The recent decision in the NCAT Tribunal in Sydney concerning my ongoing dispute with UNSW has attracted some media attention. The University has been found to be in breach of section 17 of the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (PPIP) (1998). That is just the tip of the iceberg, though. It is a long story with a considerable amount of background…and it is far from over….
You can read more here:
SOME BACKGROUND TO MY LEGAL STRUGGLE WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
The following is an account of my experiences as a PhD postgraduate research student at UNSW, and the subsequent discontinuation of my candidature under very peculiar circumstances. This is a description of how that discontinuation unfolded, and continues to reverberate on campus and beyond. It is a story of vicious accusations, negligence, and maladministration that I believe will be all too familiar to those in the Australian legal community — especially those practitioners who have dealt recently with matters involving postgraduate students at odds with their universities.
I enrolled in the School of the Arts and Media (SAM) at the University of New South Wales to complete a PhD in the field of English literature. I did so after accepting the University’s Postgraduate Research Scholarship (UIPA). Three years later, amid widespread budget and staff cuts, my candidature at UNSW was discontinued, at a time when it had apparently become very inconvenient for the University to follow through on their obligations to supervise my doctoral research.
After my acceptance, I would learn that my scholarship offer was an occasion of considerable resentment between the School of the Arts and Media (SAM) and the University’s admissions committee. It seems I was given a lower admissions priority by the School, and yet was selected by the admissions committee over the school’s preferred applicant, inspiring resentment from the faculty and administration of SAM. Of course, I knew nothing about this at the time. I was told something much different by the University. For instance, my first head supervisor wrote —
I have read through your writing sample and find your ideas about the connections between writing in the period stretching from the Regency to the mid-nineteenth century very interesting and would be happy to supervise a topic in this area which I know so well.”
After a year of working with my first supervisor, I terminated her, citing negligence and an unacceptable attitude towards her supervisory duties. The Graduate Research School supported my decision. I seldom saw her during that first year, at one point having no contact whatsoever for three full months. Most notably, she was negligent in assisting me to prepare for my first-year confirmation hearing — the most important milestone of my candidature. For instance, she refused to meet with me before the completion of my final draft, despite multiple requests. It was on this basis, coupled with an unacceptable attitude, that I requested her termination as my supervisor at the Graduate Research School.
Much later, almost a full-year after I fired her, in a clearly malicious and retaliatory gesture, she would write reproachfully to SAM’s Head of School, encouraging the discontinuation of my candidature:
“I was approached by the school HDR Convenor….to supervise Trevor Jackson (TJ). I expressed strong reservations about the academic merit of his proposal and sample work. Despite these reservations, I was encouraged to supervise TJ. I was a new research only member of staff and did not want to appear unwilling to contribute so I agreed.”
The inconsistency between these two communications is noteworthy. During the year she was responsible for the supervision of my thesis, she never expressed any reservations about my research. The reason this is important is because I accepted UNSW’s offer with the understanding that the University would provide me with the necessary supervisory arrangements for the duration of my candidature. In reality, I was given a supervisor who apparently did not even like my work, saw me a total of five times the entire first year of my candidature, and failed to give much of any oversight to my confirmation application. After her dismissal, she behaved in what I considered to be a malicious and vindictive manner (see below).
Unfortunately, the problems with supervision did not stop when the Graduate Research School officially dismissed this individual. I was assigned a new supervisor. Under this second supervisor, my thesis topic was confirmed by a higher degree research committee, and I began to make significant progress. However, towards the end of the year I was working with this new supervisor, I noticed a rapid change in her behavior. She became preoccupied with documenting all interactions in a manner that made me feel like a paper-trail was constantly being created. I mentioned my concern to her about this, and it clearly made things much worse. She became hostile and defensive. She also became uncommunicative, making it impossible to confer with her on important issues pertaining to my second year progress hearing, another important milestone in my candidature.
Concerned about her conduct, and once again finding myself with very shaky supervision, I was left basically with no real supervisory contact. I had a “co-supervisor” but he clearly wanted nothing to do with my supervision. He was not an expert in my field and obviously did not want to be involved with my thesis in any substantial way.
One day, I was told by the Postgraduate Coordinator (PGC) that my supervisor had taken a leave of absence. Later, I would learn that she had reported a variety of medical conditions — all of which she had apparently identified me as being the sole cause of. It should be noted that at this time the University was experiencing severe budget cuts and many existing staff found their job descriptions altered considerably. (She had been assigned a very heavy teaching load, I would later discover).
Subsequently, she resigned, concluding a long career at the University. While I do not have the details, it is my belief that she was able to finance what amounted to an early retirement, aided, perhaps, by medical benefits and other financial compensation related to her sudden departure, for which I was conveniently blamed.
I learned about all of this in a bizarre way. I was summoned into a meeting with upper-management — Assistant Dean (research) Kristy Muir, as well as the Research Director of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Stephen Fortescue. The tone of the meeting was decidedly serious. I was not given an itinerary beforehand. In the meeting, I was confronted with an overwhelming barrage of character-destroying accusations:
- Persistent and badgering emails;
- Uninvited visits to staff offices;
- Presumptuous and over-stepping behaviour;
- Disrespectful and disputatious verbal responses when in discussion of work;
- Physical behaviour and body language which has created an experience of fear for staff;
- Intrusion on personal space and undue familiarity in meetings with academic staff.
They refused to tell me who said these things or what I had actually done to have inspired such a sullying and potentially career-destroying list of transgressions. The Dean and Director also refused to give me any details about when any of this alleged behavior occurred. They did not give me a single specific example of any of the conduct I was saddled with. Obviously, if they did, it would have given me a stance to defend myself, but they clearly were not interested in that.
I responded to these allegations after a subsequent formal complaint that was submitted by SAM’s Head of School for “serious non-academic misconduct”. The accusations contained a written statement by my first supervisor — the same person I had terminated a year before. It turns out that she had claimed that at some point during a meeting I had leaned forward in my chair and said “I can’t believe you don’t see this,” which she claimed created “an experience of fear”. (Recall that she made this claim a full year after I had terminated her).
The next accuser was the individual who was listed as my co-supervisor but whom I never met with formally. A considerably larger man than myself, he reported feeling “threatened” when I went in to his office one day and expressed some frustration about not having any supervision from my head supervisor for an upcoming milestone. He claimed I threw my hands up in the air in frustration, which made him feel “uncomfortable”. (I’m a New Yorker — we use our hands when we communicate).
Third in line was my head supervisor, who would soon resign. She claimed that I knocked on her office door when she did not want to answer it, and sent her an email that she said was “elaborately polite” but somehow constituted harassment.
All of these “statements of impact” were submitted to the University’s Student Conduct and Appeals Officer as evidence of “serious non-academic misconduct”. They were all written within a 48-hour period — basically the same day that the School of the Arts realized they were going to have a difficult time finding suitable supervision for me once my main supervisor left.
It was an absolutely horrible time in which I could have been conceivably expelled for “serious non-academic misconduct”. I will not describe those two weeks here, or their long-term impact. However, Two weeks later —
I was entirely exonerated from any wrongdoing by the University’s Student Conduct and Appeals Officer, after I submitted my own account of the circumstances.
The accusations were vicious, defamatory, retaliatory and absolutely baseless. While I felt very relieved to have successfully defended myself against them, I was also left, once again, with no supervision and the emotional residue of a very disturbing sequence of events.
As an international student, alone in a foreign country with very little in the way of a support network (besides my flatmates), I decided to take matters into my own hands. I approached the Dean and Vice-Chancellor Laura Poole-Warren with the suggestion that I find outside supervision to complete my thesis, yet remain enrolled at UNSW. Professor Poole-Warren assured me that it was indeed a possibility to complete my PhD under part-time external status, and readily gave her consent to this plan. She also emphasized quite plainly that she would assist me in finding a “candidature administrator”. She made it perfectly clear that any need for on-site supervision was a minor consideration, and that the most important element would be my ability to obtain qualified supervision outside of the University. As for the “candidature administrator” she suggested that this person could be just about anybody on staff, and made it sound more like a secretarial position than anything else. Later, she would concede this was “a poor choice of words” when she told me that “GRS can arrange for someone to handle the administrative role,” but has never denied making these representations.
And Here’s Where the Plot Thickens…
What I did not know at the time was that my prospects for finding any supervision at the University of New South Wales had already been destroyed by SAM’s Head of School and several others. The HOS had been angered when GRS terminated my first supervisor the year before, and was further incensed by my second supervisor’s unexpected resignation. In a bizarre twist, I would later learn that the HOS would suggest to others that supervision was unavailable to me in SAM due to a restriction of the University’s Health and Safety Policy!
The Head of School of the School of the Arts and Media (SAM) as well as the Deputy Head of School both made claims that my right to interact with people in the school of the arts has been prevented by the university’s OH&S policy. I sought clarification of this from the Student Conduct and Integrity officer, who has in turn sought clarification from the University’s Legal Counsel, and I remain confused and very disturbed by my inability to find any clear coherent information on this matter.
In a nutshell, as far as I can gather, the University’s Health and Safety policy has been used as a means to defame me and prevent me from obtaining supervision as a postgraduate research student. I can cite a wide range of documents regarding this outrage, however, two documents I have in my possession seem to encapsualte the problem . One is a letter written by the former DHOS of SAM. who states the following:
“Mr Jackson is not currently enrolled at UNSW and is not supervised by any member of SAM academic staff. I have also been informed that UNSW OH&S policy prevents further interaction between Mr Jackson and SAM staff. “
The obvious implication was that I was somehow officially deemed to be a “health and safety risk” to the community, as certified through some sort of formal process, and that there was consequently some sort of official decree made that “prevented” me from speaking to anybody at the school.
Asked later about this, the HOS provided a vague and conflicting account. In an email to a student complaints coordinator, he wrote:
“I have spoken with [the Deputy Head of School] and can confirm that the OH&S issue mentioned in her letter only relates to PhD supervision contact for SAM staff with Mr. Jackson.”
The University’s Health &Safety policy prevents me from supervision contact? What does that mean?
I felt like I was living in a Kafka novel. It was horrifying. What made it worse is that the University’s Legal Counsel could have easily dispelled this vicious lie by adhering to their own written policies, but chose not to.
….UNSW’s School of the Arts and Media had been denying me supervision under the pretext that it was prevented by the University’s “Health and Safety Policy”. The University knew it was not true, but still insisted that there was — and apparently still is — some restriction in place at the School of the Arts…
Because my candidature was discontinued as a result of not being able to obtain supervision in SAM, this is a very big problem. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about Australian laws involving health and safety. I was confused and intimidated. I thought there really might be some official restriction. It has taken me several years to figure out that this was an absolute fabrication, and that there was nothing preventing me from speaking to anybody. By saying that the health and safety policy prevented me from speaking to anybody was, as far as I am concerned, a case of malicious defamation.
I consider this matter ongoing as I have yet to receive an intelligible account from the University concerning it, causing an enormous amount of ongoing distress. For literally years, I have asked numerous senior staff about any restrictions upon me and have never received a straight answer. My efforts at clarification have reached the University’s legal department, the Student Conduct and Integrity officer, upper-management at SAM, and Professor Poole-Warren herself. Despite concerted efforts, no one at the University is willing to provide me with a fully-coherent explanation of how this myth — uttered by both the HOS and DHOS, came into existence. I consider this matter to be ongoing and unresolved.
Just to Clarify —
The issue at this point is not whether I was “prevented” from speaking to anyone at UNSW. The issues are —
- who told the DHOS that I was “prevented”? Why was she so confident in repeating it? who else did she tell this to? Who else did they tell it to?
- why did the HOS “confirm that the OH&S issue mentioned in her letter only relates to PhD supervision contact for SAM staff with Mr. Jackson.” ?
- how did the “OH&S issue mentioned” effect my ability to obtain supervision in SAM?
- what interaction did the HOS and DHOS have with the University’s Legal Counsel regarding the “OH&S issue mentioned? Were they ever admonished, corrected, counseled about the misuse of official policies?
- what remains of any inability to approach SAM personnel?
- why was the University’s OH&S staff not informed about the misuse of this critical policy? (Or if they were, why didn’t they take action?)
- why did the SCIO, Kimberley Dickinson repeatedly provide confusing and ambiguous answers in relation to the above, and tell me that I would need to file a GIPA request to find out who she spoke to in the legal department?
- why has UNSW’s Legal Counsel forbidden their OH&S personnel from corresponding with me?
(added on 22 February, 2017)
Regarding this last item, I recently I discovered that the University’s OH&S policy has coordinators within each faculty. I contacted the University manager of OH&S. I requested anonymity but, astonishingly he turned around and immediately contacted the legal office! Shortly afterwards, he issued a terse reply to my inquiries through one of his subordinates:
I have spoken to my supervisor who said that he has been advised that you are already dealing with UNSW Legal regarding your enquiries and any future correspondence is to be sent to them, including if you wish to raise an issue related to your concern re misuse, or inappropriate use, of UNSW Health and Safety Policy.
I strongly resent this. I have very recently learned that I have a right to raise concerns regarding misuse of OH&S policies through both the request of public interest disclosures or the NSW Ombudsman, neither of which require contact with the Universities Legal Counsel. Further, as the legal matters currently before the Tribunal have absolutely nothing to do with the OH&S issue, I believe my rights protecting me from retaliation may have been breached when the University’s legal staff instructed the University manager of OH&S not to speak with me. I requested clarification from both him, as well as the University’s General Counsel, Elizabeth Grinston, and am awaiting replies (as of February 20, 2018).
[UPDATE]: Elizabeth Grinston writes rather tersely on 20 February: “If you would like to make a complaint about a breach of your privacy by the University, please complete and submit an Application for Internal Review…” I emailed back, repeating my request for information on what she told the OH&S staff (I cannot really make an informed complaint without it). It appears she would prefer not to provide a straight answer. I also included a Fact Sheet, published by the Information and Privacy Commission, reminding her of her obligations to provide me with information proactively, and informally whenever possible. https://www.ipc.nsw.gov.au/role-principal-officers-and-senior-executives-supporting-object-gipa-act
I hope to hear back from Ms. Grinston soon!!!
However, I have digressed with the story of the University’s disgraceful misuse of their OH&S policy. Before bringing that matter up above, I was describing the arrangement I had made with Dean and PVC (research) about supervision arrangements — before I left Sydney.
With solid encouragement from the Pro-Vice Chancellor on the likelihood of obtaining acceptable internal administration of my candidature, I embarked from Sydney to Beijing, China. There, I quickly struck up a relationship with an eminent scholar in my field at Tsinghua University — one of the highest-ranked universities in the country. I accepted a lecturing position there, at very low wages, on the pretext that I would be able to finish my PhD on “part-time external status” as Professor Poole-Warren assured me was possible. At Tsinghua, I found a head-supervisor among my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature — an academic who had done his post-doctoral work at Harvard University and taught at the University of California at Berkeley in the United States before taking up a position at Tsinghua. He was eminently qualified to supervise (and a very nice guy).
After going through all of the formalities with the University, signing all of the necessary papers and doing everything imaginable in order to secure the scholar’s formal acceptance of the terms, the University reneged on its pledge to assign a “candidature administrator”, changing the terms entirely and now insisting that I would need a “head supervisor” in China as well as a “primary supervisor” at UNSW, with a completely different job description than what Laura Poole-Warren advertised before I left Sydney. Had I been told this before I left Sydney, I never would have relinquished my residency. I had been duped.
This needs special attention. I literally moved to China in order to find supervision and save my PhD. I acccepted the lecturing position on Chinese-standard wages, (practically nothing) and found myself stranded in a foreign country with no supervision and no way of finishing my degree. By promising me that they would provide me with supervision, Laura Poole-Warren achieved the benefit of getting me out of the country, separating me from my scholarship as well as my student visa, and placing me in the worst predicament of my life.
In a letter dated 8 July 2015, Professor Poole-Warren acknowledged that “Although accepting Linda’s summary” (the ARC legal representative) she now sought to completely revise the terms of the understanding we made before I left Sydney.
I decided that I needed to complain, however I was at serious disadvantage. With my candidature discontinued, I had no visa, and no way of even entering Australia as a student. I spoke to Kimberley Dickinson, the University’s Student Conduct and Integrity Officer about my predicament. Sounding sympathetic, she suggested that I first contact the right to information officer to make a GIPA (2009) request in order to retrieve some necessary documents related to my candidature. At that point in time, I did not know what a GIPA (2009) request was. She advised me to make my request for information as “broad” as possible (email, 19 January 2016).
The details of this preliminary request are now a matter of public record. The university has been found to have committed a violation of section 17 of the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (1998), a serious breach of my privacy. The documents they have submitted, as well as their ongoing behavior, strongly suggest that there is a much larger breach that remains concealed and may lead to further, more serious charges in the future. I have raised the prospect of criminal concealment and malfeasance, involving offenses described in sections 116 to 120 of the GIPA Act (2009). I will have the opportunity to request orders from the Tribunal addressing these concerns in the 6 March hearing, pursuant to their authority under section 55 of the PPIP (1998).
Since winning the judgment in the Tribunal, I have submitted another GIPA (2009) request to UNSW’s principal officer, Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs. Of necessity, it is considerably more detailed than the first, encompassing not only to find the original information I sought for my underlying complaint regarding the discontinuation of candidature, but also new information concerning the scope of the breach which remains very unclear.
Prior to pursuing a PhD in English literature, I was a university lecturer at Korea University in South Korea. This is one of the more sought after positions in my field. I sacrificed a great deal when I left it pursue my PhD. While my motives for pursuing a PhD were largely for personal enrichment, I could also look forward to commanding a much higher salary, as well as a more attractive position, once I obtained my PhD .
Although the UIPA stipend was adequate to live a modest lifestyle in Sydney, my pursuit of the higher degree represented a huge opportunity cost to my lifetime earnings, as I halted my career in my prime earning years in order to obtain a PhD. The income I would have earned on completion of my PhD is substantial and, cumulatively, this loss of income will most likely have a serious impact on any prospects for retirement.
My move to China — to take an even lower paying position than my stipend offered — was taken up on the assurances given me by Dean and PVC Laura Poole-Warren that —
“GRS can arrange for someone to handle the administrative role”
— for my supervision at UNSW. Consequently, I thought I was making a well-informed decision to finish my thesis while in residence at Tsinghua. Instead, I found myself stranded in China, in a job paying $16,000 a year, while UNSW had reneged on their assurances that they could arrange the local support that was necessary at UNSW. To make matters worse, it was not possible even to go back to Sydney because I was no longer eligible for a student visa.
Having no immediate prospects for a higher degree, and making only sustenance wages at Tsinghua, I took a teaching position at a university in Southern Oman. It was a substantial demotion from the positions that I had held before, but with serious depletion of my savings, caused by what had now been a four-year quest for a PhD, I found it necessary to attempt to make up for lost time and savings. At this point in time it will be very hard to make up for lost wages. In fact, I may need to extend my working life by another five years in order to make up for the loss of the PhD.
What does the University have against me?
Not much of anything — well, nothing at all. They attempted to saddle me with what looks like a store-bought gift basket, filled with cookie-cutter allegations such as “threatening” behavior that created “an experience of fear”, and other items that are rapidly becoming cliche, as they are obviously reproduced directly from HR handbooks. Again, the “threatening behavior” they cited consisted of:
- leaning forward in my chair during a meeting
- knocking on a door when my supervisor did not feel like answering it
- Throwing up my hands in frustration when I could obtain no supervision
For these acts of brutality, the HOS and DHOS of SAM invoked the University’s Health and Safety policy as “preventing” me from obtaining supervision.
The accusations backfired, largely because all of them appeared out of thin air at exactly the same time that the University was having difficulty finding a supervisor. Without exception, each of the accusations were found to contain the unmistakable scent of ulterior motives, directly related to either personal gain, or the fact that the University was having a difficult time finding a supervisor in a time of massive budget cuts.
I believe these sorts of spurious accusations will be familiar to members of the Australian legal community as well as many other postgraduate students who have had trouble obtaining needed resources from their university’s administration — such as stable supervision….
It appears that such accusations have become popular as a cost-effective way of managing postgraduate research in the 21st century.
I have successfully refuted all of the accusations made against me and have extensive documentation of my refutations, as well as the University’s responses.
I have proven in the NCAT Tribunal that the University has been ineffective in the implementation of their administrative policies — perhaps criminally so. I believe my continuing requests for agency-held information through the Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA) (2009) will yield a great deal more information about their negligence and maladministration pertaining to my candidature as well as more far-reaching issues. In short, I believe I have an excellent case against the University and that all they have to offer in return is a thin veil of smoke and mirrors hiding malice and malfeasance.
And by the way…
The NSW Ombudsman is publishing a “Complaints about the supervision of postgraduate students Discussion paper.” They are inviting submissions now. If you are a postgraduate student who feels they have been mistreated by UNSW or another University in the area, by all means tell them about your experiences.
The big question for me is…..
Do NSW Universities smear and humiliate their postgraduate students when they become inconvenient?
I hope the Ombudsman’s publication helps to provide an answer to this question — as well as some possible solutions.
STAY TUNED FOR THE CASE CONFERENCE on Jackson v UNSW AT THE NEW SOUTH WALES CIVIL AND ADMINISTRATIVE TRIBUNAL ON:
Tuesday, 6 March 2018 at 9.30 am.
Civic Tower, 66 Goulburn St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Read more about the Tribunal’s decision, finding UNSW in breach of section 17 of the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (1998) here: