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New University of Limerick president discusses 'shocking revelations'

Dr Des Fitzgerald would not have sanctioned payment for online doctorates

THE new president of the University of Limerick has said that he would not have sanctioned the payment of nearly $100,000 for the online doctorates of two staff members in Florida - approved by its former president - given the university's world ranking.

Dr Des Fitzgerald, who was recently appointed head of UL for a ten-year term, said that the continued revelations regarding spending in UL, including the payment of numerous six-figure severance packages not sanctioned by the Department of Education & Skills, are "shocking".

Six-figure severance payments to staff and mounting costs to the State in investigating a series of allegations of misconduct in UL through a series of reviews have climbed to over €2.1m, new figures show.

Sums of up to $100,000 (€89,000) were spent by UL for the online doctorates of two employees in the human resources department, including their travel costs and hotel accommodation in Florida, to attend a ceremony at Walden University.

UL is listed in the 500-550 bracket of the best universities in the QS world rankings league table, while Walden University is not listed at all in that guide.

"Those sort of degrees are not at the standard which I would like our students to see as being something they should aspire to, or our academics either. UL has paid for many people to have the opportunity to have a postgraduate education and most of it is done internally. I think it is appropriate for the institution to do that,” said Dr Fitzgerald in a wide-ranging interview with the Limerick Leader.

“I don't think it’s appropriate to pay for degrees that our own staff would not think is of any value. It’s a legitimate university [Walden], but if you take the rankings of universities I would prefer to see staff going to well-ranked universities. The one in Florida is not a well-ranked university, so it’s not a place I think people should be aspiring to go to. Now, going forward, I would not approve €50,000 for people to have that type of training,” he said.

However, under correspondence received under the Freedom of Information Act, UL earlier defended the payment of these doctorates.

“Walden University is a recognised leader in the provision of online distance learning and has enrolled students from over 150 countries,” it stated.

It added that the “skills and competencies acquired from participation on this programme are of key importance to the University of Limerick’s talent management” and that the employees who availed of them “interact at the most senior management level within the university and with academics locally, nationally and internationally”.

The correspondence said that in the case of one employee, former UL president Don Barry approved for him to undertake his Doctor of Business Adminstration (DBA) on an online basis as “UL does not offer this type of programme”.

The second member of staff’s further education programme was approved by his line manager.

Dr Tommy Foy, head of human resources in UL, received a doctorate for his thesis on ‘managing workplace stress for increased performance in an Irish higher education institution’ from Walden University. Dr Patrick Rockett, of the same department, received his doctorate for focusing on ‘the cost of workplace bullying in Irish universities’ from the same institution.

UL said that in the past five years it has supported 224 staff, including 85 on external programmes, to undertake formal further education, including two staff members of UL to undertake doctoral studies.

A total of six protected disclosures have been made by current and former staff of UL to the Higher Education Authority, as well as a litany of other allegations.

Among those who received confidential severance packages from UL was the former director of the UL student medical centre, Dr Niall Cahill, who confirmed that he received €209,600 following allegations of bullying against another employee, which he vehemently rejects.

In an interview with the Limerick Leader this week, Dr Fitzgerald said he is willing to meet with whistleblowers in UL - at least five of whom have been offered or received large severance packages - pending the advice of the head of a new review - Dr Richard Thorn.

The office of the Comptroller and Auditor General also found that some of these severance packages were higher than normal, exceeding the limits of a comparator scheme, and included confidentiality clauses regarded as not appropriate.

A UL spokesperson said that confidentiality clauses predated protected disclosure legislation and that “since the introduction of the legislation, it is a statutory right, under the act to make a disclosure and this cannot be prevented by any confidentiality clauses”.

Dr Fitzgerald also has not ruled out that an apology by UL may be warranted to some former employees who raised concerns regarding financial practices, pending the findings of the review when it's completed by September next.

The former UCD vice-president also said that UL should not have issued legal proceedings against the Limerick Leader and its former editor in relation to its first report on allegations regarding spending and severance payments in UL, published in September 2015.

And at the UL president's dinner on Friday night, Mr Fitzgerald revealed that the Limerick Leader was now his “favourite paper”.

He complimented the Limerick Leader supplement edited by former editor Alan English marking the 40th anniversary of the foundation of NIHE which included a photograph of Richard Harris that conveyed the passion then felt by the Limerick public for establishment of a university.

Dr Fitzgerald said he was “alarmed”, “appalled” and “very concerned” by the revelations in an RTE Investigates programme, on spending in third-level institutions, which largely focused on UL.

Dr Fitzgerald dismissed suggestions that some staff members in UL have been sent on a long-term sabbatical overseas as a result of their involvement in these allegations, or that any employee has been dismissed from their post.

“I’ve a duty of care to everyone in the institution, including the people who were featured in the programme. Those issues now have to be dealt with in a systematic way," he said.

- See the broadsheet editions of the Limerick Leader newspaper for full analysis, plus the full interview with Dr Fitzgerald

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