Through the decades university adminsitrations have often demonstrated difficulty in handling personality conflicts involving academic staff, particularly when these conflicts become public through allegations of sexual impropriety. Even so, the Rindos affair at the University of Western Australia has taken the genre to a new level. Last week a West Australian parliamentary committee reported adversely on the university, saying that it had not acted sufficiently fairly in denying tenure to archaeologist David Rindos. But that simple statement -- strongly rejected again following the report by university vice-chancellor Fay Gale -- masks a six-year saga which calls into question those virtues of intellectual independence, integrity and the maintenance of academic standards which universities hold dear.
Dr Rindos, a homosexual who died of a heart attack late last year, maintained that he was prosecuted because he supported female students who made allegations of sexual misconduct againts the former head of the university's archaeology department, Sandra Bowdler, who denied the allegations. Professor Gale denies those allegations led to Dr Rindos being denied tenure in 1993, citing instead adverse reports on his teaching and research performance. It subsequently emerged in evidence to the State Ombudsman that Professor Gale had offered Dr Rindos the equivalent of two year's salary in exchange for his resignation.
The row may never have seen the light of day -- despite its salacious overtones -- if the general question of university tenure had not been under fire at the same time. For reasons best known to itself, the university has consistently argued that the matter was an industiual relations issue rather than one which reflected on the adminsitration of a university department or of its duty of care to students and academic staff. Indeed, when the matter was brought before Parliament in 1996, Professor Gale made the bizarre statement that "the possibility is that the political correctness of the views expressed by staff members can be made the subject of investigation". She implied the inquiry threatened academic freedom.
The Rindos saga ranks alongside the Sydney Sparkes Orr affair at the University of Tasmania in 1956 and the Ormonde College row at the University of Melbourne in 1991 as academic causes celebres which have extended far beyond rational efforts to resolve. But two points emerge: universities should have transparent procedures to handle allegations against staff members: and it is inappropriate for a taxpayer-funded organisation to deny Parliament the right to investigate its performance.