26 Sept 2022

COMMENT: The self-inflicted wounds that led to the biggest crisis in UL's history

COMMENT: The self-inflicted wounds that led to the biggest crisis in UL's history

WEAK leadership, hubris and poor oversight lie at the heart of the serious findings made against the University of Limerick this week.

In time, with the correct approach, UL will recover from these self-inflicted wounds. All of us in the Mid-West who have cherished its contribution to local life since 1972 must hope that the recovery is as swift as possible. That is because, more than any other local institution, this region needs the best of what UL brings.

First, the university should accept the findings of the Higher Education Authority report and implement its recommendations as swiftly as possible.

The HEA report is damning on many levels. But to anyone paying attention – and not wearing blinkers – it has long been clear that UL would not survive close examination of its affairs without a major reputational battering.

And yet it did not have to come to this.

Why did the university’s senior leadership steer the ship inexorably towards the rocks? It as if the decision-makers were guided by Bonaparte’s maxim: “Never retreat, never retract ... never admit a mistake.”

The chronic failure of the Governing Authority to adequately fulfil its oversight role at a time when it was never more needed is another notable aspect of this long-running shambles.

UL staff were assured last week by the new president, Professor Des Fitzgerald, that the Governing Authority has been “responsive and reactive on the serious issues raised publicly earlier this year”.

While Prof Fitzgerald has been responsible for a welcome sea change in UL’s approach to these matters, this was cutting the governors far too much slack.

The fact is that UL’s oversight body was alerted to “serious issues” back in September 2015, when the suspension of two whistleblowers was revealed by the Leader’s Anne Sheridan in a front-page report.

The Governing Authority’s “responsive and reactive” approach back then was to go along with High Court proceedings against the Limerick Leader and me personally.

A six-page letter from solicitors Arthur Cox warned that UL – “and, if necessary, its officers” - would have no option but to sue for “exemplary and punitive damages” if we did not retract what we knew then – and now – to be the truth.

Instead of exercising the kind of oversight that would have allowed common sense to prevail a long time ago, the Governing Authority seemingly chose to back the senior management at every turn.

There is a clear pattern here of UL throwing money at problems – public money. Vast sums were spent on severance payments, without the required approval of the Department of Education and Skills. Expensive lawyers were called on when things got messy: Arthur Cox does not come cheap.

Had the suspended whistleblowers not rejected UL’s severance offer of €60,000 each, it is more than possible than none of these matters would ever have come to light.

After the legal action against me and the Leader was withdrawn last year, following strong pressure from the HEA, I met with UL’s former president, Professor Don Barry. I urged him to reconsider UL’s approach towards the suspended whistleblowers. I suggested to him that an examination of the evidence pointed at their suspension being demonstrably wrong.

But nothing changed. If anything, UL’s approach hardened.

As recently as March 30 this year, when appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts, Prof Barry defended his HR department to the hilt. Flanked by HR director Tommy Foy, he insisted that “the HR function in UL does a marvellous job”.

That was not the first erroneous statement Prof Barry provided to the PAC.

Six years ago, the original whistleblower from the finance department, Leona O’Callaghan, sent him a dossier outlining her concerns about inappropriate expense claims which she felt pressurised to sanction. Along with detailed information, Ms O’Callaghan wrote a heartfelt letter to the former president, asking him to take her concerns seriously so that other employees did not have to endure her unhappy experience.

That appeal, alas, went unheeded. The seeds were thus sown for arguably the biggest crisis in the university’s history.

When the courageous Ms O’Callaghan sent her dossier to the PAC the following year, a letter signed by Prof Barry dismissed her with cutting words that portrayed her as delusional. Writing to the PAC in response, he said: “The university is satisfied it has dealt fully with the allegations made by this employee. Despite this, the employee continues to make the same allegations.”

With high-end lawyers on its side, it was easy back in 2012 for a powerful institution to nullify a conscientious, junior employee who was only trying to do her job.

The problem went away for three years, but the underlying issues that caused it remained.

UL’s senior leadership, in particular its former president, had ample opportunity to address these issues before they became the subject of this damning report. But that would have meant owning up to them – and UL remained in a state of virtual denial for years, despite mounting evidence of serious HR failings and significant issues within its finance department.

If it is to learn the necessary lessons from this unhappy experience and move on, UL will need strong leadership from its new president.

The university should own up, apologise, try to make amends to those it wronged and hold accountable those responsible for the most serious failings identified by the HEA report. Only then can it move on with purpose and renewed focus.

Alan English is group editorial director of Iconic Newspapers, owner of the Limerick Leader

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