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Pretext for Firing a Dissenter
Australian court threatens $2 million fine for university after concluding that it used finances as excuse to dismiss a professor for complaining about bullying tactics by her supervisor.
The Federal Court of Australia has ordered Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to reinstate a professor who had been unfairly dismissed after complaining about alleged bullying and intimidation by her supervisor.
It found that Judith Bessant, a sociology and youth studies professor, had been "vindicated" and could be entitled to about $2 million in compensation if she weren't reinstated. RMIT has also been fined $37,000, payable to the National Tertiary Education Union that had joined Professor Bessant in the court action.
Justice Peter Gray rejected evidence from RMIT's vice chancellor, Margaret Gardner, that Bessant had been dismissed for financial reasons, finding that Gardner had failed to be "exhaustive" in her evidence.
Gray said that Gardner had been well-aware of the bullying allegations against Bessant's supervisor, David Hayward, but had failed to investigate whether Hayward was seeking to use financial justifications as a pretext to simply getting rid of Bessant for reasons of his own.
Despite the university's own redundancy review committee previously finding that Bessant's dismissal had been unfair, Gray said that Gardner had been "committed" to making Bessant redundant.
"Professor Gardner's approach was not that of the impartial decision-maker," Gray said in his judgment.
Noting that Gardner had shown no contrition, Gray said "the need for specific deterrence was quite high."
"In effect, RMIT made use of its redundancy processes to rid itself of an employee, who was considered to be troublesome, at least partly because she was prepared to exercise her workplace rights by making complaints about the behavior of her immediate supervisor. The process was conducted unfairly, with an attempt to narrow the focus of consideration to a financial situation which was alleged to exist, but not established by a rigorous process and not in accordance with reality," Gray wrote.
Bessant said she was relieved by the judgment, which comes just over a year after she was dismissed. She said she was happy to return to RMIT. "I'd hope that everyone one can put this behind them and focus on teaching students, doing research and contributing to the community," Bessant said.
In a statement RMIT said it was reviewing the judgment and will consider an appeal.
The education union said the judgment was a warning to all employers not to use "sham redundancies" to unfairly fire people.
"Although this case involved RMIT, the approach taken by the university to getting rid of someone who is prepared to speak out will be all too familiar to university staff across Australia," said NTEU's Victorian secretary, Colin Long.
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