A whistleblower complaint laying bare the all out war waged by critics of dumped Sydney Conservatorium of Music dean Kim Walker has been referred to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
The 124-page document lodged by former conservatorium professor and Fulbright-winning flutist Alexa Still — obtained by Crikey — contains a treasure trove of abusive emails exposing the bitchy internecine wrangling that consumed the institution during Walker’s eight-year reign.
Walker’s term, envisaged to stretch to 2015, concluded in December following a decision last May by Sydney University vice-chancellor Michael Spence not to renew the controversial American bassoonist’s contract.
In a letter sent to ICAC executive director Sharon Loder, Still says “the decision of the university follows a concerted and vindictive campaign against Professor Walker by a few dissident staff, which began even before her arrival to take up the position.
“That campaign has effectively been aided by university management by the way in which it has handled all of these matters. Worse, it has shielded those staff and covered up their behaviour.”
The letter alleges several breaches of the corrupt conduct provisions of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988, involving official misconduct and breaches of trust. It claims the evidence presents “reasonable grounds” for the sacking of the University employees central to the putsch.
Thirteen voluminous attachments are provided, that according to the letter, demonstrate “a clear web of complicity involving a small number of staff in the conservatorium” to eject Walker from her corner office.
During her term, Walker says she was subjected to seven separate probes initiated by her internal rivals and media critics that cost the university more than half-a-million dollars to investigate.
Walker, whose prominent supporters include former NSW premier Bob Carr and NSW Governor Marie Bashir, was appointed as head of the so-called “Con” in 2004 from the University of Indiana but quickly encountered brutal resistance from veterans who levelled eye-watering plagiarism allegations against her and leaked stories to the media for maximum impact.
Many of the claims and counterclaims are set to be tested in the NSW Supreme Court where Walker is suing her ex-employer for millions in lost wages, arguing that it failed to insulate her against years of harassment. Walker’s statement of claim hinges on the institution’s failure to stop the rot of complaints against her “… and prevent them complaining baselessly” against her. A directions hearing in the blockbuster case is set down for March 12.
The complaint from Still — who has taken temporary leave from the Con to serve as an Associate Professor of Flute at the prestigious Oberlin conservatory in Ohio — contains numerous several excoriating emails naming current and former staff members.
One letter, dated September 25, 2007 — sent by Walker to then-university vice-chancellor Gavin Brown — examines the conduct of associate professor Peter McCallum and his wife, Stephanie McCallum, at a meeting of the college board in which plagiarism allegations were aired. Complaints about that incident were also made by other staff, who say they weren’t sufficiently dealt with by university management.
“[Peter McCallum’s] manner was loud, aggressive and appeared to be full of rage,” Walker wrote. “He was standing and waving his arms while repeating the word ‘plagiarism’ and stating that plagiarism is ‘on the agenda’ for (that day’s) discussion. He then thrust the document at colleagues and said ‘how can we expect students to maintain standards, while the dean does this’ …”
Walker raises questions about the McCallum’s “behaviour in either inviting or tolerating the presence of members of the Press at a closed faculty meeting…”
Walker contends in her letter that the attendant faculty manager at the meeting became aware of a stranger sitting in the back of the hall, later identified as a member of the press. In the letter, Walker identifies the journalist as Ms Harriet Alexander, the reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald who “wrote an article on the investigation shortly after my suspension in July 2007.”
Walker writes,”I did not ask these journalists to be present at this meeting and I did not authorize their presence at any time. As Associate Professor McCallum and his few sympathizers were the only people present who knew in advance he was going to make a public attack on me, I believe there are reasonable grounds for concluding that the press were present at the invitation or with the tolerance of Associate Professor McCallum and/or Dr Stephanie McCallum. My suspicions in this regard have been heightened by subsequent questions asked of me by Ms Alexander of The Sydney Morning Herald.”
Peter McCallum, a Beethoven expert who did not respond to Crikey‘s queries, is also the Herald‘s music critic. Crikey also sought comment from Stephanie McCallum but she did not respond.
In the days before the meeting, a report examining the plagiarism allegations had been sent to the university by lawyer Anthony Britt that largely exonerated Walker.
In her detailed response to the initial allegations in the “Britt Report”, Walker tells how she was suspended on plagiarism allegations following a meeting with the university provost, and, according to her response, suffered the indignity of being frogmarched from her office by security.
“The decision to suspend and bring about public embarrassment for myself, the Conservatorium of Music and the University of Sydney has brought forward international and national embarrassment, far worse than if I had committed the allegations in whole … In fact, the manner in which the matter has been handled has exposed the university both as a leading academic institution and employer, to both national and international scandal and ridicule.”
Others emails level formal allegations of professional misconduct — dismissed by the university — against Peter McCallum and another staff member. In one letter, Walker writes to external human resources outfit urging McCallum to be redeployed elsewhere in the university.
The ICAC complaint also contains Walker’s response to subsequent review on the Con’s staffing relationships conducted by Roger Gyles, QC, following the ascension of new vice-chancellor Michael Spence in 2008.
Walker asserts that Gyles’ report — which has never been released publicly — contains blunt criticisms of university management. Gyles told the conservatory to back or sack Walker, given the lack of confidence among the Con’s circle of senior staff. However, Walker says that after the university kept her on, it failed to insulate her from further attacks.
A former senior Con staffer backed that account, telling Crikey that professor Walker was “treated differently” than any other employee might have in the same situation.
“A lot of the problems confronted her because of the manner in which the university handled things … it seemed incapable of actually closing matters down. Instead of telling serial complainants to bugger off, they always left it open.”
Crikey understands that dissent within the Con started to grow when professor Walker began asking questions about the direction of investment decisions attached to the Henderson bequest, a $16 million fund left to the Con by pastoralist George Wallace Henderson, who died in 1991. Henderson’s niece, Mary Turner, the executor of the bequest, is one of Walker’s most loyal supporters and in 2008 helped establish a legal fighting fund to defend her charge.
Walker remains a popular figure in the upper echelons of the Sydney classical music scene. In December, Bob Carr penned a tribute to Walker’s stint in a donor publication entitled Thanks … for the music. It included a heartfelt paean to the Walker’s guillotined period in charge:
“Many believe Kim’s tenure should have culminated in the centenary in 2015. Kim’s dream was to raise $101 million to match the 101 new pieces of music that would have been commissioned by that time.”
Meanwhile, the situation inside the 650-employee Con remains poisonous. In December anonymous threats against Walker were referred by the university to NSW Police.
When approached by Crikey, a ICAC spokesperson cited its standing policy to neither to confirm nor deny progress on the complaint. A Sydney University spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment on matters currently before the corruption-fighting body.
The conservatorium’s new dean, professor Karl Kramer — an American-born tuba player from the University of Illinois — is set to start in April.