University of Adelaide. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Scandals keep coming hard and fast in the university sector: the University of Adelaide is now being investigated for improper conduct and maladministration by its vice-chancellor — and how the university dealt with the allegations.

Executives from the University of Adelaide will today meet with representatives of the Adelaide University Union to discuss an investigation by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC).

ICAC investigation announced

In a rare announcement, South Australia’s ICAC Bruce Lander QC yesterday confirmed an investigation was underway. 

“I have commenced an investigation in respect of allegations of improper conduct by the vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide. I am also investigating the manner in which the university dealt with those allegations … My investigation is in respect of potential issues of serious or systemic misconduct and maladministration, not corruption,” he wrote.  

The appropriateness of a personal relationship between vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen and another staff member, and whether that impinged on the execution of his duties, is reported to be behind the investigation.

As required by law, the investigation will be held in secret.

The announcement comes just days after Rathjen took an indefinite leave of absence from the university. Chancellor Kevin Scarce resigned less than 24 hours prior with immediate effect. Staff have been warned they face legal consequences if they discuss the departure of the two top leaders. 

In March, the ICAC launched a landmark “integrity” survey into the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of SA, asking staff from each university to share their “thoughts, feelings and experiences” on potential corruption, misconduct, or maladministration in the anonymous survey. The result is due in August.

It’s unknown whether this survey prompted the investigation into Rathjen.

In an email to staff and students, deputy chancellor Catherine Branson wrote: “While it is natural for us to want to know more about what is happening, we need to remember that this is a matter for the ICAC. As you will know, the law places restraints on what can be said about an ICAC investigation. This is why the university is not able to comment further.” 

High salaries and low bottom lines

The University of Adelaide has insisted Rathjen and Scarce’s departures had nothing to do with the university’s dire financial situation. The facility is facing a budget shortfall of $100 million.

Despite the budget problems, its executives are well paid — Rathjen was on a salary of $1.05 million in 2018.

In 2018, University of Adelaide had the lowest revenue from continuing operations in the G8, the group of eight leading Australian universities.

The university cried poor from the effects of COVID-19: in 2018, 42% of its total student revenue came from international students, who make up a third of all enrolments.

But when it comes to the percentage of total revenue from international students, University of Adelaide’s problems pale in comparison to the G8: it had the third-lowest percentage of 25%, well short of the 35% boasted by Sydney and Melbourne universities (but still enough to create a huge budget headache).

It’s bad news for the state’s economy too: the university is one of the biggest employers in the state, with 3879 full-time equivalent staff in 2018.

In 2018 the University of Adelaide and University of SA entered merger talks under Rathjen and Scarce — though the marriage was abandoned after the two universities couldn’t agree which university would fill the vice-chancellor role at the merged institution.

Given the new leadership vacancies, the merger may now have a second chance.

High-flying academic

Rathjen was born in Cambridge, England. He graduated from both the University of Adelaide and Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. A scientist who serves on the boards of the Australian Science Media Centre and Universities Australia, he cut his teeth as a biochemist at the University of Adelaide, before being appointed foundation executive dean of the Faculty of Sciences in 2002.

By 2006 he had moved on to the University of Melbourne as dean of the science faculty, then became dean of the graduate school of science, and deputy vice-chancellor of research. 

By 2011 he was vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania on a salary of between $410,00 and $419,000. By the time he left in 2017, his pay had more than doubled to between $975,000 and $989,000.

He also ran up substantial travel bills. Documents leaked to the ABC showed that Rathjen and his wife travelled to North Carolina, New York and Paris, taking economy, business and first-class flights between September and early October 2016. The bills included three nights at the Sofitel in New York costing the university more than $1100 a night. The trip’s cost came to more than $37,000. The same year the couple spent Christmas and New Year in Cancun, Mexico. Again, the $15,000 trip was charged to the university.

Multiple university sources say that business class travel and five-star hotel accommodation is standard for vice-chancellors and senior university staff across the sector.

The ICAC investigation is the latest blow for the university struggling with the effects of coronavirus and an increasingly bad bottom line.

Student representative council president Oscar Ong told Crikey the union hoped the university would be able to come out the other side of the shortfall in finances. “We don’t think the leadership changes will change anything,” he said. 

“At the moment, we want to ensure student welfare is taken care of during COVID-19.”