Centre of Non-Excellence: how to win grants and influence people … in Australia’s universities

by Luke Stacey | Nov 11, 2020 | Business

He partied hard, raised millions in ARC grants and corporate donations, moved from Monash Uni to the Middle East, UNSW to Sydney University. Luke Stacey investigates why nobody checked the man on a probity mission.

Does protecting the reputation of one’s university take precedence over all other matters of propriety? Are background checks contacted on senior hires? If so, how thorough are they?

These and a number of other questions are gaining new currency following scandals in the university sector.

The most recent case to hit the headlines is Peter Rathjen, the former vice chancellor of the University of Adelaide. He resigned following findings by the state’s corruption watchdog earlier this year that he had groped female colleagues in 2019 and repeatedly lied about it.

It also emerged that in 2018 the University of Melbourne conducted an investigation into historical allegations of serious sexual misconduct when Rathjen was Dean of Science between 2006 and 2008. The inquiry upheld the complaint, yet it appears this information was not passed on to the University of Adelaide.

Male, Pale & Stale: uni governance in spotlight again after Adelaide sex scandal

Then there is the case of then professor Justin O’Brien, who was stood down from Monash University in June 2018 after he was found to have used his corporate credit card to fund family holidays, elaborate dinners and expensive flights, among other spending.

Despite this, the following year, in mid-2019 the University of Sydney Business School, offered O’Brien a PhD position, which carries a government stipend of about $26,000.

But even before all these events, questions should have been asked of O’Brien and his financial probity, starting from when he was employed as a law professor at the University of NSW.

Actions fall short of words

O’Brien was Professor of Law and director of the Centre for Law, Markets and Regulation at the faculty of Law at UNSW between 2010 and 2015.

During this time, he secured three Australian Research Council grants and a Professorial Future Fellowship, which combined were worth more than $2 million. In one application for an ARC research grant, O’Brien wrote: “One cannot write about integrity and not live by those measures of probity.”

The UNSW information officer was asked for documents relating to O’Brien’s spending and invoicing for the four projects.

UNSW’s Right to Information Officer Paul Serov, in his authorisation notice, provided expense claims for about $40,000 for one of the grants, but said the requested information for the other three would not be provided. He said invoices and receipts only needed to be retained for seven years, and that window had elapsed.

While the ARC confirmed the seven-year window, it said the starting point of the window was the date of a project’s conclusion, not its inception.

Documents obtained under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act) reveal the official conclusion dates for all four projects remain within the seven-year window.

UNSW should have provided the invoices and receipts for the remaining three projects as per the ARC grant agreement. A large percentage of the more than $2 million awarded to O’Brien was taxpayer money. How were the remaining funds spent?

Mr Serov didn’t respond when asked to comment. The head of communications at the University, Darren Goodsir, refused to comment.

Another spokesperson for UNSW said: “There is no evidence to indicate Mr O’Brien misappropriated ARC or UNSW grant funds during his tenure at UNSW.” Yet the fact remains they have not disclosed the full scope of expenditures.

‘Trust Project’ at Monash University

After O’Brien left UNSW, he spent just over a year in the Middle East, where he was Professor of Business Ethics at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He then returned to Australia, and in December 2016 joined Monash University, where he had negotiated a research-only position at the university’s Australian Centre for Financial Studies Business School. He was brought in to establish a Centre of Excellence specialising in ‘trust’ and what became known as ‘The Trust Project’.

Eighteen months later, he was dismissed from the university following investigation into the use of his corporate credit for personal expenses.

On 13 June 2018 Provost and Senior Vice President of Monash University, Professor Marc Parlange, issued O’Brien a letter of investigation regarding what it stated was a clear breach of the university’s corporate credit card policy.

According to the Australian Financial Review, O’Brien was accused of using his card for family holidays to Port Douglas and the Gold Coast. This included  flights for three people from Sydney to Cairns and $5400 spent across two Queensland luxury hotels. These bills, the university alleged, were improperly characterised as research trips in its expense system.

O’Brien reportedly told the Fin Review that his conduct did not involve any deliberate attempt to defraud. He agreed to pay back the expenses and to resign, subject to confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses. A further condition was that the university didn’t jeopardise his application for a Laureate Fellowship, which he could take to another institution.

Following O’Brien’s dismissal, the Centre of Excellence ceased to operate.

Questions put to University of Sydney

In 2019 O’Brien was offered a place on the PhD program at the University of Sydney Business School. Michael West Media asked the Business School whether it conducted background checks on the probity of students, including on the former professor, before admitting them to the program.

A spokesperson answered a different question:

“We assess academic background and research experience as standard criteria for postgraduate research applications.”

In addition to his paid scholarships and subsidised campus accommodation, O’Brien was also hired as ‘casual academic’. In that role he contributed to the design of two new courses for the Sydney University Business School. The courses centred around corporate crime and regulation, and the future of corporations.

Role at academic journal

Justin O’Brien remains general editor for the academic journal Law and Financial Markets Review, published by Taylor and Francis Group, a role he began while at UNSW.

One article O’Brien wrote was headlined: “ ‘Because they could’: trust, integrity, and purpose in the regulation of corporate governance in the aftermath of the royal commission into (the Banking Royal Commission)”.

The journal also accredited O’Brien as director of ‘The Trust Project’ and provided a (now-defunct) link to the domain of the abandoned Trust Project.

Michael West Media asked Matthew Derbyshire, the publishing director at Taylor and Francis Group, whether he was aware of O’Brien’s professional misconduct and the fact that ‘The Trust Project’ only existed as a private/personal email address.

A spokesperson for Taylor and Francis Group said:

“Justin O’Brien was general editor of Law and Financial Markets Review when we acquired it in 2015. We are currently working with him to update his affiliation status to the University of Sydney … On other matters related to Professor O’Brien we have no further comment.”

O’Brien’s contact details have since been updated to remove any reference to previous professional roles.

No action taken

On 29 December 2019 O’Brien was charged by NSW Police with physical assault and malicious damage to property. The case was heard in March this year and O’Brien was sentenced on 15 April under Section 32 of the Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act 1990.

This evidence was presented to the Dean of the Business School Professor Gregory Whitwell, and the Vice Chancellor and the Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

Professor Whitwell responded on 11 June acknowledging the serious concerns expressed and that inquiries had been undertaken regarding the relationship between Mr O’Brien and the University and said:

“It has been determined that the University has no grounds to pursue this matter at this time.”

Michael West Media contacted O’Brien but he hadn’t responded at the time of publication.

Australia’s universities: bosses reel in $1m-plus salaries, $1bn profit on back of staff underpayment

Part II of this story will outline Justin O’Brien’s misconduct surrounding ‘The Trust Project’.

Luke Stacey was a contributing researcher and editor for the Secret Rich List and Revolving Doors series on Michael West Media. Luke studied journalism at University of Technology, Sydney, has worked in the film industry and studied screenwriting at the New York Film Academy in New York.

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