Australia’s universities have been corporatised and compromised, and business schools are at the vanguard of academic capture. Jeanne Ryckmans investigates the rise and fall of the five-star travelling former professor who led the high-life on public grants.
The University of Sydney Business School website trumpets “Business not as usual!”. Its mission? To “develop students into future business leaders” using an “innovative approach to our teaching and learning”. True to its word, in 2021, the school promoted on LinkedIn a free online “Masterclass in leadership” that promised to give “a taste of what it’s like to study at Sydney: Discover how so-called ‘dark side’ personality characteristics, such as narcissism and psychopathy, play a part in effective leadership.”
Established in 1920, the University of Sydney Business School claims to be the oldest business faculty in Australia. Its $250 million state-of-the-art Abercrombie Building, a high-tech 376,740 square feet facility in Sydney’s Inner West is the “physical manifestation of the school’s ‘Business Not as Usual’ vision for the future” where “academics will solve poverty through profitability”. It boasts of all things, a “Sandpit”.
Described as a “new learning space to accommodate different forms of human interaction, and different heights (3 levels) to promote movement over time”, the school vaunts “an epistemic fluency in various forms in the Abercrombie Sandpit” through the introduction of “diverse furnishings” such as “ottomans, cloud tables, and soft, curved couches”. The rationale is that “homogenous furnishings tend to produce static formations”. The overall look is that of a colourful day-care/pre-school minus a nappy-changing station housed within a giant wooden Jenga.
Most importantly, the Business School offers an array of lucrative scholarships — among them, a limited number of prestigious Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) funded scholarships – to selected domestic and international applicants. These are designed to “recognise potential, assist those in need and reward high achievement”.
Nobody checks. Nobody cares. It’s all about bringing in the big money to enhance the reputation of the university
A spokesperson from Sydney University confirmed there were 2581 applications in 2019 for these Commonwealth-funded scholarships. An employee from the Scholarship Office explained that only “high calibre students are worthy of such scholarships”. The Australian government, we are informed, only provides funding for “a handful” of such scholarships because they require picking up the tab for hefty tuition fees plus a generous stipend for living allowance. There is also a financial incentive to the University from the government. It is expected that the successful applicant is awarded the scholarship based on demonstrated academic achievement and research potential — read, must have already achieved a stratospheric level of academic excellence.
The scholarships range from $30,000 to $45,950 yearly (tax-free) to support study for a PhD or Master of Philosophy at the Business School for three or more years. As listed on the Business School’s website, the requirements state that the successful applicant is awarded the scholarship based on nomination by a selection committee consisting of the Associate Dean Research Education and several other academic staff from the University of Sydney Business School. Think an academic The Voice with ergonomic swivel chairs.
Most, if not all, Australian universities proudly showcase their associate professors and professors announcing their availability for supervision of doctoral candidates on their website profile page, replete with their passport-style colour headshots. Occasionally, a scholarship recipient appears beaming in a marketing promo — Look! You too can be successful! But for some reason, the Sydney University Business School is determined to keep the identity of one of their scholarship students invisible. It appears to operate something akin to a “Paid PhD Student Protection Scheme” despite the taxpayer picking up the bill.
In November 2020, MWM reported on the activities of Dr Justin O’Brien, a Northern Irishman whose background includes a career as a television journalist and a stint as a hotel DJ in the United Arab Emirates. O’Brien abruptly departed Monash University in June 2018 after an investigation into abuse of his university credit card, bullying and harassment of staff and bringing the reputation of the University into disrepute.
MWM reported that O’Brien was now being funded by the University of Sydney Business School for a paid PhD (O’Brien already has a PhD from Queens University, Belfast but was not, as claimed in one CV, “Honorary Professor at the School of Law, Queens University” as evidenced in an FOI from Queens). This, despite former Monash University Provost Marc Parlange – as reported in the media – warning: “If necessary, those matters regarding fraud and dishonesty and serious misconduct will be considered further and the subject of further consequential investigation.”
At the time the University of Sydney Business School awarded O’Brien his lucrative RTP funded scholarship, their star student’s shopping list of past professional and personal misconduct also included a charge in December 2019 of criminal assault occasioning actual bodily harm and malicious damage to property. On the morning of March 4, 2020, the first mention of the charge, the scholarship student sat quietly with his lawyer in a crowded and brightly lit local courtroom on the fifth floor of the Downing Centre Court. He had provided a false address for bail. He did not wish to provide his real address and alert the Sydney University Village that had generously given him comfortable, subsidised accommodation on campus.
What was not reported in the press was that two panicked policemen went in search of the Business School doctoral student a week following his first court mention. O’Brien sent multiple messages to a family member in Northern Ireland, claiming he was en route to a notorious suicide spot to pitch himself off the sheer cliffs into the sea. He was eventually found around 3 am at the University Village after police visited the Allan, Jack + Cottier award-winning designed university accommodation in Newtown several times. He was nowhere in the vicinity of the cliffs.
Apparently, the Business School and the University Village did not see a problem with law enforcement searching their subsidised student housing for their 56-year-old scholarship student, or with the criminal assault charge. Neither did the student’s PhD supervisor, the Dean of the Business School, the Vice-Chancellor, or the Chancellor. The response from the then-acting VC? “As a general matter, please understand that a student’s personal history is not a barrier to admission to a degree program.” The Business School rewarded O’Brien with a second government-funded scholarship for another two and a half years, with a guaranteed payment of over $40k tax-free annually until June 30, 2022.
An exercise in academic hubris
O’Brien’s skill in the dark art of applying for substantial Australia Research Council (ARC) grants – Laureate Fellowship, Discovery, and Linkage Projects – no doubt impressed the expert panel of assessors at the University of Sydney Business School in early 2019 when, while receiving unemployment benefits from Centrelink, he applied for his Commonwealth-funded PhD scholarship.
Reading his multiple drafted and submitted ARC grant applications from 2016 to 2018 is an eye-watering exercise in academic hubris. During this time, a gaggle of eager academics from UNSW Law, UNSW Business School, Melbourne Law, Monash Law, Monash Business School, and tropical Queensland, who had form in benefiting from successful grants, were unsurprisingly content to drift in O’Brien’s slipstream or thumb a ride. Mind-blowing proposed budgets calculated for travel, accommodation, and salaries for “teaching relief” and “field expenses” topped $1 million. Ostensibly, “this investment allows for post-doctoral salary supplementation, essential academic research and logistical support”, wrote O’Brien in an ARC grant application.
Business schools are dripping in money and an ARC Laureate is the jewel in the crown of grants.
Each academic colleague was hand-picked and designated as part of a crack “research team” comprising “CI’s” (Chief Investigators) with a generous smattering of lower on the food chain research fellows and grunt-work doctoral candidates. Many were also regular contributors to Law and Financial Markets Review academic journal, of which O’Brien was general editor.
Business was usually conducted in fashionable Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane restaurants, bars, and lobbies of luxury hotels — everything paid on the university corporate card. Travel was usually in business or first class. Holidays at beach resorts were claimed as “research trips”. A hotel manager on a small island off Ireland’s west coast recalled settling hotel bills in the thousands charged to the Monash University credit card. Starwood hotel points accumulated as five-star accommodation with pillow menus were booked for international conferences while other academics bunked down in shared two- and three-star digs. “Congrats to the deal-making dervish!” crowed one academic to O’Brien in an email, “You have done extremely well to pull all this together”.
Yes, he certainly had. In fact, glowing letters of support, self-penned, were included in his lengthy ARC grant applications. One letter, addressed to Professor Sue Thomas, CEO of the Australia Research Council, was ghost-written by O’Brien yet carried the signature of a senior university staffer. “You need to understand this is how things are done at business schools”, revealed an academic who did not wish to be named. “Business schools are dripping in money and an ARC Laureate is the jewel in the crown of grants. It would not matter in the slightest that he wrote that letter and not the person at the University who signed it off. Nobody checks. Nobody cares. It’s all about bringing in the big money to enhance the reputation of the university”.
Universities have conniptions about plagiarism yet do not seem to fret about self-aggrandising ghosted letters and the awarding of lucrative grants. In fact, so impressed was “Assessor A” (all assessors retain anonymity) that they wrote in an official assessment report of a Laureate Fellowship submission for Monash Business School in 2018: “My view of the project is mirrored in the letter of support from Professor X on pages 51-52 on the proposal. Her analysis of the project’s importance and contribution is directly in line with my opinions formed while reading the detailed proposal. I wholeheartedly endorse this laureate Fellowship proposal”.
Dazzling the experts
Despite all this, 12 months to the day after his sudden departure from the Monash University Business School, the University of Sydney Business School extended O’Brien a warm welcome for a funded PhD. Nobody checked if the failed “Trust Project”, which had been his undoing at Monash, existed outside of a personal email address.
Nobody conferred with any of the six universities where their prospective doctoral candidate had been briefly employed. Rather, a panel of bedazzled experts at the Business School awarded the doctoral candidate not just one but two government-funded scholarships — according to human resources at Sydney University — with a substantial tax-free annual income for three years. One can only imagine Oprah Winfrey in full frenzy shrieking, “YOU GET a funded PhD, and YOU! And YOU! EVERYONE gets a funded PhD!”
In August 2021, the Business School engaged their scholarship student to “provide research assistance for discipline experts to progress new units of study proposals in development”. O’Brien was contracted and paid several thousand dollars by the Business School to design two units of study, including a unit on “Corporate Crime and Regulation”. Yet a spokesperson from Sydney University stated that “we can confirm this student was not employed by the University as a sessional academic”.
Mind-blowing proposed budgets calculated for travel, accommodation, and salaries for “teaching relief” and “field expenses” topped $1 million.
An FOI request revealed that the student had not been employed as a “casual staff member” and that “no relevant documents were found to be held by the University”. However, Sydney University HR confirmed that the student had been contracted and paid by the University as a “Casual Academic from September 28 2019 – December 31 2019”. Numerous staffers and official spokespeople at the University were unable to explain the difference between “Casual” and “Sessional” (“Isn’t it the same thing?” asked one.) What they did confirm was that the student was remunerated — in addition to his two scholarships — in “line with our Enterprise Agreement.”
Further, as reported by The Australian Financial Review in March 2021, Sydney University was nonplussed to have its name published alongside its scholarship student’s name and his non-existent “Trust Project” (“The Trust Project and Sydney University”) — in a booklet published by Cambridge University Press in 2019, as well as “General Editor, University of Sydney; Director, the Trust Project” in the Law and Financial Markets Review Journal, of which their student was editor before his sudden departure in December 2020 after concerns were brought by the board to the publisher. As a diligent spokesperson from Sydney university stated: “We expect our researchers to ensure accurate attributions in their publications, in line with their responsibilities under our research code of conduct, but we are not necessarily privy to individual students’ communications with particular organisations or outlets.”
And yet, once made privy, the University did not see fit to correct the record.
High currents to the Doldrums
In early April 2021, O’Brien made a change for the warmer climes of the Byron Bay hinterland. He announced on social media, “I have a live show on Radio Byron starting soon. Tune in”. The live show, “Following the Tradewinds”, is described on the local station’s Facebook page as “The best in world music”, with O’Brien touted as “a Global DJ”. The Tradewinds are the prevailing easterly winds that circle the earth about 30 degrees north and south of the equator, but as they approach to five degrees of the equator, these air and oceanic currents come to a halt in a band of hot air more commonly known as the Doldrums.
In April 2022, the multi-tasking Business School student allegedly departed Australia permanently for even warmer climes, escaping to the picturesque Puglia, the “heel of the boot” in Italy. On April 8, he posted on social media: “It is time to relax before heading home to Europe and a new life! Going to Ireland first, then six weeks in Barcelona and then on to Italy, where house hunting advanced in Puglia.” The post disappeared a few days later and was replaced with “Proudly European and now happily grounded in Italy”.
Questions put to the Business School, including Associate Professor Juliette Overland and Dean Gregory Whitwell, who were aware of O’Brien’s application for a Commonwealth-funded scholarship at their school in early 2019, asking how their dual scholarship student — who has been paid and continues to be paid — will complete his funded PhD from offshore and if all requirements have been fulfilled to date, were met with (sandstone) walling and silence. It now seems likely that some $120,000 of taxpayer-funded monies has been paid to a disgraced former professor turned student for a PhD that may or may not ever be defended or published. The business school stays silent.
Business schools as cash cows
In his book Shut Down the Business School: What’s Wrong with Management Education, management professor at Bristol University, Martin Parker, argues that business schools are mere “cash cows for the contemporary University… The money that business schools make now helps to prevent universities going bankrupt and subsidises most other university subjects. Not only does that mean that business schools are forced to teach what will sell, it also introduces the language and practices of managerialism to the University. Universities have become businesses which sell their products, with customers, striking employees, and highly paid chief executives.”
According to an article by Edward L. Queen in the New Republic (September 2015): “Data regularly demonstrates that business school students are more likely to cheat on examinations and assignments than their peers…Additionally, some evidence suggests that not only are business students more impaired in their moral judgments in a broader sense than are those in other majors and professional schools, but that business schools themselves may be responsible.”
Perhaps we should be grateful that while most of higher education languishes in the doldrums, at least business schools are thriving. May the Tradewinds continue to blow.
Jeanne Ryckmans is a former television presenter, producer and documentary maker for SBS Television and a senior publisher at Random House and HarperCollins Australia. She currently works as a literary agent and is the artistic director of the Canberra Writers' Festival.