HR practices at University of Limerick strongly criticised in new report

Limerick Leader reporters

Reporter:

Limerick Leader reporters

THE University of Limerick has been severely criticised in a new report into controversies around finance, HR and governance which were first revealed by the Limerick Leader.

The partly redacted report was released by the Higher Education Authority this Wednesday afternoon. It contains 36 findings and 10 recommendations.

The HEA has also confirmed that a further investigation will now take place into severance and rehire arrangements at the university.

Dr Richard Thorn, a former president of Sligo Institute of Technology, conducted the review after examining a range of issues over five months, following his appointment by the HEA in the wake of national controversy surrounding activities at UL.

Dr Thorn will also conduct the investigation into severance and rehire arrangements and it is expected that this will be concluded in a matter of weeks.

The report, which runs to 122 pages, is strongly critical of UL's HR practices, in particular its use of disciplinary procedures leading to findings of gross misconduct against a number of staff members.

It states: "With almost 16,000 staff and students, it is inevitable that staff and student issues will arise. To address this complexity, the university should consider the management structures and systems adopted for implementation of HR policies and procedures, in addition to consideration of the management and implementation of specific policies and procedures as recommended in this and other reviews."

The report also deals in considerable detail with the case of the two whistleblowers from the finance department who have been suspended with pay for more than two years. The new UL president Professor Des Fitzgerald has already stated that he wishes to meet with these employees with a view to potentially reinstating them.

The two women were previously offered severance payments €60,000 each, conditional on agreeing to a confidentiality clause. They rejected the offer. Both employees were suspended and accused of making a malicious complaint against a colleague, an allegation they have strenuously denied.

Disciplinary proceedings taken against them were interrupted on the HEA's orders following the Leader's front-page report.

There is also criticism of the decision to sue the Limerick Leader and its then editor Alan English personally when the allegations were first brought into the public domain in September 2015. UL's High Court proceedings were dropped in 2016 following widespread criticism of its decision to sue.

The legal proceedings were "ill-conceived", the report finds, adding that the Limerick Leader was well within its rights to publish the initial story. 

The HEA’s chief executive, Dr Graham Love, stated: “The matters raised in this review go back many years and there has been much stress for many parties involved.

“Swift and complete implementation of the recommendations in this report by the university will enable a line to be drawn under this story and allow the university and the persons impacted to move on.

“This is essential for the people involved, for the university, its students and staff, and for the wider higher education sector in Ireland.”

The HEA has requested a “full and formal” response from UL by Friday November 24 and made it clear that the recommendations “must be acted on without delay”.

The implementation of the recommendations will be monitored by the HEA.

A total of 34 individuals were interviewed by Dr Thorn during July and August, including the suspended whistleblowers from the finance department and Leona O'Callaghan, who was the immediate predecessor of one of the suspended women. A small number of others expressed a desire to contribute, but later withdrew.

Ms O'Callaghan raised serious concerns about the payment of expenses in a detailed email to former UL president Don Barry late in 2011. However, he rejected her concerns when they were brought to the attention of the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) in 2012 by Niall Collins TD. The correspondence was not made public at that time, but was revealed by the Limerick Leader in 2015.

The terms of reference for the report included matters relating to governance, HR, financial and administrative processes, as well as overall organisational culture.

UL is expected to issue a statement on the report's findings later this afternoon. It is understood that while UL co-operated fully with Dr Thorn, the university was not given access to the report before its publication today.  

In an email to sent last week, new president Professor Des Fitzgerald noted the controversies surrounding the university and stated that UL has "moved ahead with a series of changes in management" and that "these processes demonstrate that UL, under the leadership of its Governing Authority, has been both responsive and proactive on the serious issues raised".

A HEA statement said: “As the report considers a number of matters that are currently sub judice, the published form of the report is redacted where these matters are considered.

“An unredacted form has been issued to the university on a confidential basis so that it can act fully on its recommendations. An unredacted form has also been issued on a confidential basis to the parties associated with the sub judice matters.”

- Stay with limerickleader.ie for further updates and see tomorrow’s weekend print editions of the Limerick Leader for extensive coverage and analysis