Schmidt and Other ANU Administrators Are Under Investigation. What Happens Next?

ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Marnie Hughes-Warrington and other senior ANU officials are under investigation, after former School of Music Head, Peter Tregear, named them in a whistleblower complaint of corruption and misuse of funding. The Commonwealth Ombudsman has agreed to investigate after Tregear made a 252-page public interest disclosure alleging “multiple instances of alleged negligence, maladministration and misuse of public funds, corruption, and abuse of position by senior management at the ANU”.

The Ombudsman indicated there are grounds for a full investigation in a letter to Tregear on February 13, writing: “I am reasonably satisfied that the information provided tends to show instances of disclosable conduct, namely conduct that constitutes maladministration and conduct which, if proved, would be grounds for disciplinary action or conduct which is in breach of a law.’’

What are the accusations?

The investigation relates to various actions surrounding the School of Music from 2012 to 2015, including alleged favouritism in hiring and promotions, conflicts of interest, and lack of consultation and transparency on the School’s budget.

While Observer is still investigating and intends to report more specifics at a later date, it has been reported that allegations to be considered include:

  • A conflict of interest
  • The preferential treatment of a staff member
  • The preferential promotion of another staff member
  • That an academic’s salary was paid for from an account connected with an ACT government grant
  • That there was a lack of consultation on the School’s budget
  • That Tregear, as head of the School, was unable to access budget information despite repeated requests
  • That when staff raised concerns as to some of the above allegations, no action was taken by ANU senior management

Eleven senior current and former staff members at the ANU have been named in the complaint, including (as well as Schmidt and Hughes-Warrington) former Vice-Chancellor Ian Young and the Director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Paul Pickering.

An ANU spokesperson strongly denied the allegations, stating that they are “deeply defamatory” and have “no basis in fact”. The university stressed that the allegations would “not derail the commitment of the university and the school community from ensuring a bright future for the school,” and referred us to a November 2015 statement “strongly rejecting defamatory claims and suggestions of a conflict of interest at the school, and to dispel any suggestions of impropriety in the use of Arts ACT Funding.”

What happens now?

The Commonwealth Ombudsman is investigating these complaints, in a process potentially taking months. The Ombudsman has the power to require people and agencies to turn over relevant documents; to require people to attend an interview and answer questions; and to examine witnesses under oath. It seems likely that Schmidt and the other named administrators will be called to give their side of the story. The ANU will have been formally informed of the investigation, and after the investigation is over they will be advised of the Ombudsman’s intentions and reasons, and be given an opportunity to respond. The Ombudsman has the choice of a wide variety of recommendations, ranging from changing ANU policy and procedure, to making a formal report to the head of ANU, Chancellor Gareth Evans, if there is determined to be a serious case of administrative deficiency.

How did we get here?

The School of Music has seen a precipitous decline in funding, staff, and student enrolments in recent years. In 2016, the Podger Report on the School’s governance reported: “that the status quo is unacceptable: it is not attracting the numbers of high potential students the national university should and normally does expect; it is not delivering the excellence in teaching (particularly in music performance) required of a top university; and it is not meeting the reasonable expectations of the national capital’s community. The status quo also has a legacy of distrust and is financially unsustainable,” Andrew Podger, a former high-level public servant and an Honorary Professor of Public Policy at ANU, was invited to undertake an independent investigation of the issues surrounding the School of Music, and his critical report led to a number of changes in university policy.

The Podger Report suggests a thoroughly damaging culture within the School of Music, while not specifically addressing Tregear’s allegations. “There has been inappropriate and unprofessional behavior not just in recent years but going back a considerable time”, Podger reported, while nevertheless noting that “no one person or group can be held solely to blame”. Podger recommended “a public acknowledgement by the Vice-Chancellor that the University has not managed the challenges facing the School well over a very long period, allowing distrust and emotional stress to fester”.

Podger also recommended a moratorium on the University initiating any further examination of specific instances of mismanagement or misbehaviour, which was highly controversial at the time, and which Tregear specifically disagrees with. Podger argued that the University taking action would lead to arguments and be a distraction for management and staff, while still noting that any individual would be able to pursue a complaint. Podger stressed the need to move on from the School’s past, writing that “once the future direction of the School is settled, all staff must give it their full support and anyone not willing to do so should look to moving on elsewhere”. In a statement to Fairfax, Tregear highlighted his unhappiness with this aspect of the Podger Report. “I disagree with the Podger Report’s recommendation of a blanket moratorium for the ANU’s treatment of the school and its students and staff over the past few years. There is indeed truth to that old adage that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”

Tregear has spoken to multiple media outlets to explain his complaints. Despite the ANU believing it has addressed most of the issues surrounding the School of Music through the Podger Report, Tregear told The Australian that it was important to pursue the case. “I do believe there are serious and pressing issues of public accountability and workplace health and safety that remain entirely unaddressed. My own case, while of some prominence in the ANU and within the ACT because it involved the School of Music, is certainly not isolated, either,” he said. He told the ABC that the scale of the damage was significant: “It’s ultimately very difficult to put an absolute figure on it but we’re talking quite reasonably a multi-million-dollar loss over 18 months to two years.”

Tregear has had a difficult history with the University. Having arrived in 2012 during a highly publicised fracas about job cuts and the number of instrument classes at the School, his term coincided with the aforementioned decline in funding, staff, and student enrolments. In May 2015, his job was seemingly advertised online, but then swiftly withdrawn by university management, with Hughes-Warrington saying that the advertisement was mistaken. In August 2015, he departed the University before the end of his contract. Tregear was supportive of the School of Music at the time of his departure, telling the ABC that he’d “come to an understanding with the ANU that I’m going to be moving on”, and that he’d “done the best that I can over that period”. However, his statements to the press indicate that his views have changed, in light of what he sees as continued lack of action by the ANU.