Earlier this year, reports featured in Woroni revealed a series of disconcerting developments in the School of Politics and International Relations (the School), with almost a full third of the School’s academic staff departing at the end of 2013. This was followed in January 2014 by extensive cuts to courses offering qualitative approaches and philosophical perspectives on politics and international relations. At the time, the then Acting Head of School, Professor Ian McAllister, claimed that the high losses of staff from 2013 was merely a consequence of the natural “turnover in staff personnel” in addition to some academics taking up an offer under ANU Chancelry’s Voluntary Early Retirement Scheme.

However, a series of articles published in the Canberra Times last month have revealed that “a toxic culture of bullying” within the School is largely to blame for the mass exodus, with complaints ranging from intimidation and harassment to deteriorating working conditions and issues of gender discrimination. The articles portray a School in crisis, with seven formal complaints filed internally and a further two ComCare cases, both of which were found in favour of the academics who brought their complaints forward.

If the truth is painful, then the Canberra Times have clearly struck a major nerve at the ANU. If there were inaccuracies or if the issue had been resolved, then the ANU would have been tripping over itself to have the public record set straight on the matter. The ANU, however, is not tripping over itself to correct the record. On this issue, the ANU is in total PR lockdown. In their sole official statement, the ANU has said that they are investigating the complaints. Outside of this, they have refused to provide any further comment whatsoever on the extent and severity of the situation. On the one hand, this is understandable, there are very serious privacy and legal concerns that mean that the issue must handled with great care. On the other hand, the details revealed about the issues facing the School suggest that the Vice-Chancellor himself was made aware of the situation quite some time ago and has either failed to intervene and provide adequate redress, or those he has delegated to do so have failed.   

The fact that many, if not all, of these complaints have failed to be addressed up to a year after the incidents themselves should give us an appreciation of how much of a debacle the ANU is wrestling with. In such situations, the problem is never just a single individual. And, with so many complaints being lodged both with the ANU and with ComCare, it unreasonable to presume that the senior managers of the School – and those to whom they answer – could have been unaware of the behaviour of the individual alleged to be at the centre of the complaints. In view of this, it is vital the ANU’s investigation undertakes the primary task of identifying where and how the School, the RSSS and CASS failed in their duties to protect staff from such intimidation and harassment. In addition, the investigation must establish the kind and extent of these breaches of duty. In such situations, incompetence, negligence or complicity would be the usual suspects, the situation as depicted by the Canberra Times, suggests a blend of all three.

Meanwhile, a PhD student has told of how an academic recently explained to them that they were having panic attacks in their office because of bullying from a professor and manager in their school, but that they were too afraid to complain because their family depended on their income.

Furthermore, another former PhD student, who wishes to remain anonymous, has said that “Post-graduates are reluctant to speak publicly because there is a history of making life hard for those who speak out, they’re targeted for retribution.” This sentiment was seconded by a current PhD student who, having witnessed and personally experienced some of the bullying at the ANU, who has confirmed that, “PhD students and staff are afraid to speak out. They’ve seen how those who stand up for themselves become victims of retaliation.”

The PhD student went on to allege that the ANU has ignored complaints and failed to act on the situation, “I have personally briefed three senior ANU officials about incidents of bullying and intimidation, and even filed a serious grievance about an abusive manager during an incident I experienced first-hand, only to have my efforts summarily dismissed.” In a worrying sign that the situation in the School is far from resolved, the student who had voiced opposition to the bullying and its handling has recently been threatened with potential disciplinary action for unspecified “misconduct”.

In the meantime, the ANU’s ongoing silence on the matter is not only disconcerting, but damaging. Even if they manage to ‘wait out the storm’, the issue has become a public concern and their failure to provide any further details about how these problems are being addressed means that serious doubts over the integrity and character of the School’s workplace will continue to linger. If, however, it comes to light that there are more issues yet to be unearthed within the School, then the ANU won’t just be facing a handful of newspaper articles, but a full blown scandal. In either case, it will not be enough to simply hope that the issue goes away or attempt to quash the matter with a scapegoat. For the sake of the School and the ANU, there needs to be a serious redressing for those who have been harmed over the past year and also a public record explaining how such a hostile work environment was allowed to thrive and how such situations will be prevented in future.