Sunday 22 September 2019

Report on controversies 'shows university failed in how it treated its staff'

Dr Des Fitzgerald said UL would act on the report
Dr Des Fitzgerald said UL would act on the report
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The recently appointed president of the University of Limerick (UL) has expressed concern about the way the university "treated some of its people in the past".

Dr Des Fitzgerald said a new report into a string of controversies at the college cast light on occasions in the past where UL fell short in its duty of care as an employer.

He was commenting on the findings of the review by Dr Richard Thorn, president emeritus of the Institute of Technology, Sligo, who was appointed six months ago to investigate certain matters and allegations.

Dr Thorn's report is critical of college management's use of severance payments, worth €1.7m, and its handling of staff issues.

A total of eight severance packages agreed between 2007 and 2015 came under scrutiny in the review carried out for the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Department of Education.

In five of the cases, individuals were under investigation for what was deemed to be gross misconduct under a section of the Universities Act, but the review found that the application of the particular clause was "overly severe". At least some cases could have been dealt with differently, it stated.

According to the review, a common theme across the five cases was individuals felt under pressure to agree an exit deal.

The review found the severance packages breached public pay guidelines, the Department of Education was not told about them and they were not approved by the university's governing authority.

Former UL president Professor Don Barry confirmed to the review that the decision to enter into the agreements was an executive one.

"The review finds that management of the severances (and the events leading to them) and the communication of their facts to relevant stakeholders, was confusing," the report stated.

It called on the university to prepare an account of all severances agreed and circumstances surrounding them, within a month.

The severance package issue is one of a number of matters dealt with in the report, commissioned following a series of controversies over the unsanctioned severance payments, expenses and governance.

Some issues raised by whistleblowers had already been investigated while other matters emerged in a report by the State spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and were discussed at the Oireachtas' Public Accounts Committee.

In 2016, the Department of Education had sought the co-operation of the university for a full review of the allegations made, but that was not forthcoming.

Prof Fitzgerald said UL would act swiftly in response to the report and he hoped outstanding issues could be resolved.

Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor said the report was one of a number of actions being taken by the department and the HEA to strengthen governance arrangements in higher education.

Irish Independent

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