“An error of judgment”

Words by Nicholas Birchall — Photo by Lucy O’Connell-Doherty

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On Dit Issue 88.10’s front cover, featuring Catherine Branson and Peter Rathjen meeting at 11:50am on the 12th of March 2020.

All quotes are taken from the ICAC statement on the investigation into “Misconduct by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide”.

“On 12 and 30 March 2020 the Deputy Chancellor met with the Vice-Chancellor. On the first occasion they had lunch at her instigation. On the second occasion they met at her beach house, at the instigation of the Vice-Chancellor, who in that regard was prompted to do so by the Chancellor. On the first occasion the Deputy Chancellor told the Vice-Chancellor she was interested in becoming Chancellor and wanted to know if he felt he could work with her. She admitted to me that this might have been an error of judgement.”

The photo that adorns our front cover was taken on the 12th of March, 11:50am outside the Mitchell building, home to the office of the Vice-Chancellor. A unique moment in history, captured at a peculiar time, almost by accident.

Our current Chancellor, Catherine Branson AC QC was well aware of the allegations against disgraced former Vice-Chancellor Peter Rathjen at the time of her two meetings with him. Regardless of whether or not you believe that Branson was not aware of all the information until the 21st of March, she continued to meet with Rathjen in secret.

“On the second occasion they discussed Ms A’s complaint. She advised him how he should present to the Council. They again discussed whether, if she were to become Chancellor, they could work together.”

Branson displayed a callous attitude towards these allegations, even when made fully aware of the facts pertaining to them. Despite this, Branson’s conduct indicated that either she did not see these allegations toppling Rathjen, or that she would ensure they didn’t on the condition she was made Chancellor with Rathjen’s support.

In the meantime, Branson continued her march towards the role of Chancellor. The Convenor’s committee (the executive body of the University), of which Branson was a member, continued to meet to discuss the allegations against Rathjen. Within this committee, a further committee was formed. Known as the “Rump” it consisted of four members of the University Council, with Branson as chair.

“The Rump decided that the Chancellor [Kevin Scarce] should be advised there would be a risk that if he did not resign a motion would be put to Council for him to be stood down during the investigation.”

Subsequently, Branson met with Scarce in her home on the 26th of April.

“The Chancellor was given a fait accompli. If he did not resign he would be stood down.”

[Branson] also advised [Scarce] that she wished to become Chancellor.”

Scarce subsequently resigned without public explanation, immediately followed by Rathjen’s period of indefinite leave, and eventual resignation.

This whole sordid affair is exemplary of complete and utter mismanagement and moral bankruptcy by the University executive. Rather than taking the allegation against Rathjen seriously, Branson took the opportunity to use the chaos to further her own stature.

Her conversations with Rathjen implied an intent to keep him on his role as Vice-Chancellor, despite these credible, fresh allegations. Rathjen has numerous historic allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct spanning several years, and multiple institutions. This is absolutely untenable.

In the modern world we live in, at an institution such as the University of Adelaide, there must be a top-down approach to things like sexual harassment and assault. The University must be willing to engage in meaningful discussion and cultural change, and that definitely doesn’t occur through obfuscation and back-room dealings.

The University of Adelaide has a systematic, ingrained cultural problem with misogyny, sexism, and respect. From the findings of College hazings, to the rejection of the Women’s Collective and Pro-Choice Club, to the affiliation of an anti-abortion group on campus, to the report detailing over 50 incidents of sexual assault and harassment since 2018, a revolting pattern has become painfully apparent.

It is shameful that in her time as Chancellor, Branson has taken almost no action regarding the epidemic of sexual assault on campus. Her position ought to allow her to enact real meaningful change if she was serious about combating this, as her numerous emails and public statements might suggest.

The system is broken. It needs to be fixed immediately. I’m not convinced that this can be accomplished with the current executive structure at UofA. The University Council have been stagnant on this issue for years, and need to be held to account for their inaction. As the peak decision-making body at the University, this is unacceptable.

The university needs to do better for its students. No one on campus should ever feel unsafe. No one should ever be fearful of speaking out against the disgusting perpetrators that continue to lurk just below the surface. No one should ever be subjected to such horrific circumstances. Our structure and processes shouldn’t deter survivors from reporting what has happened, and we should be there to support them every step of the way.

This is no longer up for discussion. Things need to change, and they need to change now.

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Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Nicholas Birchall, Felix Eldridge, Taylor Fernandez and Larisa Forgac. Email us at onditmag@gmail.com

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