'Sexual' remarks cost University of Limerick €150,000

Winston Churchill's famous 'skirt' phrase offended students

EXCLUSIVE by Anne Sheridan

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EXCLUSIVE by Anne Sheridan

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anne.sheridan@limerickleader.ie

'Sexual' remarks cost University of Limerick €150,000

UL: Paid a lecturer €150,000 to terminate his employment

THE University of Limerick paid a lecturer €150,000 to terminate his employment after he was accused of making allegedly inappropriate sexual references in class and inappropriately touching students.

One of the remarks which was said to have caused offence was a famous phrase by British statesman Winston Churchill.

The lecturer, who has not been been identified, paraphrased the words of the former prime minister in one class to his students when advising them on the desired length of a particular essay.

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest,” he quoted.

The exact details of the other complaints made cannot be disclosed as they may identify the three alleged victims and the lecturer, given the context of their use in the department in question.

It is understood that all the allegations were rejected by the employee concerned, and while he conceded that some of the remarks may have been “careless or clumsy”, he did not feel they warranted the action taken, sources told the Limerick Leader.

The disclosure of the €150,000 sum has been made by former UL president Don Barry in new correspondence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The PAC sought additional information from UL following a hearing on its financial practices this March.

Mr Barry, who stepped down on April 28 last after a ten-year term, outlined to the PAC that in December 2013 three students lodged formal complaints against ‘Person Z’.

“The complaints referred to inappropriate sexual references in class and inappropriate touching of students causing them to feel uncomfortable,” he stated.

In February 2014, the university appointed an external investigator to investigate these complaints against ‘Person Z’, which cost an additional €6,973.

A compromise agreement for €150,000 was entered into, terminating the university's relationship with ‘Person Z’.

In response to further queries on this particular case, a spokesperson for UL said: “The requested information pertains to an employment matter the details of which are private and confidential having regard to the rights and obligations of all of the parties involved.”

UL would not outline what disciplinary actions, if any, were taken against the employee, who worked in UL for more than a decade, before the investigator was appointed.

In relation to unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, UL’s dignity and respect policy outlines that “the intention of the respondent is not a defence to bullying or any form of harassment, sexual harassment, or victimisation.”

It also states that a single incident may constitute harassment or sexual harassment, and that “unwanted conduct may consist of acts, requests, spoken words, gestures or the production, display or circulation of written words, pictures or other material.”

Fianna Fail deputy Willie O’Dea, who has been briefed on the case in full, described it as “political correctness gone mad.”

“If there genuinely was inappropriate touching of UL students the gardai would have been involved, which they weren’t.

“Where in the name of God is the offence in invoking the words of Churchill? There are far worse things said in the Dail every day, I can assure you.”

Deputy O’Dea described the latest severance payment by UL as “bizarre” and “gobsmacking”.

“The more I hear about it, there is no accountability, no control system in place, and taxpayers’ money is being thrown around like confetti at a time when we have one of the highest national debts in Europe,” he told the Limerick Limerick.

The severance offer to ‘Person Z’ is among a number which UL confirmed it did not receive written prior approval for from the Department of Education.

The department confirmed that it was only informed of this severance package, made in 2014, subsequent to it being paid.

It followed two earlier severance agreements of €220,331 and €231,506 to two staff, amounting to €451,837, which were queried by the Comptroller & Auditor General, which had also not been sanctioned.

The confidential compromise agreement was produced to 'Person Z' by Arthur Cox solicitors, but the former lecturer has since sought to make a Protected Disclosure.

It is understood that he has also discussed his case with the Minister for Education Richard Bruton.

The Department of Education is now due to outline the terms of reference for a full independent inquiry into a series of allegations regarding financial practices at UL.

It follows an earlier review by independent consultant Mazars, appointed by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

It found that three women in the finance department raised legitimate concerns in relation to inappropriate expenses they were asked to process, and that ultimately they were not paid as a result of the women flagging them as inappropriate.

These included expense claims for a spa treatment while in South Africa, the delivery of a fitted kitchen under the university's relocation policy, and sabbatical expenses in Australia.

The Mazars review cost the HEA just under €70,000, while a further facilitator’s report, aimed at resolving the issues, cost nearly €10,000.

The costs paid by UL in terms of facilitation process and external reports in respect of the two suspended whistleblowers amounts to an additional €17,612, which does not include long-running legal fees. 

The suspension payments between both women over the past two years now amount to nearly €120,000. Their roles in the finance department have also been filled.

UL has confirmed in its latest correspondence to the PAC that from 2007 to date it has dealt with 24 formal complaints under the university's dignity and respect policies.

Three of these complaints relate to the two staff members who remain suspended on full pay for two years this June.

One relates to ‘Person Z’ and two other relate to ‘Person Y’, who received a compromise agreement for €209,600 from UL in August 2015 following an allegation of bullying.

The 18 other cases cost the university a total of €221,364, which included €135,128 for facilitation processes and €86,236 for external investigations and external appeals.

In addition, UL confirmed that in the past 10 years, nine formal complaints were referred to either the Labour Relations Commission, the Workplace Relations Commission, the Labour Court and the Employment Appeals Tribunal. The costs in these cases amount to €101,628.