Unwise to say report vindicates UL’s name

The Thorn report makes 36 findings on issues at UL, but it will take another review in a few years to see if they’ve been tackled, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray.

The president of University of Limerick, Des Fitzgerald, says the Thorn report has drawn a line under a number of issues raised in the media and in the Oireachtas over the past year and more.

That might be the case if issues examined by Richard Thorn were deemed to have improved, gone away, and no longer a problem.

While we can not say that this is not the case, it will take another independent external review in a few years’ time to determine if that is the case.

All we have for now are assurances that measures are in place to restore confidence in the governance and personnel procedures and practices at the university, where he took over from Don Barry as president last May.

The most we can tell people, apart from those promises, are what Richard Thorn has set out in his extensive report.

His brief from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in May, at Education Minister Richard Bruton’s request, appeared quite broad.

It allowed him to hear complaints or concerns from UL staff and others — he received 28 submissions.

He met 34 people as part of his review, but a number of people who he wished or planned to speak to did not attend meetings.

The ex-president of Institute of Technology Sligo made 36 findings and 10 recommendations in his report, parts of which were redacted as some matters are ‘subjudice’. One case is believed to be in reference to severance payments and issues arising from them.

Comprehensive as the Thorn investigation has been, particularly in the narrow timeframe he was given, many crucial matters raised over recent months — and in particular in the RTÉ Investigates programme last May — have been dealt with internally by UL’s own auditors Deloitte in a report which has yet to be — if it ever will be — published.

Those issues deal with, for example, apparent conflicts of interest by at least one governing authority member, procurement issues, and how they were handled.

They were not examined or reported on by Mr Thorn, whose recommendations UL has been asked to act on without delay and to provide a full formal response to the HEA by Friday,
November 24.

Mr Fitzgerald issued a statement soon after publication of the Thorn report, stating that what concerns him most is what it says about how UL treated some of its people in the past.

“Since I arrived at UL in May, I have emphasised our duty of care as an employer. This report casts light on occasions in the past where UL fell short of this standard,” he said.

“I am heartened to see the report draw a line under a number of other issues that have been raised by both local and national media and subsequently scrutinised by the [Dáil] public accounts committee (PAC).”

Mr Fitzgerald is promising a swift response to the report, and said he is encouraged that issues that were unresolved for “far too long” have now been thoroughly examined, and he hopes the report further helps to bring a positive resolution to these matters.

The report, in fact, highlights the apparent extremes of how people were treated at UL.

For example, two senior staff were paid severances of over €320,000 each in 2012 and the PAC heard last March that they were rehired the same year, going on to work at UL for three years on a consultancy basis.

The payments did not have the necessary Department of Education approval, breached the HSE policy guidelines UL said it was following, and were explained as owing to performance issues when they came to light during a broader examination of public service severances by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2015.

This is known to be disputed by both men concerned because they told the RTÉ Investigates programme as much.

When explaining the issues to the department after revelations in the PAC, UL’s story had changed to say it was necessary because of restructuring in a university department, states the Thorn report.

UL’s dealing with these matters has been described, in what seems rather an understatement, as a “confusing narrative” that “reflects poor communication between members of the senior management in responding to external stakeholders on this important matter”.

The matter will now be the subject of a further investigation by Mr Thorn, with possible action following by the HEA. Asked for an explanation of the misleading information, UL did not do so, but it told the Irish Examiner last night that its “focus is now on resolving the issues highlighted in the report and responding to the HEA”.

These payments were two of eight severances or ‘compromises’ agreed or offered to eight people from 2007 to 2015 totalling €1.7m, most without approval of the governing authority or undeclared in university accounts.

Not so well treated, suggests the report, was an academic whose case it says was treated unduly severely by moving to a gross misconduct hearing over complaints by students. The man’s contract was subsequently terminated.

He had acknowledged the inappropriateness of his remarks about the Fifty Shades of Grey books and a Winston Churchill quote about the length of a women’s skirt, which were deemed by an investigator to have been mild and moderate. The investigation received no evidence of inappropriate touching and feeling that had also been the subject of student complaints.

However, yesterday’s report said Mr Barry’s letter to the PAC last April did not properly describe the case. It gave an impression that the person who was paid a €150,000 compromise payment had lost their job for matters other than those in the investigation findings.

Another long-running issue dealt with by Mr Thorn related to whistle-blowers at UL, with claims of abuses of expenses claims.

Two women employed in the finance department have been suspended since 2015 over the finding of an external investigation that their complaint against a colleague was unfounded and made maliciously.

Mr Thorn found it was unlikely that the conflicts and complaints, by and about them and colleagues in the accounts payable office, arose — as they claim — because of their attempts to draw attention to what they believed were financial wrongdoings.

“It is more likely that an unfortunate combination of circumstances and personalities combined to create a hostile working environment,” states the report.

The two women issued a statement through their solicitor yesterday, saying they would need sufficient time to examine the report in detail and consider its findings.

“It’s been a very traumatic and difficult time for both of our clients over the last number of years. We are also conscious so as not to prejudice our clients’ legal positions due to current proceedings instigated against UL, and will refrain from any further comment until it is time to do so,” read the statement on behalf of ‘B’ and ‘C’.

Their claims about expenses issues and the university’s handling of them, formed a central part of a prior report by consultants Mazars for UL, which concluded that their concerns and those of another whistleblower were dealt with properly.

It found many issues were rightly highlighted by staff in the finance department but that no payments were made that should not have been.

Also in 2015, the two women made protected disclosures to the HEA about concerns over the handling of expense claims, and about their treatment by the university since raising those concerns internally in 2014.

Disciplinary proceedings were initiated against them regarding their complaint that a colleague threatened them at a Christmas party in 2014.

An external investigation found the complaint was made maliciously, and their appeal of that finding was unsuccessful.

The disciplinary proceedings are on hold until finalisation of their case against UL taken to the Workplace Relations Commission, in which they allege their health and safety was endangered, and suspension, in relation to a protected disclosure made to UL in 2014.

The review noted that the decisions in the matters are now the subject of an appeal to the Labour Court.

In his report, Mr Thorn outlines that the complaint by B and C arose from a staff party at Limerick’s Strand Hotel the week before Christmas 2014.

They also made a complaint to gardaí the next morning but the outcome of their investigation is unclear.

He said the report of the external investigation for UL, which has led to their continuing suspension, made clear that alcohol was consumed at the event and that circumstances led to interpersonal difficulties going on since late 2013 coming to the fore.

“Considered in isolation, and given the highly emotive circumstances surrounding the event, Persons B and C were unwise to pursue a complaint with the possibility that a finding such as has been made could have been the outcome,” he wrote.

The report found that many of the concerns raised with Mr Thorn were already being dealt with correctly, or did not warrant investigation, and so it may well be appropriate to ‘draw a line’ under them.

But it would be unwise to suggest, much as Mr Fitzgerald or Mr Bruton might like, that UL’s reputation is entirely vindicated or restored.

Only time, and the evidence of reform implemented rather than initiated, may do that.


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