May 20, 2013

RMIT professor unfairly sacked

Employers have been warned against using redundancy programs to get rid of ''undesired employees'', after RMIT University was fined $37,000 by the Federal Court for breaking workplace laws, and ordered to re-hire one of its professors.

RMIT sacked youth studies and sociology professor Judith Bessant last April, claiming the redundancy was for financial reasons alone.

But in a decision handed down last week, Justice Peter Gray found the university had likely fired Professor Bessant after she made allegations of bullying and intimidation against another professor, David Hayward.

Justice Gray said his ruling would vindicate Professor Bessant's decision to make a complaint against Professor Hayward without suffering retribution.

Professor Bessant was made redundant despite the university having acknowledged that she was a ''very good researcher'', a scholar ''of international standing'' and ''an impressive teacher''.

In deciding the case, Justice Gray also said he took into consideration the ''apparent determination'' by RMIT Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner to ''ignore her knowledge of Professor Hayward's animosity towards Professor Bessant''. Professor Gardner displayed a lack of contrition for what the court found to be a blatant contravention of workplace laws.

The National Tertiary Education Union said the ruling was a warning that all employers must not use ''sham redundancies'' to get rid of staff, when the real reasons would not be allowed by the Fair Work Act. Victorian secretary Colin Long said the judgment provided a telling insight into the management culture at Australian universities.

''The approach taken by the [RMIT] to getting rid of [Professor Bessant] will be all too familiar to university staff across Australia,'' he said.

Dr Long said the decision also reflected the ''group-think'' prevalent in Australian university managements, aimed at silencing dissenters and backing bad decisions.

Justice Gray found that, if Professor Bessant had sought damages against the university rather than asking for her job back, she would have got ''significantly in excess of $1 million'' and potentially up to $1.9 million.

Professor Bessant said she was relieved the matter was resolved, and that the judgment vindicated her position.

''Namely that academics have both a right and an obligation to speak out about the concerns they have about the way social institutions are working,'' she said.

RMIT's chief operating officer Steve Somogyi said the university was reviewing the judgment and would consider an appeal. "The university takes very seriously its obligations under the Fair Work Act," he said.


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