Milam v University of Melbourne17 June 2019
Botched management of alleged misconduct by a recently- appointed Head of School has forced the University of Melbourne into a legal battle in the Australian Federal Court.
Appointed in April 2017, Professor Jennifer Milam, an art historian, took up her term as Head of the School of Culture and Communication on 1 January, 2018, but was suspended with full pay in late January this year following two colleagues’ allegations of academic misconduct. After the Federal Court’s ruling in February, Milam has since been reinstated as Head of School.
According to Federal Court papers, in 2018 Milam raised “concerns about certain governance matters in the Faculty of Arts”. During her short period as Head of School, “two senior employees” of the University claimed to have “experienced harm resulting from [Milam’s] repeated behaviours.” It is not clear whether the two matters are related, nor is Farrago suggesting any specific correlation.
The University conducted a preliminary inquiry in August 2018, which concluded with Milam’s suspension, and has since contracted an external investigator to conduct further investigation into the allegations.
Milam took the University to court over its investigative process in February, arguing that her suspension breached both the Fair Work Act and the University’s own Staff Enterprise Agreement (EBA), causing her significant and lasting reputational damage. The court ruling was finalised at the end of February, but in May this year a University spokesperson told Farrago that they do “not comment on confidential employment matters or proceedings before the Court”. It remains unclear whether legal proceedings are still underway.
No staff members were willing to speak openly to Farrago about the events, however the process has caused notable disorganisation in the School, with Professor Peter Otto hurriedly appointed Acting Head of School following Milam’s suspension before Semester 1 this year.
The legal stoush resulted in an unusual ruling, with Milam granted an injunction and allowed to continue her ordinary teaching and research duties on campus. The Victorian branch of the National Tertiary Education Union said the verdict was a notable win, and it served as a reminder to universities “to actually comply with [their] own EBA.” On social media, employment law specialist Joshua Bornstein expressed his relief at the prevention of a “punitive suspension from the workplace” and “flawed workplace investigation.”
The University has not made it clear when or how the conflict will be resolved, however it appears unlikely to publicise any final outcome.
Note: This piece has been updated to reflect recent proceedings of the Federal Court’s ruling in February.