Titanic Struggle: David Rindos, left, and Sandra Bowdler -- Both are described as strong, colourful personalities.
Archaeologist David Rindos arrived at the University of Western Australia with an international reputation. His female professor had climbed high, too. They called it the clash of the Titans. He lost, and his world collapsed. Did he hang himself -- or was he expunged for challenging the regime?Kate Legge investigates.
The latest edition of a Private Eye-style rag that circulates at the University of Western Australia spoofs a ribbon-cutting ceremony in honour of American academic Dr David Rindos. Those familiar with the fate of this man would know the university would steam clean him from its pores if such purging was possible but, as with Lady Macbeth scrubbing her blood spots, the stain has smeared the institution's psyche.
Former deputy vice-chancellor Professor Robert Parfitt believes the satirical newspaper, called Rumpus, is symptomatic of deep disillusion within the academic community over a very public clash that keeps picking away at the university's soul like a child at a scab.
Rindos was appointed to a tenurable post in archaeology at UWA with a glittering international reputation and was denied tenure four years later in an unprecedented decision. Parfitt describes the case as a sordid episode that has done untold damage to the reputation of the State and its tertiary jewel.
Protagonists on both sides remain severely traumatised by events. many of the students and academics have moved interstate or overseas, but the mere mention of the affair leaves some individuals physically sick and emotionally disturbed. Their reactions to revising the story were either "Thank God" or "Oh God," depending on whether they cast Rindos as a courageous messenger who paid dearly for sounding the siren or as the disruptive perpetrator of his own downfall.
Professor Parfitt was an early player in the affair. He acted promptly when three female members of archaeology came to him, complaining of inequitable treatment in the department. Rindos the confirmed their stories with tales of his own. One was a PhD student who had been involved as an undergraduate with the female head of department and who now felt badgered and intimidated.
Shocked by what he heard, Parfitt move swiftly, initiating moves to get them all out of archaeology and into another department. When he resigned to work overseas he was confident that the matter would be resolved. An internal review of the department echoed Parfitt's alarm, with urgent recommendations calling for a proper investigation of "highly disturbing and serious allegations of misconduct." But a full scale inquiry was never held, despite repeated warning from the review's convenor that it would be dangerous to close the files on this case, and later Rindos was effectively dismissed. Academics here and overseas cried foul. They believe he has been the victim of a grave miscarriage of justice.
Local reports were in pursuit. "Lesbian mafia", panted a headline in the State's weekly Sunday Times.
Earlier this year Parfitt wrote to the head of the West Australian Office of Higher Education expressing shock and disbelief at what had happened. "To my knowledge he is a sound academic who behaved professionally at all times. . . the whole sorry episode is bringing the State into disrepute."
* * * *After the freezing chill of a Michigan winter, Rindos could not believe that Perth in mid-1989 was as cold as it gets. He was new to the country and new to his post as a senior lecturer in archaeology. Six months into the job he took over as acting head from Professor Sandra Bowdler, who was on a year's study leave.
During her sabbatical he became troubled by perceptions that the department comprised an inbred group with a small staff that included present and former girlfriends of Bowdler and several of her former students.
Rindos is no homophobe. He is proudly gay. But he took seriously student concern that academic fortunes hinged on membership of an "inner circle."
Rindos had no idea at the time that his predecessor, Associate Professor Sylvia Hallam, a founding member of the department, has resigned because in her view personal prejudice were seen to influence a range of decisions in the department, from the purchase of library books to research grants. Hallam went quietly. Rindos imploded.
The university is adamant due process was followed and the candidate given every chance to perform. Rindos believes he was penalised for protesting against alleged inequities affecting himself and others.
His three-year probationary term became an extraordinary obstacle course of institutional harassment, from the petty annoyance of opened pay slips, memo blizes, and shoddy office furniture to the severe dislocation caused by shunting him between departments.
Following an internal review, archaeology lost its autonomy and was submerged into the bigger empire of anthropology, where Bowdler remains on a full professorial salary without the administrative load. The catch she had once crowed about to faculty deans with adjectives such as "brilliant" and even "genius" is unemployed, with the ignoble distinction of being the first academic to be denied tenure in the history of UWA.
Rindos is appealing to the highest jurisdiction, the University Visitor, who is the State's Governor. Not content with old-world remedies, he has taken to the information superhighway with regular Internet posting about the case to subscribers on an anthropology mailing list.
* * * *Rindos was a mature-age graduate of prestigious Cornell University in the United States, and attracted world attention with his book The Origins of Agriculture. He is an enthusiastic teacher who is known for his sweat-soaked shirts and original methods of popularising science. An admirer once joked affectionately that he was raised by wolves, but Professor William Provine of Cornell describes him as a "deeply caring person who respects his students and colleagues".
Bowdler is just as unorthodox. A lesbian who rose to prominence in patriarchal institutions, her prickly style is attributed by friends to her apprenticeship in the cut-glass academic environment of the Australian University's Research School of Pacific Studies. At the University of New England, where she worked prior to Perth, relations with one senior staff member in an adjacent office became so shaky the pair did not converse for more than a year.
There are stories of Bowdler shouting at people -- her allies conceded she can be a "bad-tempered old cow" -- and denigrating opponents with terms such as "f... wit", but friends say her disparaging manner can be most amusing.
Bowdler and Rindos started off well. There are photographs of them at dinner with their respective partners, eyes smiling, glassware twinkling. But within a year of his arrival the relationship deteriorated.
In November 1990, while still on study leave, Bowdler called a departmental meeting where she attacked Rindos's theoretical approach to the discipline. "You don't have dirt under your fingernails." Her primal scream stunned him. The genius she had recruited was now mud. A month after her official return she provided him an extremely damaging critique of his work that was then put in his personnel file and circulated to at least one other person.
How had Rindos fallen so far from grace so fast? There had been tensions with other members of staff over the allocation of work and the hiring of tutors. Staff loyal to Bowdler say Rindos was a disruptive influence. They say he was unprofessional -- holding seminars at a local hotel -- and keen to build his own feifdom, once boasting that he would make a better departmental head.
They argue that he was so stung when Bowdler reasserted her authority and criticised his performance, that he began choreographing a student revolt. He denies this and senior academics familiar with the complaints rejected, after consideration, any possibility of an orchestrated campaign.
One former staff member, who remained loyal to Bowdler while critical of her idiosyncratic style, described what happened as the clash of the Titans.
The analogy is tempting with two such strong colourful personalities, but Hallam argued in a letter to the university's vice-chancellor that it would be a serious mistake to view the department's strife as a personality conflict.
Rindos left no trail of personnel disturbances at his four previous postings. He says the problems arose at UWA when he became aware of certain administrative practices that tied in with student grievances about the running of the department. As Hallam put it much later in her submission to a review of the department: "Whether or not justice has always been done, it has not always been seen to be done."
Archaeology had a history of staff conflict and student agitation over fair play ever since its inauguration in 1983. Hallam says she had a number of concerns in 1988 when the department underwent its first review, but she did not raise them because, as a founding member of the this fledgling outfit, she did not want to jeopardise its survival and second, she could not document her suspicions of inequitable treatment.
Rindos was not so retiring and in December 1990, 18 months after his arrival, he sought the advice of the then head of division, Professor Charles Oxnard, on how to handle several matters. Other senior administrators within the university could sniff volcanic ash in the breeze. When Bowdler officially returned from study leave, three female PhD students from archaeology went to see the deputy vice-chancellor, Parfitt, with allegations of a sort he said he had never encountered in 30 years of university administration.
He interviewed them all in the presence of a witness and later spoke with Rindos. He was sufficiently alarmed to facilitate the transfer of students to Rindos's supervision. Shortly afterwards Oxnard arranged for them all to be relocated to the geography department.
These senior administrators nominated archaeology for an internal review in 1991 that was convened by Professor Neville Bruce of the anatomy and human biology department, and Professor Bernard Moulden, of psychology. Surveys of students drew a high response and the three member review team interviewed 34 people.
What they heard distressed them, but their report, for legal reasons, was deliberately circumspect in recommending that the vice-chancellor urgently investigate management practices and examine, with the equity officer, purportedly inequitable behaviour in the department.
In a confidential letter to senior university administrators, Bruce and Moulden sought to relay the gravity of the situation, referring to allegations that were "sufficiently numerous, sufficiently consistent and potentially sufficiently damaging to the ideals and reputation of the university" that to ignore them would be to risk "grave injustice."
"It was alleged that a number of graduate and undergraduate students had had sexual relations with a member of staff and that this had been followed by favoured treatment of some (for example, in terms of grants and jobs within the Department) and apparent victimisation of others (including public ridicule and denial of fair opportunity). It was alleged that an environment had been fostered in which cynicism and ridicule were used to promote certain theoretic approaches and denigrate others, and that this stultified free academic exchange, damaged academic reputations and integrity, and ultimately severely retarded academic growth, particularly of some promising postgraduate students."
They favoured a properly constituted inquiry to hear evidence so that the allegations could be substantiated and acted upon, or dismissed and action taken to clear individuals. This was never done. Instead, vice-chancellor Fay Gale gave two senior academics what one has called a "very carefully cicumscribed" brief to review written statements submitted by staff and students, many of them for the second time. The university says the majority were pro-Bowdler. No one was interviewed. The report was never released. To this day, those who made complaints feel aggrieved and disillusioned.
One of the three PhD students transferred to geography had had an affair with Bowdler as an undergraduate, but the experience so troubled her that she left UWA and completed her first degree interstate. Homesick for friends and family she later returned to do her doctorate but two years into her thesis, she became traumatised by what she alleged to be instances of victimisation and interference with her research.
She says she discussed these matters with the campus equity office, but verbal reports do not constitute a formal complaint. She then raised them with Parfitt. When she appeared before the archaeology review and one of the committee members noted the university had no record of formal complaints, she erupted. She says she grabbed her submission and scrawled over the top in capital letters: "THIS IS A FORMAL COMPLAINT". In fact it wasn't. Her submission was destroyed with the others provided to the first internal review. Later she resubmitted it to the second "inquiry" but heard no more.
Bowdler says she was never asked to respond to specific allegations. She says the vice-chancellor merely asked her a series of general questions, such as "Was I determined to get my way at all costs", and seemed happy with her responses "I was scratching my head to answer them," she says.
"I don't think I've unfairly impeded someone's research. You don't always get along with everybody for a whole range of reasons, from deep philosophical differences or the way they comb their hair. But if you fall out with a supervisor you change." She denies using arbitrary stands for processing postgraduate applicants. "If you call obstruction looking at someone's academic record. . . .there's no other reason." She agrees that she had screamed at colleagues but says she didn't make a habit of it. "I don't personally think I have victimised people," she says. "People don't like me because I have strong opinions. I'm a lesbian. I'm outspoken. There still aren't many women professors.
"If you are one, you are expected to be a sherry-sipping, cashmere jumpered blue-stocking. I've been victimised as much as anybody else in this saga."
Her supporters question whether anybody would have cared about her relationships and her administrative style had she been a straight male.
Others suggest she has been protected from scrutiny in this affair because she was one of a very few senior women in an environment hypersensitive to affirmative action.
Only one of the students completed her doctorate. "They called us the refugees," she says, referring to the relocation of Rindos and the three PhD's. "But we were the revolutionaries. We stood up and said 'Enough'."
Rindos was granted administrative extensions to his three-year probationary period, but the university took parallel actions that made his task superhuman. The move to geography was meant to provide protection and a stable research environment, and for a short time they made progress under the pastoral supervision of Oxnard, with the head of geography commenting favourable on Rindos's presence. Three new PhD students applied to join him, including one who came from The Netherlands for the privilege.
But after nine months' respite in geography, the principals who had engineered a refuge for Rindos abandoned their posts -- Parfitt retired as deputy vice-chancellor and Oxnard resigned as divisional head. The arrangements made to assist him were dismantled. Rindos was shifted back to archaeology but kept segregated in a makeshift office in the campus radio station, with no departmental support or resources as basic as a photocopier.
Archaeology was then merged with the anthropology, but Rindos was excluded. Deprived of departmental affiliation, he occupied an academic limbo land -- institutionally isolated, of no fixed abode.
He was denied new postgraduate students. His teaching load was reduced dramatically. And rumours that tenure would be denied him were rife. Internal university memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal discussions aimed at managing denial of his tenure up to six months before his probation expired. The State FOI commissioner ruled last year that there was insufficient evidence to determine with any certainty whether Rindos had been counselled on his performance.
Rindos faced endless irritants. Equipment he required for his remaining classes become unavailable. He was called to answer several charges, including one of plagiarism, which was found to be without foundation; a sexual harassment complaint, which was dropped; and a claim that he had used the Internet for pornography, which was not supported by evidence. He suffered severe stress. He was asked to make endless amendments to his activity report justifying permanency and, not surprisingly, his productivity suffered, providing critics with the whiff of grapeshot needed to uphold denial of tenure on academic grounds. Even so, the tenure review committee was hard pressed to substantiate its case given the sheer weight of international support for Rindos and the significance of his work.
A Who's Who of about 50 archaeologists around the world wrote to the vice-chancellor, commending Rindos's scholarship.
Professor Lord Renfrew of Cambridge University stressed disquiet over Rindos's treatment. "If it were the case that the University of Western Australia denied tenure to a respected scholar on academic grounds, particularly if there were a suspicion of underlying factors which were not adequately recognised, that might be a setback to the good reputation of your institution."
Pre-eminent archaeology Professor Lewis Binford said Rindos's work was "world-class and most provocative".
One elder statesman of US archaeology, Professor Frank Hole of Yale, said that Rindos would be a strong candidate for promotion there base on his writings to date. "It is the pattern of significance and not just the total number of works that we would judge."
The significance of Rindos's work can be quantified by his spectacular citation rate, which was almost three times the collective rate for the entire archaeology staff during his term at UWA. He is perhaps the only academic at the university named as a reference by the prestigious Encyclopaedia Britannica.
But the tenure review committee applied extraordinarily narrow criteria. Its recommendation denying tenure was based solely on the judgement that Rindos's publication rate over the three-year probationary period was below par. The committee acknowledged in its report that individuals with a lower performance had been given tenure in the past, but "rejected using a lowest-common-denominator approach . . . to judge Dr Rindos." As for extenuating circumstances, the committee said it was unable to determine whether the drop in his output was a personal limitation or due to factors outside his control.
The committee's ruling has been condemned by academics locally and overseas. Oxnard wrote to West Australian Labor MP Mark Nevill in March this year that:" From my considerable experience of the tenure process over many years I have never known anyone with a record like this be denied tenure on that basis."
Alan Thorne, the head of prehistory at ANU said: "I regard the university's action as a serious mistake and a denial of natural justice." Productivity was not the only issue that swayed Gale in casting Rindos adrift. In a letter notifying him of her final decision, she said she was influenced by the fact that the difficulties with Bowdler "remain ever present." Her conclusion presents the problems in archaeology as a personality dispute, yet there was no corresponding effort to determine where the fault lay. The problems predated Rindos and were never properly investigated in accordance with recommendations arising from the Bruce review.
The university has re-examined its appointment and tenure procedures following the Rindos case, and introduced guidelines that stress it is professionally undesirable, and in certain cases unacceptable, that personal relationships should influence work practices.
Personal reasons keep Rindos in Australia. He is now preoccupied with demonstrating how the forces of darkness did him out of a job. His vast FOI trawl revealed memos that appear to substantiate suspicions that his fate was determined long before the tenure review committee met. Positive teaching evaluations that went missing from university files during the tenure review process and were recovered by the search do nothing to diminish the demons of paranoia. Bowdler believes she is the victim of a witch-hunt. Rindos feels as if he has been buried alive.
The university's powerbrokers wish mourners would disperse. They have inscribed his tombstone but the grass just will not grow on his grave.