Comment: Lesson for University of Limerick in a whistleblower’s dignified words

Alan English

Reporter:

Alan English

Lesson for UL in a whistleblower’s dignified words

Lesson for UL in a whistleblower’s dignified words

IT took a change in UL’s leadership for the university to finally take ownership of the sorry saga that has caused it considerable reputational damage since September 2015, following revelations in this newspaper.

Dr Des Fitzgerald, who became president 11 months ago, inherited a mess that was deep-rooted and complex. There was never any prospect of a quick fix, but as he approaches his first anniversary in the job, the new man in Plassey’s White House must be anxious to bring closure to these legacy issues as quickly as possible.

Dr Fitzgerald is extremely ambitious on UL’s behalf and has the best part of a decade to put his stamp on the single most important institution in the Mid-West. He has the potential to be the most transformational president since Dr Ed Walsh. But before he can imagine the brightest of futures, he needs to deal with the past — specifically, the “legacy issues” that have put UL in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Those who have followed these events closely will surely welcome the sentiments expressed in the piece by the original UL whistleblower, Leona O’Callaghan, written for the Limerick Leader. She left UL six years ago in painful circumstances, after her attempts to highlight questionable practices fell on deaf ears.

She regards the apology offered to her by Dr Fitzgerald as sincere. She is ready to move on with her life, after years spent fighting an injustice that shamed a university she once served with distinction.

There is, I suggest, an important lesson for UL in her dignified words. It is that proper closure will not be achieved if senior managers do not fully grasp why those with grievances were hurt by the university’s actions in the first place.

It remains unclear whether there will be any real accountability for these matters. Whatever about that, the UL agenda should not be about managing difficult issues towards a conclusion favourable to the university. Instead, the focus should be on (a) getting to grips with the unacceptable behaviour that the previous regime was responsible for, and (b) doing everything it reasonably can to put matters right for those who were unfairly treated. In some cases, this may be achieved by a face-to-face meeting with a president who has shown some commendable humility in his approach — a quality sadly lacking at the top of UL before his arrival. Others may decide to seek justice in the High Court.

Every case is different and there is no form of words or single action that will draw a line under everything. While there has already been a blanket apology for “serious errors and poor practices” in a statement issued by Dr Fitzgerald late last year, putting things right for those who lost jobs or were wrongly suspended is clearly going to require more.

For too long, UL’s preferred method of dealing with such matters involved severance packages with confidentiality clauses, all drawn up by expensive lawyers paid for by taxpayers’ money. The new president will not be solving HR problems by writing unauthorised and excessive payoff cheques. That can only be a good thing, not least for the public purse.

Every large organisation is going to have its share of difficult HR issues. UL has 1,400 staff and 15,000 students — it is inevitable that issues will continue to arise. But when they do, the very least that can be expected is that those affected are treated fairly and compassionately, by managers whose guiding principle is integrity.

Alan English

Limerick Leader editor, 2007-16