May 01, 2012

University of Canberra case tests anti-bullying boundaries

IN 2008, James Warden was in the bosom of the University of Canberra. He helped stage its 40th anniversary celebrations, wrangled government money for a new Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage and became its first director.

A year later, Mr Warden was no longer director. Last December, he was gone from the university. The falling out is documented in 17 pages of a statement of claim filed with the Federal Court, where Mr Warden is seeking damages. He has his first hearing date on Friday week.

Mr Warden, whose background is in history and cultural studies, says he is unsure why he came undone, but believes that his treatment at Canberra is not an isolated case. "The level of intimidation and persecution left me no option but to resign," he said. He thinks enthusiasm for his institute did not survive a change in middle management.

In September 2009, he said, he was abruptly removed as director and confronted with the first in a series of "throwaway" allegations. "They were a shopping list of complaints, none of which were documented," he said. According to Mr Warden's statement of claim, the university's allegations included "unspecified irregularities" in spending at the institute.

Mr Warden denies any such thing, pointing out that expenses had to be signed off by the dean and acquitted under an ACT government deed of grant. The university also claimed Mr Warden continued to hold out as institute director to undermine his replacement. "Not true," said Mr Warden. He said publications that were in print when he was director appeared after his removal. Introduced at a conference as director, he corrected the record.

The university began a formal investigation into his case and appointed a review committee. "It was minor administrative stuff that they had trumped up as serious misconduct," Mr Warden said. "I was lucky that I had a competent committee with integrity who looked at it and said, 'There's nothing here'."

At odds with the views of the committee, the university told Mr Warden he was "formally censured", according to his statement of claim. At one point in the drawn-out conflict the university directed him to see a psychiatrist. "He said, 'Nothing wrong, looks like an industrial issue'," Mr Warden said.

One of his legal claims is novel for higher education. His lawyers argue the university as a corporation engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct because it led him to believe it would abide by its anti-bullying policy. The university declined to comment on legal grounds.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like what happened to me. I was at the peak of my career (begin to attract collaborators)and the next minute I am unemployed. And looks like they want to make me unemployable as well. I am a woman and belongs to a minority group. Plus I never fought back.

Anonymous said...

In such situations, the best thing to do is get out and do something else as this is a fight that a target of bullying will never win.

Under no circumstances should one offer resistance or fight back in any way unless there is an escape plan in place or there's another job to go to. The reason is that unless one fights back and achieves total victory such that the bullying party can not continue in any way, there will be no end to it until one either surrenders or leaves.

This happened to me. I've had administrators continually attack and harass me until I struck back and proved that I was not the one at fault. Unfortunately, my tormentors would neither admit that they were the aggressors nor were they prepared to let the matter rest. Evidently, my arguments weren't sufficiently persuasive.

Managements come and go and as soon as a new set of administrators took office, hostilities resumed, getting nastier each time. Unfortunately, each successive group of managers were correspondingly more sympathetic to the belligerent party and openly supported its actions.

The institution's staff association was, for the most part, useless and collaborated with my enemies and I soon realized that I could not rely on its backing.

I quit almost 10 years ago and only because I had saved and invested enough money that I didn't need that hellhole's paycheque.

Unfortunately, it appears that it as made me unemployable because I haven't found a job since then. No doubt, it was revenge for my leaving under terms that I dictated at a time of my choosing, though not necessarily under circumstances that I liked.

Anonymous said...

Even when I was totally permissive (to the degree that others openly encourage me to fight back) I still lost my job and have not yet found another one! So it may be worthwhile to make some noises, at least to serve as warning signs for others. My ex-organisation can be renamed "Scientist Graveyard" where promising ones go in and then exit without a trace...From now on I have a moral obligation of telling women from minority groups to stay away from science. At least saving them years of heartache and physical pains and to become a family disappointment.

Anonymous said...

During the 1980s, I spent several years out of work. I learned back than that it's sometimes better to simply keep quiet. Fighting back by, say, filing a lawsuit will not help one's reputation because a potential employer might consider such an applicant as a possible source of trouble.

Also, being a martyr serves no purpose. I found out that nobody, except for perhaps close friends or family members, cares about one's circumstances when one is in trouble or out of work. In fact, by drawing attention to one's situation often draws only scorn, with the consensus being that one earned one's troubles.

I've survived enough years in the dole queue and had my employment application rejected enough times to know what I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your honest advice. Do you have to change career completely after that? And is it a better or worse career?

Anonymous said...

You're welcome.

In first 2 comments at:

I described some of the details of what happened to me at the place I used to teach. It certainly wasn't the most cordial and professional environment, was it?

For most of my life, I saved and, later, invested my money. By the time I decided to quit 10 years ago, I had accumulated enough that I thought I could head out on my own. In fact, when I reached a certain minimum, I asked myself why I continued to put up with the abuse and harassment I was subjected to from students, colleagues, and administrators.

I never found another job after that. If I ever had an interview, I would be turned down because I was either too old, too educated, too expensive, or not a "good fit", whatever that means. I'm sure some of those interviews were conducted to comply with law and regulations to say that the employers considered all "possible" candidates but they already knew who they wanted and probably had already hired them. In some cases, I'm sure I was interviewed for positions which never existed but would have if there had been funding for the work in question.

It wouldn't surprise me if some of those outfits contacted my former employer, though, properly, they would have needed my permission first, not that my refusing to give it would have stopped them. My ex-boss was a very vindictive sort and he had already proved that he could lie about me by putting information in my personnel file which I knew very well wasn't true. Since those documents were put there without my knowledge and without my having had an opportunity to respond to them, I was told that they would be removed, but I'm sure they mysteriously found their way back in after I'd left and that he had been responsible.

Unfortunately, that sort of tactic is considered legal in my country as it isn't considered libel or slander.

I tried getting funding for my research but when nobody was interested, I looked for a job, giving up 2 years after I'd quit. I declared myself semi-retired about a year later. I've been living off my investments since I left my teaching position. I don't make a lot of money but I still manage to pay my bills, though there's not much left over for luxuries.

To this day, I still wonder what I did that was so terribly wrong.

Anonymous said...

I think it may be what called "the tall poppy syndrome". Your sin is you are too proud. Things are much worse now compared to your time. People are really vicious. One of my "colleague" can be a crumbling mess one minute, then a vicious tyranny the next. It is all in the name of status and money. May be we are the people who did not want to play the game. And if we take ourselves out of the game, we can never get back in again (and for the same reason, those remains in the game fight viciously to stay "IN"). At the moment, I feel happy and contented (except for the fact that I am having no job). Sometimes, I even feel proud that I have not continued to work in that dreadful environment. But I also realized that "life goes on with/without you".

Anonymous said...

"Too proud"? Well, that's what my former department told me, but that was used as an excuse to justify his abuse and harassment. Over the years, however, I've learned that if one wants to be nasty to someone else, there will always be a convenient reason to provoke it.

During the time that I was teaching, I gave all and sundry enough reason to take umbrage. For example, I had "too much" education. I was "too smart" (I belong to 2 high-IQ societies, one of which is Mensa). I worked on the "wrong" things while I was in industry and, as a result, acquired "too many" professional registrations. I read the "wrong" newspaper (I prefer something like the "New York Times" instead of the local example of yellow journalism, a T & A fishwrap). The list goes on from there: you name it, chances are I was accused of it.

Then there was my personal life, typified by comments such as "You're how old and still not married?" That was enough for a few vicious and unfounded rumours alone but, in such settings, the truth doesn't matter. Never mind that my marital status was nobody's business and had no bearing on what I was doing while I was teaching. Whoever flings mud first wins.

It was bad enough that my colleagues and administrators were so vitriolic towards me but I experienced similar behaviour from my fellow students when I was in high school and heard similar comments. I guess that some people never learned to grow up.

It took about 2 years for me to get over the tension and stress that I acquired in that environment. A decade later, I'm still angry at what happened and I have not forgiven them.

Anonymous said...

This is purely my observation, in Australia, there is only a few made it to the top (for reasons unknown) who will sit at the top PERMANENTLY whether they are doing it good or not. And there is this majority of junior researchers who will be used for a few years then got chucked out. The one at the top will sit there collecting all the good ideas and developed their "extensive" profile. The junior researchers keep circulating and can never get any where because the bars are moved all the time. Until one gives up. Who cares?