Mathematics Professor Dismissed for ‘Serious Misconduct’: Wins Unfair Dismissal Claim, Loses Application for Confidentiality
By Eleanor Ellis
Content Warning: Sexual Misconduct
Former professor at the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute (MSI) Dr Scott Morrison has been reinstituted to his previous position at the University, after being dismissed due to “serious misconduct” in 2020.
The allegations against Dr Morrison were brought forward to the University by a student in October 2019, referring to a series of interactions between late 2017 to 2018. The dismissal was first announced by the former Director of the MSI, Professor Peter Bouwknegt. This was followed by another email from the Interim Director of the MSI, Professor Stephen Roberts, in September 2021, who further elaborated that the dismissal was made “on the grounds of serious misconduct”. Roberts’ email stated the decision to dismiss Morrison was made after a “serious complaint from a student… [of] highly inappropriate intimate sexual behaviour and conduct” prompted an investigation by the University.
The Procedure for Managing Misconduct, Serious Misconduct and Suspension outlines the process of managing misconduct by and suspension of staff, in accordance with the ANU Enterprise Agreement 2017-2021(EA) and the Unsatisfactory Performance and Misconduct Policy.
In 2019, following the student’s allegations against Morrison, Human Resources Director Dr Nadine White presented 19 items pertaining to allegations of breaches of the Code of Conduct Policy and the Conflict of Interest and Commitment Policy, finding evidence that supported allegations beyond the student’s initial claim.
In a comment to Observer in an article from 2020, Morrison said he believed “the University’s process and decision were unfair and that termination of [his] employment was disproportionate in the circumstances”. He subsequently lodged an unfair dismissal application with the Australian Fair Work Commission (FWC) under the Fair Work Act 2009 (section 394). Under this Act, if the Commission found the dismissal “harsh, unjust, or unreasonable” and “not a case of genuine redundancy”, Morrison would be entitled to 26 weeks of wage compensation and could be reinstated to his role.
Morrison’s initial unfair dismissal hearing was held over 25 to 27 November 2020, during which several MSI academics, other ANU staff, the relevant student, Morrison, and Morrison’s wife and friends were cross-examined.
This included Dr Joan Licata, an Associate Professor at ANU’s College of Science, and friend and colleague of Morrison. Regarding an email correspondence between Morrison and the student, Licata agreed his conduct was “highly inappropriate” but claimed dismissal was a “disproportionate punishment”.
Morrison’s barrister contested the University’s claim that the student was “under supervision” of the professor, affirming the raw marks had been submitted and the student had already completed the requirements of the course before the period the intimate relations occurred.
During Dr White’s cross-examination, she claimed a relationship had developed between Morrison and the student while they were both involved in a sports team in 2017, which became “sexual” in nature by the end of the year. White argued Morrison is “not appropriate” to be trusted with the care of other students. White further asserted that Morrison breached the university’s Conflict of Interest policy by failing to disclose the “close and personal relationship”, defined under the policy as relationship involving “any person with whom there is currently or has been in an intimate relationship”, including, but not limited to, relatives, financial dependants, and de facto partners.
When asked if the University had provided sufficient training to staff relating to code of conduct, White replied: “After ten years of being at the university, being in a teaching and research role, he should know” that it is “inappropriate to engage in a close and personal relationship with a student under his supervision”.
A decision from the FWC was expected for March 2021. However, on 9 February 2021, ANU applied to reopen the application on the basis that a second witness and former student had approached the University’s Human Resources division, similarly alleging Morrison had acted inappropriately towards them. The second hearing occurred on 9 March 2021, and the application to re-open the case was granted.
The case was presided over by FWC Deputy President Lyndall Dean. In her decision, Dean specifically mentions Observer’s first article on the matter, claiming “as a result of that article, a former student of the ANU (the New Witness) approached the ANU’s HR division about her interactions with Mr Morrison in 2016”.
Dean listed several considerations for the re-opening of proceedings, and detailed reasons for approval. One significant consideration is the relevance of the new evidence. The University claimed the new evidence is “directly relevant to the question of whether the University has a valid reason to dismiss Mr Morrison” and “whether reinstatement is appropriate”.
Importantly, a second witness with evidence of similar allegations would contradict Morrison’s assertions in the initial hearing that he has an “established history of respectful relationships with female students and junior faculty” and that his interactions with the first student were an “exceptional and isolated situation” occurring from a “lapse in judgement”.
Morrison’s counsel objected to the relevance, submitting that the new evidence “at its highest, discloses a consensual friendship…during which Mr Morrison apparently developed feelings for the New Witness who happened to be a student at ANU”. They further argued that, because the second student was enrolled in another faculty and Morrison had never taught her, he was under no obligation to declare any alleged conflict of interest as “there is nothing in the Code which prevents lecturers from engaging in intimate relationships with students outside their faculty”.
On this point, Dean stated that the “new evidence engages in at least one of the issues I may need to decide on, that being whether reinstatement is practicable” and ultimately determined it to be relevant.
Another point of consideration was the ability of the university to obtain the evidence “with reasonable diligence” before the initial hearing. Morrison’s counsel submitted that ANU could have sought this evidence earlier, while ANU argued the evidence was not made available to them until the second witness came forward in the month following the hearing.
Again, Dean supported the university’s submission, stating she was “not satisfied that the ANU could have obtained the evidence of the New Witness with reasonable diligence prior to the hearing”, particularly because this would require the university to “publicise the nature of the alleged conduct and reasons for Mr Morrison’s dismissal broadly” which she did not consider a reasonable step to take, nor one that Morrison would have wanted.
Dean concluded her decision saying, “I am on the balance satisfied that the interests of justice are better served by allowing the new evidence” and, accordingly, approved the university’s application to reopen proceedings with evidence of the New Witness.
An article published by the Australian Financial Review earlier this week announced the FWC had reached a decision on Morrison’s case, ruling the University had “unfairly sacked” Morrison, finding its policy “did not ban staff from having consensual relationships with students” and that “poor judgement was not a valid reason for dismissal”. On 21 February 2022, Dean issued a rejection of the university’s claim that Morrison posed a risk to the safety of other staff or students and ordered ANU to reinstate Morrison to his previous position on 7 March 2022, as well as six months’ back pay for lost remuneration whilst he was suspended.
In her decision, Dean stated Morrison “did not have a teaching, supervision, or administrative role with respect to the relevant student, except in so far as he was one of the organisers of the retreat”, emphasising that all grading was complete at the time of the interactions. Dean described Morrison’s handling of the situation as “clumsy to say the least” but “was not a valid reason for his dismissal.”
Dean rejected the University’s claim that Morrison acted inappropriately to “another student who made separate skinny-dipping claims during the case”, noting she had emailed him after the trip that she “had a great time” and emphasising the contact “was wholly consensual and instigated by the relevant student.”
Furthermore, Dean supported Morrison’s submission that “both students and staff are responsible for their own actions”, drawing particular attention to the first student’s age, stating “the relevant student was a woman in her early 20s. There is no basis to doubt that she knew what she was doing.”
Observer reached out to the ANUSA Women’s Officer, Avan Daruwalla, regarding these comments. Daruwalla regarded the comments from the Deputy President as “neglectful”, further charging that they “failed to recognise the importance of professionalism and ethical conduct” at the University.
“The behaviour was not “clumsy”, it was unethical, a breach of the code of conduct and absolutely cause for dismissal. Further, the dismissal of complaints that the student was made to feel uncomfortable speaks volumes of a system that betrays and fails survivors”, Daruwalla continued.
The AFR article includes explicit descriptions of the alleged misconduct with the first student, detailing an incident in which Morrison “stripped naked in front of a student at a secluded beach on a mathematics retreat” and “went skinny dipping with [her]”. Morrison was in his mid-30s at the time of the incident, while the first student was in her early 20s.
The second student, who came forward after the initial hearing, “allege[d] the academic had also gone skinny dipping with her during a canyoning trip”, according to the article. Upon returning from the trip, Morrison allegedly messaged the student on Facebook that he was “thinking about her sleeping in his bed”. The article claims the student responded that she was not interested, to which Morrison replied that he had a “bit of a crush” on her but would “cancel that line of thought”. In the Commission’s ruling, Dean emphasises that Morrison had “respected her decision to not have a relationship”.
On 4 March 2022, ANU lodged an application to appeal the decision, and sought a stay on the reinstatement order whilst the application was being determined. Deputy President Asbury granted the stay on 7 March 2022 “until the hearing and determination of the appeal”, meaning Morrison would not be reinstated on 7 March, as Dean previously ruled.
An ANU spokesperson told Observer that ANU “respectfully disagrees with the decision and reasons of Deputy President Dean, which are inconsistent with the University’s approach to its workplace.”
“The University is appealing the decision, and has successfully obtained a stay of the reinstatement order while the matter is determined on appeal”, the spokesperson continued.
This was echoed by Daruwalla, who stated that the “decision to reinstate Dr Morrison is deeply concerning and the commentary underpinning the decision reflects a lack of investment in a culture of responsibility and awareness regarding power dynamics and imbalances.”
Following this, on 9 March 2022, Morrison’s representatives lodged an application to vary a confidentiality order, requesting for the de-identification of all parties and prohibiting the “publication of a decision and reasons for the decision” regarding the unfair dismissal application. ANU opposed this, instead proposing full publication.
The hearing for the application was held on 15 March 2022, presided by Asbury. Asbury noted that “the issue of confidentiality arose in several contexts in the proceedings before the Deputy President [Dean]”.
On 27 November 2020, Dean had prohibited the publication of the name and address of the first student, followed by a similar order on 19 April 2021 for the second student. Asbury noted “there was no objection by either party to the orders” when they were initially determined by Dean.
In 2022, Dean reviewed both parties’ submissions, stating preference for Morrison’s submission for complete de-identification of the decision. Consequently, ANU submitted it was “inappropriate for Deputy President Dean to make any further orders in this matter given that the decision… had been appealed and was before a Full Bench of the Commission”.
Dean “agreed with this proposition and withdrew from the matter without making any orders”, and both parties were advised on 10 March 2022 that the application had been reallocated to Asbury to be heard on 14 March, and any objections must be provided by 11 March.
Morrison’s submission requested “publication with de-identification”, specifically “de-identifying the students who gave evidence” and “de-identifying the Applicant and Respondent”.
The submission included “the obvious point” that Morrison shares his full name with the Australian Prime Minister, thus anticipating publication without deidentification will “unnecessarily and unfairly draw this matter to the attention of the Australian media and public” and negatively impact his ability to return to work “without publicity, scrutiny, and potential hostility” because of a mere “naming coincidence”.
Morrison’s counsel argued “it is likely that the media will favour sensational headlines over a full, fair, and nuanced report of the decision” and expressed further concerns that “some students and staff [will] likely hold the incorrect view that the Applicant is something of a sexual predator”, drawing particular attention to the Professor Robert’s email from 2021 that described Morrison’s conduct in “terms which are damaging to him”. They argued the combination of the widely disseminated email, widespread media attention, and publication without deidentification may “cause unrest in a highly politicised student population”.
ANU objected to Morrison’s concerns that the case would draw excessive press coverage, arguing, conversely, that “the amount of information about the Prime Minister on the internet will result in references to the Respondent being more difficult….to locate”.
Morrison’s submission also pointed towards the potentially harmful effects on the “relevant student’s mental health”, claiming they were “distressed throughout the hearing” and that de-identification would “reduce media attention” and “make it more likely that the relevant student would never be identified by the media or her peers”.
The University replied that “the Respondent is in no position to make submissions on her behalf and to attempt to use her for his own benefit” and, furthermore, is “very concerned by the Respondent deploying the student’s purported mental health to assist his argument”. Asbury supported this sentiment, stating “it is not appropriate for the Respondent to make submissions purporting to advance the interests of witnesses who gave evidence against him, particularly where the submission also advances his own interests”.
Asbury accepted that, if publication without de-identification could “seriously endanger the health and welfare of the relevant students, or cause them distress”, this would constitute a “basis to grant the application to vary the confidentiality order”. However, she found “no evidence of any such effects on the students”, highlighting that “it is not uncommon for persons giving evidence in unfair dismissal proceedings, which are adversarial in nature, to be distressed”.
ANU claimed there would be difficulties for all parties involved to “address situations that might arise out of gossip or innuendo if no explanation can be given about the Respondent’s re-engagement” and that, should Morrison be reinstated to his previous role, the university would need to be able to explain the outcome of and reasons for the decision.
The submission also suggested Morrison’s primary reason for seeking the variation “appears to be the potential for embarrassment, distress, or damage to his reputation” which “will not usually be a sufficient basis by itself for the making of confidentiality orders”. Asbury supported this, and further stated that the publication of findings and decisions will “usually appropriately resolve concerns” either by “vindicating the position of the persons alleged to be perpetrators” and deterring unfounded allegations; or, if allegations are substantiated, by “publicly identifying perpetrators”, leading to a similar “deterrent effect that is in the public interest”.
ANU pointed out that “the facts & matters of the proceedings have “already been the subject of reporting in the press”, including “the names of the parties, and summaries of the conduct at issue”, and, therefore, there is “no basis for a further order keeping the names of the parties confidential”. With this in mind, Observer contacted Morrison regarding his reasoning for seeking the confidentiality order. Morrison responded, “I wanted to be sure that whatever the commission decided regarding confidentiality, I would be able to show relevant people the decision. I requested de-identification as a middle ground.”
Asbury ultimately agreed with the university’s submission, noting that, during the initial hearing, “neither party sought confidentiality orders other than those relating to the students who gave evidence in the proceedings”. Consequently, Asbury refused Morrison’s application to amend the confidentiality order.
Morrison told Observer, “I am content with that outcome”.
ANUSA and the Women’s Department can offer support to students affected by these and other issues including pastoral care support, advice and advocacy relating to internal procedures and remedies within the ANU and in the wider community, legal advice, financial support, and support in accessing academic accommodations.
Daruwalla encouraged anyone with concerns “regarding issues similar to this or otherwise” to contact the Women’s department at [email protected], affirming that “all situations will be treated with respect and confidentiality.”
Support is available:
Canberra Rape Crisis Center 02 6247 2525 (7am–11pm) or 131 444 (after hours)
1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732
Domestic Violence Crisis Service
Lifeline 13 11 14
ANU Counselling [email protected]
ANU Student Wellbeing [email protected]
ANUSA Women’s Officer [email protected]
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