November 22, 2016

Deakin University gags staff over harassment case

[Mr Elkadi... and even more on Mr Elkadi]

A "culture of silence" allows academics who display unacceptable behaviour to move between universities without their new employers being aware of their history, a whistleblower says.
Dr Melanie Thomson said her former employer, Deakin University, imposed a gag order on staff preventing them from talking about complaints against a scientist who has since moved on to a more senior position at another university.
At one stage, a female colleague who complained about the scientist resorted to placing a line of tape on the floor around her desk, and telling him to stay behind it.
Dr Thomson, a former lecturer in the school of medicine at Deakin University, said the scientist admitted to her that a complaint had also been made about him at his previous workplace.
She said the gag order imposed by Deakin forced her into a "morally bankrupt" position and prevented her from telling any future employer about the complaints.
"It put me in an awkward position of basically having to lie, or omit the truth," Dr Thomson said.
Dr Thomson has now decided to go public with her concerns, because she holds fears for the "mental health of all the staff" at his new place of work, and believes this kind of gag order is "unethical" in the way that it prevents future employers being warned about unacceptable behaviour.
"He may have become a model citizen," said Dr Thomson, but he "may be a serial perpetrator of bullying and harassment".
The gag order was part of a settlement reached between Deakin University and the scientist last year, which saw him leave the university after an investigation into bullying and harassment complaints.
In a statement sent to Background Briefing, the vice chancellor of Deakin, Professor Jane den Hollander, said that the university did not comment on "individual staffing matters ... and internal decisions and outcomes are not within the public domain".

Troubling behaviour
Deakin University was forced to deal with mounting complaints about the scientist during his time at the institution.
Two female colleagues within his department filed formal complaints. These scientists declined to speak to Background Briefing for this story.
Even as an investigation into the formal complaints was being set up, a new concern was brought to the attention of the head of the school of medicine, Jon Watson.
In an email to the human resources division of Deakin last year, Professor Watson noted he had just received yet another complaint about the scientist's behaviour, in addition to "the multiple previous complaints we have dealt with over the last year, and the two complaints [the HR division] are currently dealing with".
Concerns were raised not only by colleagues from his own department, but also by "various different departments of the university", according to Dr Thomson.
The two female colleagues who complained about the scientist were relocated away from him during the investigation.
Following the conclusion of the formal investigation, staff were told that the scientist had been suspended without pay from the university with immediate effect.

Striking a bargain
Just days later, Dr Thomson was told that the university had reached a settlement with the scientist.
She was warned in an email from the HR division that "one of the terms of the settlement is that the university take reasonable steps to ensure its employees do not disparage or comment negatively" about the scientist.
It is unclear why the university agreed to this deal, but Dr Thomson said the scientist had threatened legal action against the university.
Dr Thomson believed the university wanted to avoid bad publicity.
"The university is always interested in protecting their own reputation, and so if there is an incident of this type that is going on, they want to achieve an outcome which removes the perpetrator but does not affect and tarnish their reputation," she said.
Professor den Hollander rejected this.
"We strongly object to any suggestion that Deakin University has in any way 'contributed to a "culture of silence" around perpetrators of harassment and bullying' and/or that the university prioritises its own reputation over the safety and well-being of its staff," she said.
Speaking out
Dr Thomson has long been outspoken about the barriers facing women in science.
Much earlier in her career, she said she herself was a victim of sexual harassment.
"I, frankly, am sick of it. I'm sick of seeing it, and I've experienced it ... pretty much everywhere I've been as an observer and also directly as a victim myself," she said.
"I've seen that time and time again, people that are well known to be harassers and bullies get ahead and maintain their publication record, whereas the people they have affected end up leaving research.
"The taboo is so strong not to speak. But if not me, who? And if not now, when?"

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