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

by | Aug 31, 2020 | Business

Michael Sainsbury looks at the sector’s tendency to mimic corporate Australia’s “male, pale and stale” Jurassic attitudes towards sexual harassment while continuing to sign off on corporate salaries for its all-powerful vice-chancellors.

The sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed the University of Adelaide, which has seen its vice-chancellor, Peter Rathjen, sacked and its chancellor, retired Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, step down, raises serious questions about governance in the university sector and attitudes towards women.

Not long after Rathjen was installed as vice-chancellor at the University of Adelaide, he was investigated by the University of Melbourne over serious sexual misconduct allegations when Dean of Science in the late 2000s. Wendy Harris, QC, investigated the allegations, preparing a report for the University of Melbourne into the incidents, which South Australia’s Independent Commission Against Corruption described as “most serious allegations”.

Yet it appears this information was not passed on to the University of Adelaide. The University of Melbourne inquiry upheld the complaint.

Moreover, in 2018, the University of Adelaide had hired Rathjen from the University of Tasmania where, as vice-chancellor from 2011-2017, he and his wife had been criticised for running up a huge travel bill for first-class flights and five-star hotel accommodation. An investigation by the ABC saw the travel bill for the Rathjens’ come in at  $277,000 over four years.

Pay rise after receiving warning

Despite being investigated by the University of Adelaide in 2019, and subsequently receiving a warning, for the sexual misconduct that led to his sacking, Rathjen received a pay rise of about 3.5% to take his salary to $1.1 million for 2019.

This was also despite the university’s profit falling 3.5% ahead of its disastrous performance this year: it has forecast a loss of $100 million and is cutting 200 staff on the back of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, most of University of Adelaide’s top management, four of whom earned more than $500,000 in 2019, received a pay boost.

Last week South Australia’s ICAC found that Rathjen had sexually assaulted two staff members at a work function. ICAC Commissioner Bruce Lander, QC, found that Rathjen inappropriately touched two female staff members and kissed one on April 19, 2019.

According to the ICAC Commissioner, on May 13, 2019, the University of Adelaide Chancellor Kevin Scarce met with Rathjen and put the sexual harassment allegations to him. Rathjen did not deny them.

The next day, the Chancellor wrote to Rathjen admonishing him for his conduct and warning him that if there was any similar further conduct “it would warrant a very serious consequence”.

University council not told of allegations

Chancellor Kevin Scarce did not take the scandal to the university’s council, according to ICAC’s commissioner, and it did not find out about the allegations until April 6, 2020 almost a year after the offences were committed.

“I do not agree with that advice. I think the University Council should have been advised because it was the body who employs the Vice-Chancellor,” ICAC Commissioner Lander said.

While Scarce had legal advice that he did not need to refer on the scandal, one has to ask what on earth was he thinking? Sexual misconduct by a chief executive of an organisation heavy with female staff and students is clearly a matter for the institution’s governing body.

As one senior university council member told

“This underscores how feudal and unreconstructed Australia’s universities are. In effect everyone is subservient to the vice-chancellor. I wonder how many other things have not made it to councils or Senates?


“In universities the vice-chancellor is seen as the leader. In so many cases it is the vice-chancellor who picks the Chancellor and not vice-versa. It’s very hard in public universities for anyone else to have an independent line to the Council or Senate.”

Parallels with corporate scandals

The scandal has seen parallels drawn with the sexual harassment scandals that have rocked AMP and claimed the scalp of its ageing chairman, former Commonwealth Bank CEO David Murray, and former Treasury secretary John Fraser, a director of AMP.

Chancellors, who are the heads of university councils and senates, are effectively the chairmen of boards running organisations that rake in billions of dollars. An analysis of Chancellors across Australia’s 37 public universities has found that only eight are women.

Like their counterparts in corporate Australia, chancellors are overwhelmingly “male, pale and stale”.

The only Chancellor with an Asian background is Queensland University of Technology’s Xiaoling Liu, while the University of Queensland’s Peter Varghese is the only other Chancellor from a non-European background.

The situation regarding vice-chancelleries is barely better, with only 10 of 37 women running universities, despite women generally out-representing men across the sector.

Questions about governance at University of Melbourne

The scandal has also shone light on governance at the University of Melbourne, where Rathjen was employed until 2011. The university conducted an investigation into Rathjen during 2018 into historical allegations of serious sexual misconduct and an external review upheld the allegations by a former student while Rathjen was the Dean of Science between 2006 and 2008.

The vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, who retired at the end of 2018 on a then-Australian record salary of $1.6 million, appears not to have informed the University of Adelaide Council of the findings of the external review into Rathjen.

When asked specifically whether the University of Melbourne told the University of Adelaide staff of its experience with Rathjen, it responded:

“The University is committed to treating everyone with respect, compassion and courtesy, and to tackling sexual assault and harassment head-on, with zero tolerance for these behaviours.


“The University will be examining the ICAC recommendations very carefully to determine how we can strengthen our policies and procedures to stamp out sexual assault and harassment.

Former UoM vice chancellor Glyn Davis did not respond to questions.

The University of Tasmania has announced an investigation into Professor Rathjen’s behaviour during his tenure.

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

In the space of just eight years, Rathjen’s salary almost tripled. As vice-chancellor at the University of Tasmania in 2011 he earned between $410,000 and $419,000, which vaulted to between $975,000 and $989,000 in 2017. When Rathjen stepped into his role at University of Adelaide he commanded a $1 million-plus salary.

It has also emerged that Rathjen was paid out a portion of his $1 million plus contract for 2020. He was also contracted to the university for 2021.

The University of Adelaide did not respond to detailed questions from Michael West Media, including about Rathjen’s travel arrangements during his tenure.


Michael Sainsbury

Michael Sainsbury

Michael Sainsbury is a former China correspondent (now based in South-East Asia), with more than 20 years’ experience writing about business, business politics and human rights across Australia and the Asia Pacific. You can follow Michael on Twitter @SainsburyChina.


  1. Avatar

    Remember the innocence of the earlier 21st century, when Macquarie’s self-regarding Di Yerbury was the height of scandal, for the driver, office, personal assistant, house, artworks, and so on.

    Hoj, Spence, Rathjen, Leinonen, and their ilk, have taken the VC game to a whole new level of arrogance and entitlement. Specifically chosen for their Dark Triad attributes, it would appear. Once you pay them that magic million, they seem to behave like Medici princes on a bad day. Schmidt at ANU seems a bit better.

  2. Avatar

    So Rathjen gets an AO a couple months after groping two women and formal complaints lodged. Moreover he apparently did worse at UMelb!! Surely Canberra will strip him of the AO. Offensive that someone like him gets one when deserving people are overlooked.

  3. Avatar

    Rathjen is now as good as qualified to become minister in the Lib/Nat coalition party government.

    • Avatar

      Yeah, but he’ll probably walk onto the Murray-Darling board and open an account in the Cayman Islands with Angus and Barnaby.

    • Avatar

      Or maybe President of the US.

  4. Avatar

    And after he is afforded the reputation-protecting option of ‘resigning’ (rather than being sacked, like any ordinary worker would be), he then walks off with a payout ‘in lieu of notice’. Talk about have your cake and eat it!

  5. Avatar

    As many have demanded Rathjen SHOULD BE STRIPPED OF HIS ORDER OF AUSTRALIA!! So far he’s received no punishment. He was not sacked in disgrace, he resigned and got a bonus!! He doesn’t need the money but he does need his AO. It’s a ticket to a number of opportunities for him. Michael, start the campaign through MWM.



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