Words by Justine Cerna
Transparency is vital to institutional integrity. Whether it is about the local sports club or our Federal Government, an institution and its constituents do well to act in accordance with the expectations of the communities they serve. Codes of Conduct exist to ensure this integrity, defining best practices and correct courses of action for employees through adherence to fundamental understandings of the law. However, as any law student will tell you, the darndest thing about the law is that it is very much open to interpretation.
This is because the law depends on language, and language is slippery. Understanding the significance of codified language can be the difference between satisfactory outcomes or disciplinary action.
This article will assess the meaning of various clauses contained within UWA’s Conflict of Interest (COI) policy in the context of the recruitment process of the Head of the School of Social Sciences, which took place in the latter part of 2019. In focus is the exercise of the policy at critical stages of selection and the question of whether certain clauses go far enough to demarcate impartial behaviour from the questionable.
Recruitment for a new Head of School in Social Sciences
Testing the limits of the UWA’s COI policy is a ‘perceived’ close working relationship between Professor Matthew Tonts, former Executive Dean of the now-dissolved FABLE (Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Education) and incumbent Head of School Professor Amanda Davies, made in the middle stages of recruitment in late 2019. Acquired information suggests that during the latter part of the Search and Screening process (the initial, elementary stage before interviews), Tonts indicated that he knew Davies in a supervisor/fellow capacity.
A back-grounding on the exact nature of their relationship by the Pelican indicates that theirs was an academic collaboration relationship stretching back as far as 2006. The duo, at one point, had co-authored thirteen separate research papers and projects since 2007 and collaborated on six financial grants between 2006 – 2010.
So, does this qualify as a reason for concern? What does the policy say?
UWA’s Conflict of Interest Policy defines a ‘Close Relationship as a relationship between an employee and a relative, a financially dependent person, a close friend, a de facto partner or any person with whom there is currently, or has been an intimate relationship. This does not include a working relationship that emerges through ordinary collegiate academic collaboration, where colleagues are not relatives, financially dependent, de facto or intimate partners.
According to this definition, the relationship between Professor Tonts and Davies does not qualify as a conflict of interest.
But what is ordinary in the context of academic collaboration? This matter is unavoidably muddied by the fact that ‘ordinary collegiate collaboration’ is borne upon by the condition that ‘the colleagues in question are not relatives, financially dependent de facto or intimate partners’.
Tonts’ and Davies’ relationship does not fall under this category as they are not relatives, financially dependent de facto or intimate partners, but what stands is the degree to which Professors Tonts and Davies have worked together. Measured against industry standards it exceeded what was considered the norm in Australian humanities at the time.
This raises questions regarding the scope of the definition of close working relationships, as signalled by Professor Tont’s acknowledgement of his obligations to the university and his colleagues. All staff are required to sign an annual declaration form stating they understand UWA’s COI Policy, where it is made clear that all employees have a duty to immediately raise concerns regarding the Conflict of Interest affecting another Employee with their supervisor. Given the nature of Professor Tonts’ and Davies’ relationship (one which arguably exceeds the bounds of what can be considered the average colleague collaboration), Professor Tonts acknowledged their familiarity.
According to some members of the selection committee, the declaration was made during the latter stages of the Search and Screening process when the list of candidates (including Davies) had been ranked for shortlisting. At this point, the declaration was deemed insufficient and “not worth interrogating,” highlighting the need for an updated code of conduct.
It is interesting to ponder the ramifications of such decisions, which have since seen the absorption of Geography into the School of Social Sciences. The situation prompts questions regarding the recruitment process for the Head of the School of Social Sciences and other relevant regulatory capacities amongst staff in this instance.
Positioned as we are now, two years onwards, the School of Social Sciences (and dare we say, the university more broadly) has experienced no shortage of change and turmoil, and it is worth taking a moment to consider that state of management. Given the broad transformation in the administrative framework that was taking place at the time, it is a wonder if the systems that keep things in check at the university were prepared to deal with situations like this.
As it happens, the sections ‘Conflict of Interest’ [UP12/32] and Professional and Personal Relationships in the Workplace [UP07/14] are under review. UWA Codes of Conduct, including the Conflict of Interest Policy, are accessible via the UWA Policy Library webpage.
Professor Tonts was approached for comment regarding his understanding of the policy and activity during the search for the Head of the School of Social Sciences, but no answer was given. The Pelican hopes future correspondence will illuminate readers on the matter.
The Pelican thanks Charles Fedor for preliminary investigations into the matters contained in this article.