University of Adelaide. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

How far should the fallout go once a big organisation is faced with a sexual harassment reckoning? 

AMP and the University of Adelaide believe there is a cut off point — that you can only have so many fall guys (or girls). Now there’s a lingering question over the university’s stance, given that one of its fall guys has been replaced by someone who encouraged him to go, and who also had a role in overseeing the handling of misconduct allegations. 

This week the university has had to defend itself against claims its new chancellor Catherine Branson had a conflict of interest because she suggested her predecessor Kevin Scarce quit over the sexual harassment case involving former vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen.

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Rathjen resigned just weeks before independent commissioner against corruption Bruce Lander found he had committed “serious misconduct” by groping two women staff during a work trip in April 2019.

Branson had expressed an interest in Scarce’s job before telling him to resign. But the University defended Branson on Tuesday, telling The Australian that she “did not have a conflict of interest, and any perception of this is a misunderstanding of the circumstances”.

But it raises the question — did the shake-up really clear the decks for a more ambitious leader? 

In his statement, Lander criticised Branson and the management team for asking Scarce to stand down. He also described an occasion where Branson met with Rathjen at her beach house, to discuss one of the harassment complaints, and whether, if she became chancellor, they could work together. 

Lander said he found the discussion “surprising having regard to the seriousness of the allegations”. But Branson claimed she did not have all the information about the incident at the time. 

Lander said it had been unnecessary for Branson to give Scarce a “fait accompli” by telling him to resign or be stood down. He said it was unnecessary that the chancellor be asked to step down in the first place.

“I do not think that the chancellor should have been put in the position in which he was put. I do not think my investigation could have embarrassed him or the university such that he needed to resign. However, he elected to put the university’s interests above his own by resigning.”

Similar questions have arisen in AMP’s case, at least in regards to where the buck stops. 

AMP director Debra Hazelton has replaced David Murrary in the wake of sexual harassment complaints against senior executive Boe Pahari. Murray resigned over the scandal along with director John Fraser after it emerged the board had signed off on Pahari’s promotion even after he had had his bonus cut over the harassment claims. 

But Hazelton was also on the board when it voted unanimously to promote Pahari. This has triggered concerns that her appointment does nothing to create a cultural change at the top of the organisation.

CEO Francesco De Ferrari also remains in his position, and Pahari remains employed but in a demoted role. 

As both cases demonstrate, the fallout from sexual harassment scandals is long and continues even after inquiries into the harassment end. There is growing pressure on organisations to hold not only perpetrators of sexual harassment to account but those who may have been aware of complaints and may have minimised them or covered them up. 

With the University of Tasmania now revealing it has appointed a barrister to investigate allegations against Rathjen, the scandal is not going away.

Next week in Crikey: How Australia fails women on sexual harassment — and how it can change

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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