounding Capling’s administrative decisions and relations to other staff existed before the current scandal at Murdoch University. While at the University of Melbourne, Capling was at the centre of staff disputes and accusations of bullying that often led to disciplinary procedures being initiated.
One such event arose out of an SSPS meeting in March 2010. According to multiple anonymous sources, Professor Sheila Jeffreys expressed concern that School decision-making was less democratic and transparent than it used to be. Professor Ann Capling reacted negatively to the suggestion. Two other professors (Verity Burgmann and Philomena Murray) raised objections to how Jeffreys was treated. Two days after the meeting, Jeffreys, Burgmann and Murray received an email from Little informing them they would face disciplinary procedures because of complaints made – by Capling – about their comments at the meeting. “Capling instituted a disciplinary witch-hunt against me and two other female colleagues over a lively disagreement in a meeting,” one anonymous colleague claimed.
With advice from the National Tertiary Education Union, the three professors made a formal complaint against Adrian Little to then Provost John Dewar, alleging Little’s chairing of the meeting failed to provide a safe workplace because of his bias in favour of his close friend Ann Capling. At the time of writing, Farrago was unable to discern the outcome of this complaint. However, Farrago can confirm that Dean of Arts Mark Considine hired a consultancy firm Australian Workplace Mediations (AWM) to run an independent inquiry in 2010.
Multiple colleagues of Capling during her time at the University of Melbourne have expressed the view that appointing Capling while she is still under investigation is by nature controversial, arguing that Little is compromising the integrity of the University in order to protect a former staff member he has previously been allied to in workplace disputes. One anonymous colleague of Capling’s made the comment that “Capling has for a long time pulled the strings of Adrian Little, as his action against those who dared disagree with her at a School meeting reveals. His involvement in reappointing her to a position within the School is unsurprising.”
The anonymous interviewee then went further, criticising Adrian Little’s “peculiar appointment practices” more generally. Allegedly, “early in 2012 he presided over a selection committee process that appointed his partner’s twin sister to a continuing position. During this process, he chaired a meeting at which School members offered their assessments of the relative merits of the short-listed applicants after hearing presentations from them. School members could not frankly and fearlessly offer their opinions of the candidates to someone so closely related to one of them. Even if Adrian Little fully declared his conflict of interest within the selection committee, his chairing of this feedback session, which could and should have been conducted by someone else, ensured that applicants were not treated equally and fairly.”
Farrago asked Adrian Little to comment on Capling’s appointment. His defence was that “Professor Ann Capling is a highly distinguished political scientist and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. She has published widely in the field of international political economy and trade policy in particular…The Faculty has appointed her to an unpaid position as an honorary professorial fellow as she works on her current ARC-funded project, ‘The World Trade Organization and the Future of the Multilateral Trade System’. In regard to Murdoch University, we would make no comment on unproven allegations of such a political nature.”