Current Issue #488

What’s the go with the University of Adelaide?


The University of Adelaide is managing an unexpected leadership vacuum in the middle of an international crisis, as both its Chancellor and Vice Chancellor step away within 24 hours of each other. Now, the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption has made the rare move of confirming an investigation is underway.

With COVID-19 travel restrictions threatening the all-important international student market, and the federal government’s JobKeeper package largely precluding university staff, tertiary institutions around the country are facing down a very trying set of circumstances.

Which made the news this week that former South Australian governor and University of Adelaide Chancellor the Hon Kevin Scarce was stepping away from the top job, effective immediately, in a surprise move some six months ahead of schedule. A University of Adelaide media release on Monday provided no clue as to the reason behind the early departure, simply offering all the usual thank-you-for-your-service pleasantries that typically come with a high-profile retirement.

But it took less than a day for Scarce’s exit to take on a very different context with the widely-reported news that the University’s Vice Chancellor and President Peter Rathjen AO had also taken a period of indefinite ‘special leave’.

Both positions, but particularly that of the eye-wateringly well-paid VC role, are influential jobs that exist in part to provide clear and decisive leadership in precisely this kind of crisis. So this unexpected absence at the highest levels of university administration, with no clear explanation, has mystified many and inspired no shortage of speculation.

University of Adelaide
Now-former Chancellor Kevin Scarce, and Vice Chancellor and President Peter Rathjen

Yesterday, Acting Vice Chancellor Mike Brooks sought to reassure the University and wider community, and assuage any speculation that the twin departures were linked to any existential financial problems facing the university. “Like many institutions, we are facing a budget shortfall due to COVID-19 – but we expect to make a strong recovery after the pandemic has ended. The events of this week are in no way related to the University’s underlying financial position, which is sound.” The University Council and senior executive team, Brooks wrote, remained committed to “steering our institution through the next period of time”.

But today Independent Commissioner Against Corruption the Hon Bruce Lander QC has made the rather extraordinary disclosure that his office is in the early stages of an investigation into “allegations of improper conduct” by the Vice-Chancellor, and the University’s handling of said allegations.

Read the full statement from the Hon Bruce Lander QC:

Ordinarily I would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation because the legislation under which I operate is predicated upon investigations being conducted in private. Similarly any persons aware of an investigation being undertaken by my office are constrained as to the information they are able to disclose.

However, in light of the intense speculation regarding The University of Adelaide, and the likelihood that that speculation will continue and potentially lead to an unnecessary negative impact on the University’s operations, I have decided to make this public statement.

I have commenced an investigation in respect of allegations of improper conduct by the Vice-Chancellor of The University of Adelaide. I am also investigating the manner in which the University dealt with those allegations. The University has committed to providing full cooperation with my investigation. I do not intend to comment further on the nature of the allegations.

I emphasise two points. First, the fact of my investigation, which has only just commenced, must not be construed as a finding that any person has engaged in impropriety. That will be a matter for findings at the conclusion of the investigation.  Secondly, my investigation is in respect of potential issues of serious or systemic misconduct and maladministration, not corruption.

I am exercising the powers of the Ombudsman Act 1972 to conduct this investigation.  That legislation requires that the investigation be conducted in private and I must comply with that legislative requirement.  Legislation also requires that at the conclusion of the investigation I should consider whether it is in the public interest that any report I prepare in respect of the investigation be published publicly.  Again I will adhere to that requirement.

Given the legislation under which I operate is geared toward investigations of these kind being conducted in private I am not in a position to offer further public comment until such time as my investigation has concluded.

Given the legal issues surrounding reporting on ICAC proceedings, The Adelaide Review is not inclined to speculate any further.

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.

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