Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Education Report

Wednesday, 6th March 1996 Dispute at the University of Western Australia

Jane Figgis: I think probably every university has had to cope with difficult faculty members, and with serious complaints and allegations. But at the University of Western Australia, the legacy from complaints lodged five years ago are still - well, not only are they still reverberating through the institution, the tension is getting worse as time goes on.

Back in 1991, Associate Professor Neville Bruce was asked to chair a review of the Department of Archaeology. Reviews of departments are routine. Inviting students to talk to review committees, the norm. But Neville Bruce and his committee were astonished by what they heard.

Neville Bruce: Certainly when we had the review, the thing that struck us most was the complete anguish of many of the students. We had allegations that good students had decided to disbandon their academic careers, had been totally disgusted with the way the university was being run. There were many allegations of that sort.

So now we're talking about, if you like, our so-called stake holders, the people we're meant to be here serving. To what degree are we here to look after students? I think our mission statement says that that's a very important part of our existence of a university. If that's true, I think we did not maintain what we believed. That review, and I've said this publicly and I've said it in writing, probably was the worst week of my entire academic career. I found it very draining, quite horrible. No two ways about it.

I hoped that if the university took that review and took our recommendations to heart, something could have been resolved, something worthwhile. It hasn't been. It may yet be.

Jane Figgis: Explain what your recommendations were, and why, and what you thought would almost happen automatically.

Neville Bruce: I'm not sure automatically, but what we were hoping for - I think it's fair to say that we heard some pretty dreadful allegations. I don't want to repeat them, they're public property now anyway.

We were not in a position to prove or disprove those allegations. We had our own views about them. What we could say that they were extremely damaging allegations, exceptionally damaging allegations, and we felt it was absolutely crucial for the universit y to properly and thoroughly investigate them. Either disprove them and make sure that those allegations were scotched, or prove them and make sure that - whatever you like to call it - due process was followed and these problems were rectified.

Jane Figgis: Is there anything that you feel you as a committee could have done more to make something happen?

Neville Bruce: Retrospectively you always think that. I think we worked pretty hard to try and get something done, and to some extent I've been in trouble because for the last five years I've been popping off the occasional letter in the hope that somethi ng might happen. I suspect not. We essentially handed the problem and the enormous problem, back to the University's Executive, because that was the proper thing that we should have done and we followed that so-called due process. We were certainly not in a position to chase the thing further. Our committee was essentially disbanded after we handed our report in.

Jane Figgis: While part of the problems in Archaeology were about some of these sexual innuendos, you in your report, and in talking to you since then, find that there's an intellectual problem there, a scholarly problem that would have existed if nobody was doing anything sexual.

Neville Bruce: Yes, we referred quite a lot to situations where we believed that normal academic dialogue, normal respect for each other's views, was there. In that department it appeared not to be. Ridicule was used to push arguments, which is totally ab horrent to the way we normally think. Victimisation I think was there if people did not think the way that they were expected to think by people in power. We referred to those things. Irrespective of all the sexual issues, I believe that department was no t being conducted correctly for this university.

Jane Figgis: The University did undertake a second review, and in a moment you'll hear about this process from the Vice-Chancellor. The problem from Neville Bruce's perspective is that his review committee destroyed the evidence presented to it. So he had to ask the students who had talked to his review to re-submit a written account documenting their allegations for the new committee. The letter he wrote to the students is poignant - clearly uncomfortable with the request it was making.

Neville Bruce: Well it was; we were in a very difficult position there and maybe we took a line that in retrospect we may not have taken, but in the first review we were receiving documentation and evidence of allegations which really were quite horrific. We took the view that they were probably offered to us by people who were in a deeply anxious state, and had they had time to recollect their thoughts and maybe talk to a lawyer, they may not have written exactly the way they did. So we felt constrained to telling them that: look, everything they've given to us was going to be destroyed. We then had to turn round and sort of say that Look, if you're willing, it would be good if you could rewrite them, resubmit them to the Vice-Chancellor in such a way t hat you are prepared to back them up in a court of law.

Now we felt pretty bad doing that; these students have had enough trouble as it was. The sheer guts they had in coming to us in the first instance was quite incredible, they were very brave people. To be told they had to be even braver is asking a lot. So on the one hand we knew the university needed the evidence, on the other hand we felt very much for the students, what we were putting them through and asking them to rewrite.

I think we're looking at something which is a severe threat to this university, there's something this university has done exceedingly wrongly, and I think history will prove that. It's a shame it happened at all, I think the best thing that we can do now , is resolve it once and for all, and the sooner the better.

Jane Figgis: Neville Bruce, who, it should be pointed out, holds a senior position at the University: he is the head of the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology.

Professor Fay Gale, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, believes the university handled all of the allegations against the Head of the Archaeology Department, Professor Sandra Bowdler, properly - indeed, that the university did all the things the Bruce review directed her to do, including setting up the second review, which was conducted by Professor Douglas Clyde, Head of Civil Engineering, and Stan Hotop, Associate Professor in the Law Faculty.

When I spoke to the Vice-Chancellor, she wanted to begin by emphasising that she had followed the recommendations of Neville Bruce's first review.

Fay Gale: That review made a number of recommendations; they have been quite public, those recommendations, there's been nothing hidden about them. They asked me to follow up on management problems within the department, they also asked me to follow up on teaching in one area. I have followed up on all of those issues.

In terms of the management problem, I listened carefully to them, I read what they gave me, I decided the only way to follow up on that was to get accredited people within the university to take further action for me and advise me.

Jane Figgis: That was the Clyde-Hotop review. They were asked to look at management issues?

Fay Gale: Yes, because if you read the actual recommendations of the initial academic review, that was what I was asked to do.

Jane Figgis: My sense is that it wasn't spelled out, but that it was made clear to you personally at the time that there were allegations that were beyond just management of the department, that they had to do with sexual impropriety or sexual issues, and it was left vague because that first committee felt that it didn't set out to find those things out, but it found them out in a sense, inadvertently, and thought that it had made clear that they thought that you would follow up on those allegations.

Fay Gale: And indeed I did. When I set up the Clyde-Hotop report, they said that I gave them a totally open brief, and they said that they would follow all material that was submitted to them. I then asked the Chair of the academic inquiry if he would ask everyone that had given him evidence to that inquiry, of any material that they wanted followed up, whether they would give me that for the second inquiry. All of that was given to the second inquiry.

Jane Figgis: I mean, I can understand why Clyde and Hotop didn't want - two professors, one of Engineering, they would have felt totally out of their depth doing an in-depth investigation of these issues. Would it have been possible to create another kind of committee to really pro-actively seek this stuff out?

Fay Gale: I think I took every process possible. They gave me a report. They gave me exactly the things that needed to be followed up, and I have done all of them. One was the closure of the pre-History centre. I went further than that, I closed the depar tment. I followed up on all of the management issues. A lot of them had to do with safety, with field trips, with finance, I had all of that checked out very carefully.

Because of a couple of the complaints about Professor Bowdler, I investigated to see whether I had a case for serious misconduct, I got advice from two highly qualified lawyers, one inside the State and one outside, who went through the material and I the n followed this through with her, with her union representative in terms of the award, and put forward to her the case. She was asked to address a number of questions; she formally replied to all those questions, she gave me guarantees. She has now been i n a situation where she has managed completely and I have had constant reports to show that she has not in any sense repeated that relationship which led to all this, which is now over a decade old. What else could I do?

Jane Figgis: The Vice-Chancellor at UWA, Professor Fay Gale.

On Monday I visited the Registrar at a different university - Murdoch University - to ask a third party, as it were, (but one who has had his own problems with complaints against academics) what is possible, in principle, in these circumstances. Now, I mu st be very clear here: I wasn't asking Richard MacWilliam to comment at all on matters at the University of Western Australia. It was meant, and it was taken, as an openly general hypothetical question.

Someone comes to you within the university committee or indeed outside of it with a complaint about one of your academic's performance or behaviour. What do you do next?

Richard MacWilliam: The first thing you do is ask the person to make the complaint in writing. The reason for that, I think, is fairly obvious, that you then have to be sure that you give the person complained about, an opportunity to respond to those com plaints, and they really have to know in sufficient detail what it is they're alleged to have done or not to have done.

Jane Figgis: What in the case though of a student who is saying something that's in a sense defamatory about this person, to get them to write it down, do you have to give them some counselling?

Richard MacWilliam: You do, and that's where it becomes extremely difficult because often people who want to make a complaint, naturally enough haven't thought through what the process is going to be, and you have to really caution them to be fair to the other side. The other side has to have access to what it is that's being complained about. And frequently in my experience, that's actually led to people withdrawing from going through the complaint process.

Jane Figgis: In that case when somebody withdraws the complaint and it's caused some question in your own mind about the academic, do you have a way to go further, to explore for yourself, rather than just breathe a sigh of relief and say 'Well there's no complaint'.

Richard MacWilliam: No, that's an extremely difficult part of the whole process as well. The best I think you can do, is make informal inquiries to see whether there are other tales of this sort. But because the whole process is now bound up so tightly in industrial law and industrial legal procedures, and because questions of procedural fairness inevitably come up to the front, there's a limit to how much you can do without actually confronting the person with sufficient details to let them make a respon se which they feel then they've had a fair opportunity to do in the knowledge that they may be defending that before a committee of investigation, or something of that sort.

Jane Figgis: What about the assumption that in some circumstances a Vice-Chancellor could bring someone in and sort of say 'Well are these allegations true?' and if they were told they were, does the Vice-Chancellor then have a kind of ability to say, 'W ell, we'd like you to leave the university, little fuss, we'll make it easy for you, we can even be generous.' Is that a fantasy, or can that really happen in circumstances?

Richard MacWilliam: I'm sure it could happen in circumstances. I think you'd have to be pretty careful about that approach obviously, because to start with, you do always have to come back to the award and what the award says. And also I would suspect tha t if you were as obvious as that in wanting to deal with it quietly, the asking price would be pretty high.

Jane Figgis: Richard MacWilliam from Murdoch University.


Jane Figgis: You're listening to Radio National. I'm Jane Figgis, this is The Education Report where we're looking at the deep distrust at the University of Western Australia stemming from the way problems in the Archaeology Department were resolved back in 1991.

One of the things that happened then - because there was so much division, divisivness within this tiny department (I mean there were only three or four academics, depending on how you count them, in archaeology) - one of the things they did was to move o ne of the academics, Dr David Rindos, out of Archaeology and into the Geography Department. Then in June of 1993 Rindos was denied tenure, effectively the university sacked him. He believes: unfairly. Since there are rumours of a super secret file showing he really is unfit to be at the university, I asked him if that were true, to his knowledge.

David Rindos: In terms of anything super secret, like if they had proof that Rindos had really been behind the invasion of Kuwait, I think they would have shown it to me before sacking me. It would have been in their advantage. I know the kinds of things they have, and they're horrific, they're very painful. They make false and very harmful allegations about me as a person. I also have plenty of data from university files indicating that was how the tenure decision was made.

Jane Figgis: Should this have been more public at the time. I mean, things have been so public in a way since then, but while you were at the university, should things have been handled differently? Was it a question of the regulations not being right?

David Rindos: There are no problems with the regulations at UWA. People have asked me, 'Does UWA need new regulations?' My standard joking response is 'Well maybe one: we'll follow our regulations.' As far as whether these things should be have been treat ed more openly, I think not. As one of the table documents speaks from, I think it was Bernard Moulden who said that these kinds of things don't have to be either fully public or secret.

If we're being told that you cannot do anything about an academic problem in the university unless you can bring it before the Supreme Court, then academia is dead I think in many people's minds. And yet that's what we're hearing. The charges were such th at proof was difficult -- well it's up to the Executive to find manners, find ways to resolve these problems quietly, internally. Every institution is composed of humans. Humans make errors. There is no point in publicly harming these people by a public h earing of the problems. The problem that we have now - and this is why at times I feel like bursting into tears that it's gotten to this point - that what is occurring now is the worst possible thing for academia. This open washing of exceedingly filthy l aundry while we have the Executive running around saying, 'But it's clean! But it's clean! But it's clean!' and everyone else is seeing spots everywhere.

Jane Figgis: What do you personally see you getting out of this at the end of the day? Do you want to go back to UWA?

David Rindos: Why not? My argument is not with academia or UWA. I know my argument's not with Sandra Bowdler. I don't even think it's really with the particular Executives who are in place. They're human. We don't judge people for having made an error. We judge them for how well they deal with fixing what's gone wrong. I think in that sense everyone's in agreement. That should not cause an insufferable kind of block to any sort of future activities by myself or my students. As a matter of fact, the day I walk back on that campus I think we will all say the problem has been solved.

Jane Figgis: David Rindos.

Rindos has been proceeding down every conceivable track to get the refusal of tenure ruling reversed. He went to Freedom of Information to get documents - successfully - that were used in arriving at the tenure decision; he took his case to the Industrial Relations Commission which actually decided it didn't have jurisdiction in the matter, the University Visitor did. Rindos has entered into some dealings with the Visitor but it is not clear whether that avenue will be open. He also petitioned the Western Australian Ombudsman who a few weeks ago agreed to take his case. And that investigation has now begun.

There is also the possibility that a Standing Committee of the Western Australian Parliament will examine Rindos' case, and indeed the Bowdler case.

Mark Neville, MLC, Member for the mining and pastoral region in Western Australia, has been pushing Parliament to look into the matter. He delivered a long speech on the issue, as a result making available through Hansard not only the facts, but a great d eal of the innuendo, and he tabled several hundred pages of documents. Why?

Mark Neville: Graham Campbell, the Federal Member for Kalgoorlie, referred the matter to me and asked me to have a look at it because he was very busy at the time, not that I was. But I had a look at it - it's probably about 18 months ago, it's so long ag o I've forgotten - but I was also involved in the work at Yakabindi and the work of the Centre for Prehistory up there, which I thought was quite unprofessional. And I haven't really pursued that matter, mainly because of a lack of time, but I intend to f ollow that through.

But when this matter - and I'd never heard of David Rindos, but when this matter was referred to me about David Rindos, I realised after looking at a lot of the documents and talking to David Rindos, that it centred around the Centre for Prehistory at UWA . So my interest was sparked, because this State needs a credible archaeological anthropology faculty. And it's absolutely essential for our State.

Jane Figgis: What's your sense among the people on that committe, and in Parliament in general, for an appetite to really look at this?

Mark Neville: I'm not really privy to what the committee's doing. I haven't discussed it with any of the members since I gave evidence, and it would be improper for me to do that. I'll now stand back from that process and see what happens, but I would hop e that it's a broad inquiry because I don't think there's a feeling that there is anyone that's there to really look at the way they behave. Now the Information Commissioner has been highly critical of the way that they have dealt with one of her prelimin ary - when she expressed her preliminary views, and they put out press releases and all sorts of nonsense.

Jane Figgis: Mark Neville.

Last week the Senate of the University of Western Australia voted to hold its own inquiry into what are really now three issues, as I see it. There's the handling of the students' original allegations about Bowdler; there is the handling of Rindos' tenure , and there is the credibility of the university itself.

I spoke to the Vice-Chancellor, Fay Gale about the Senate inquiry. But first I did need to hear her views on Rindos' claim that his denial of tenure had been wrongly done. What I asked her was whether, at the time, an academic like Rindos was likely to be told precisely if there were concerns regarding that academic's performance.

Fay Gale: That academic was told about them. He got a letter quite clearly. Initially the Head of Department reported on his lack of publications, his lack of research and his teaching, and there were a number of complaints. The Head of the Division, what we now call the Dean, also talked to him about it. I understand that he eventually refused to talk to the Dean about it. The Industrial Officer through the union certainly spoke to him, and I had a very long session with him. I would think he had had mor e advice along the way than most academics that I would know in such a situation.

Jane Figgis: The inquiry that the University Senate is setting up: it's been possible somehow to read that as either a strong review or a weak one. How do you read it?

Fay Gale: I think it's a very strong review in the sense that all of the people appointed are external to the university; they have had nothing to do with either of these cases at any time. The Chancellor decided it was important to set this up - I might say before he received any letter from anybody in spite of what's been said in the Sunday Times - because he felt that the good name of the university was being impugned, and he and the Senate had to know whether or not there was any factual material in a ny of these reports.

Jane Figgis: Do you expect the committee to go beyond the existing documentary evidence?

Fay Gale: That's entirely up to the committee. They have been given a totally free hand. It was worded very clearly to show that they could do whatever they needed to.

Jane Figgis: Is it disappointing to you because you feel so passionately that it's all been handled properly, that it won't go away. Why not?

Fay Gale: I'm not so much disappointed; I think when people are disaffected things don't necessarily go away. I'm very conscious of the fact that I have made a lot of changes in this University and that there are members of staff who do not like change, a nd it is inevitable that they will use anything to complain. But I have made a lot of changes in terms of staff development, in terms of equity issues, in terms of accountability - both financial and in terms of academic accountability - as I've said, I'v e introduced a careful review system. We have training of heads of department, we have a whole lot of equity positions now that are significant, you know where they really have to go through everything.

Everything is now very accountable. I myself am accountable. I had to give up tenure to take this position; all of the senior staff are on contract; we all have to go through performance reviews every year. I have not expected of staff anything that I and the senior staff are not willing to do themselves. And I think inevitably, for a university that was seen as conservative and a fairly safe place, these are changes that people have not liked, and they've seen them as they say in managerial terms. Natura lly they will latch onto things if they feel that they can complain about me, but the reality is that due process has been followed at every point along this whole process, and I have put in those processes.

Jane Figgis: Do you read the Senate Committee as a lack of confidence in you?

Fay Gale: No, I don't. The Senate meeting was extremely supportive of me. They had after all originally agreed to everything that had been put forward and they have been kept fully informed. I see it only as they want to see if -- in a sense what it is ab out the good name of the university: it's very clear from the quality audits, from all of the external indicators, the student demand, the high quality of staff, the big research money that we get, the top research in the country per capita, that this is an outstanding university and the Senate wants to be assurred that its good name is held intact.

Jane Figgis: Professor Fay Gale.

Finally, and this is just one more strange twist in the matter, there is a web site on the Internet containing all of the documents released through Freedom of Information and more. I have to say it is weird to read page after page of correspondence and r eports going back to 1991 marked 'Private and In Confidence'. The web site is being put together by Hugh Jarvis, an anthropologist at the University of Buffalo in the United States, who in fact has never met David Rindos, although a few years back before all this happened, they did some internet collaboration. Of course now Rindos has been feeding him lots of the documents, although so have others. Here's Hugh Jarvis.

Hugh Jarvis: I'm in a very weird position where I'm trying to help out and sort of channel information, but I'm trying not to get in the middle of it because you know, it's not my place to judge anyone, it's not my place to tell other people how to do the ir own business. You know, the documents speak for themselves. People can see what's going on here, and I prefer that in general. I'm not a hard-sell type of person. It's a little bit of a battle to keep up with it all, I've got a whole mound of stuff to sort of go through.

Jane Figgis: Does it cost you anything besides obviously your time?

Hugh Jarvis: Well fortunately at this university, use of the net is free for members of the university. We have what's called the web site here, and space on the web site is free for any academic purposes, which this does fall under, you know it has an ar chival role, it has an important role in anthropology at the moment because a lot of anthropologists are very interested to see what's going on in this affair.

Jane Figgis: In a sense though, you had to check with the University to make sure that they were happy about you creating this website.

Hugh Jarvis: They take a hands off rule on these things. Anything that has a general legitimate role, they're not concerned about. And space is not yet a problem. While our server has lots of space on it, they're not worried about it.

Jane Figgis: Hugh Jarvis.

© 1996 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
(The original transcript is located online at the Radio National Transcripts.)