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AUT management unable to act on past bullying accusations, says senior leadership

By Justin Wong

Student News Reporter

The senior leadership team at AUT said some recommendations from a university-wide review on bullying are being implemented, but it cannot look into past allegations and did not say whether it will probe harassment within students.

This comes during an online Q&A session last week between staff, Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Kathryn McPherson discussing the findings of Kate Davenport QC’s external review, which was launched last June after former academic Dr Marisa Paterson alleged then-Pro Vice Chancellor Max Abbott of sexual stalking and harassment.

Released in early February, Davenport said that out of almost 400 people interviewed, 273 claimed that they had been the subject of bullying.

There were also sexual harassment accusations against 8 staff members that had since left the university.

Davenport concluded that while AUT does not have an ongoing problem with sexual harassment, the university has a problem with bullying, and its processes to resolve and handle complaints were inadequate, as staff complaints were often overlooked or not properly addressed.

She recommended that AUT should establish standalone policies on sexual harassment explicitly stating that any action of that kind will not be tolerated. The report also said the university should set up a new three-tiered procedure and an independent body to handle complaints, as well as undertaking intensive training for everyone on harassment and people management.

After the report was released, McCormack apologised to those subjected to bullying and harassment at the university.

In the Q&A session, he said AUT is now implementing all 52 of the review’s recommendations, starting with senior leadership taking bullying and harassment training from external advisor Shayne Mathieson, while the Academic Board has decided to develop a Code of Conduct for research supervisors.

But McPherson said the university is unable to identify and further investigate the schools and departments that are most rife with inappropriate behaviour or hold past perpetrators to account, as the identities of those participated or accused are confidential from the leadership.

"The report was confidential so in terms of holding individuals accountable for everything, Kate [Davenport QC] couldn’t investigate all the issues she heard about.”

"In terms of accountability, my sense is that the report kind of speaks for itself about the job at hand and the issues that need to be dealt with and lays the responsibility for doing that and driving that to the leadership.”

McCormack said the review was set up to be confidential to ensure that those who spoke to the reviewer could “do so without any fear of unreasonable consequences” and make the process more open.

Both McCormack and McPherson also denied allegations that senior management knew the names of people accused of bullying and harassment and told Davenport to remove them from the final report, with McPherson claiming that no such list exists.

"There was never any such list or report given to me.”

“In fact, the QC did not provide any kind of private list of who was alleged to be bullied either.”

“We’re really keen that if people did talk to the reviewer about the situation that they were in, that we give them an avenue for support so that it can be surfaced."

McCormack said there was a “question of fairness” on naming those who were alleged of bullying or harassment to the reviewer because it did not give them “a proper opportunity to respond”.

“It is really for fairness and lack of fear that we made this commitment, but it does mean that if you went to the reviewer with a problem, we won’t know that.”

“We would like you to have an opportunity to tell someone who is independent, confidential, and impartial, but who can initiate some action with the university around your concern.”

Despite only 23 people interviewed identifying as students, Davenport said she found “minimal evidence” of bullying amongst students, but recommended all students should take compulsory consent training to “assist in minimising sexual harassment and consent issues between students”.

However, McCormack did not answer if the university is going to investigate bullying amongst the student community, but said he had been talking to AUTSA about the issue.

An AUTSA spokesperson says the report’s conclusion does not show what students were going through but did not say what has been discussed with the university on bullying within the student community, or whether the association wants an inquiry on the topic.

“This conclusion conflicts with the lived experience of many of our students, and with the anecdotal evidence that has come to light since the first media reports of these behaviours.

“Discussion has already started between AUTSA and AUT on the potential to work together to understand the students’ lived experience.”

It also says the proposed compulsory consent training would benefit from being guided by student input, and its success depend “greatly” on the nature and implementation.

The Q&A session was originally scheduled in mid-February at different AUT campuses in person but was postponed twice due to Auckland’s moves to Covid-19 alert level 3.


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