UL rejects calls for independent inquiry into misconduct allegations
Claims relate to staff concerns over alleged financial irregularities or HR practices
Health Education Authority said University of Limerick was suffering considerable reputational damage and would continue to do so while the allegations remained unresolved
University of Limerick has rejected calls by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to establish an independent inquiry into more than a dozen allegations of misconduct at the college.
Internal correspondence reveals simmering tension over the handling of claims that the authority insists have the potential to damage the reputation of the wider higher education sector.
The allegations broadly relate to the treatment of staff or former employees who raised concerns over alleged financial irregularities or human resources practices.
Last May, the HEA told the university it was aware of 13 allegations in which there was a common theme of dissatisfaction with personnel management at the university.
ObligationThe authority’s then chief executive Tom Boland said the authority was obliged to treat all allegations of misconduct with the “greatest seriousness and respond to them fully”.
“It is our firm conclusion that the university is suffering considerable reputational damage and will continue to do so while these allegations remain unresolved,” he wrote.
While Mr Boland acknowledged the university’s efforts to resolve the allegations, he said ongoing negative commentary was creating a situation that was “unfair, and potentially damaging, to the students and staff of the university. It cannot be allowed to continue.”
While the authority did not have the power to conduct an inquiry into alleged misconduct, it said a process was needed to allow the “untenable situation to be dealt with comprehensively and conclusively”.
The authority proposed that the university establish an independent review of the allegations and that the college drop a legal action against the Limerick Leader newspaper relating to coverage of the allegations.
In response, Mr Justice John Murray, the former chief justice who is chancellor of the university, has criticised the authority and suggested it was bowing to political pressure.
Dealt withOf the 13 allegations, Mr Justice Murray said the authority had not passed on details of seven of them.
Out of the remaining six allegations, four had been dealt with and two were connected to a pending disciplinary process that had been delayed on foot of an earlier inquiry at the behest of the HEA.
He said the university had “robust and fair” processes for dealing with complaints and disciplinary matters. It had also strengthened these processes following an independent review of three of the allegations, known as the Mazars report.
He said he hoped that as a statutory body, the authority would exercise its functions independently and without “undue regarding to political lobbying.” Mr Justice Murray added: “. . . I find the motivation for a review of getting the disciplinary processes out of the ‘political realm’ disturbing, pressure or no pressure.”
ResponsibilityHe said the handling of these matters was, in the first instance, one for the executive of the university. While the authority had responsibility for overall governance in higher education, he said its statute required it to respect the autonomy of such institutions.
“In this matter, the lines between the statutory functions of the HEA and the statutory function and autonomy of higher education institutions seem to have become somewhat blurred.”
He also said the HEA had chosen to mention the statutory power of the Minister for Education to appoint a special investigator – or “visitor” – to the university. Mr Justice Murray said there was nothing in the specified criteria under the legislation to suggest there were any grounds for raising such an issue.
He said he trusted the HEA would see its way to engaging further with the university so that it could jointly discuss any positive means of improving processes where this was “desirable and falls within the remit of the HEA”,