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Sexual Harassment, Secrets, Lawyers, Demotions: Another Day at AUT

By Jack Pirie

By now we should know that AUT doesn’t go unnoticed in the media world. And honestly why should it? AUT, again has been spotlighted in the media. This time by the allegations of sexual harassment by a senior staff member Max Abbott, who formerly held the title of Dean of the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences.

Abbott has since resigned his role and title of Dean, however, will remain a part of the staff at AUT as a professor. The allegations come from a complaint filled in August 2019 by Dr. Marisa Paterson, a scholar at the Australian National University. The allegations against Abbott are prolonged and persistent stalking, sexual and physical harassment, and bullying by Abbott spanning a two-year period. Dr. Paterson said her career was threatened by Abbott when she cut off contact with him after exchanging texts for over two and a half years. Many staff members have come forward to highlight the toxic harassment heavily ingrained in AUT culture. A culture they say has been ongoing for decades. For years AUT has fostered an environment where both students and staff members are too afraid to speak up, in fear of the repercussion that may follow. Like Dr. Paterson, they are fearful of being either targeted or potentially jeopardising their future career.

A statement by Vice Chancellor, Derek McCormack in a staff email sent on June 10th, 2020 announced that AUT was launching an ‘independent review’ of AUT “policies, systems and practices with a focus on sexual harassment.” However, questions have been raised as to why a review is only being pursued now. The Vice Chancellor says that allegations from the media of AUT having not investigated the matter instantly “is not true.” The Vice Chancellor says that “a formal investigation was immediately undertaken” after the complaint was received. However, there has been no evidence or transparency on what this investigation looked like. AUT’s toxic harassment culture has been an open secret for decades. Stuff reported that after consulting with 20 current and former AUT staff members, they found an active ‘whisper network’, where new employees are often warned to steer clear of predatory men. These staff members also spoke of a ‘boys club’ where high ranking male staff are allowed to act as they like without consequence, consequence that is then threatened on those who speak out. It is concerning that it has taken AUT so long to finally launch an independent review.

The major issue surrounding these allegations is that Abbott will remain at the University as a professor who will still be interacting with staff and students. Both staff and students have reached out to Debate explaining their discomfort of Abbott staying on at the University. One staff member said, “staff are shocked and disappointed in both Mr. Abbott and the University. We have tremendously privileged positions as lecturers and staff members” and for one of their own to be accused of abusing their position is a devastating blow to staff moral and the image of AUT as a whole. The staff member said they were “disappointed in the University for not taking a firmer line of action” against Abbott.

If AUT is committed to a ‘zero tolerance’ system when it comes to any kind of harassment, shouldn’t the University take a sterner course of action against Abbott? Perhaps a more consequential action than just a demotion from his previous title. Some students believe that Abbott should be stood down on full pay from all his roles at AUT until a comprehensive investigation is concluded, and subsequent actions are taken. It seems odd that AUT hasn’t introduced this measure given that this is standard procedure in many NZ organisations. Preemptive measures like these are implemented to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all parties, both the accused and those around them.

It is obvious to anyone following the Max Abott allegations that AUT is trying to steer clear of jeopardising the name of one of their most esteemed lecturers. This has resulted in AUT’s failure to keep Abbott accountable for his actions and a complete lack of communication to students. In an official statement AUT says they’re committed to their ‘zero tolerance’ of sexual harassment, as “recent events have raised concerns for some.” AUT’s aged old harassment culture is far from being ‘recent,’ and AUT’s commitment to taking action only as a last resort is now clearer than ever. The lack of communication to students, while not surprising, is incredibly concerning. Students have come forward to Debate vocalizing their concern about Abott remaining as a lecturer at AUT. His continued engagement with students’ places many in vulnerable positions.

The review is to be conducted by an ‘external legal expert’ yet to be disclosed. The process of the review is also yet to be disclosed. The Vice Chancellor says, “I believe our processes and practices in this area are of a good standard” however, we must be “committed to improving them.”

What we want as students is transparency. As students we are the largest stakeholder at AUT, and we need to be consistently kept in the loop in regard to decisions that directly impact us. With the exception of a rather vague blackboard post, AUT has issued very limited information to students. Additionally, on this blackboard post there was no mention of Abbott at all. What we do know is that students and staff will be able to contribute to the review to some capacity in future, however we do not know what this will look like as of yet. An official letter addressed to AUT by AUTSA also calls for a transparent review to the student body, to ensure that our recommendations are implemented, to the benefit of the AUT community. We need to know that we are both protected and seen, and that our wellbeing is at the forefront of every decision being made. 2020 has been a lot of things, one thing it will be remembered for among everything else is the year AUT’s shrouded curtain of miscommunication and secrecy was finally revealed for all to see.


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