‘Serious misconduct’ prompted Sydney whistleblower’s removal

Sacked neuropathologist Manuel Graeber says university was happy with his work before he lodged disclosure about management

November 27, 2023
Australia, Sydney, University of Sydney
Source: iStock
The University of Sydney

The University of Sydney has said it sacked the president of its professors’ association for “serious misconduct”, not because he made public accusations against its leadership.

The university told Times Higher Education that it had dismissed Manuel Graeber because of multiple infractions including 10 counts of ignoring “reasonable directions” and five of “making false or misleading statements”.

He had also acted against the interests of three students under his supervision and breached his work contract and “a number of university policies and codes”. The proceedings against him had been in accordance with the enterprise agreement in “an extensive process spanning over a year”, the university said.

Professor Graeber “categorically” rejected the university’s claims. He said his relationship with Sydney’s administrators had been harmonious for over a decade until 2021, when he lodged a public interest disclosure alleging criminal actions by management. “The first misconduct case was fabricated against me only months later,” he said.

Initially, the university had disciplined him for installing a surveillance camera, after giving him “blanket written permission” to mount a security camera to protect valuable historical material following a nearby theft, he claimed. The second misconduct case had allegedly arisen after he declined a performance review by “the same line management I had reported for alleged criminal activity”.

The university again took action against him for refusing “to teach outside my field of expertise”, he said, even though a specialist in the field had offered to teach the course in his place. Professor Graeber said he had also been targeted through “the unfair termination of three of my students”.

Sydney previously declined to reveal details of the case, citing privacy obligations. It relented after another German-Australian academic, who had faced potential ruin after publicly criticising his employer, challenged the university to prove that it was not treating Professor Graeber in much the same way.

Murdoch University mathematician Gerd Schröder-Turk called on Sydney to explain why it had resorted to the “extreme” option of dismissal. “Hiding behind privacy considerations is not good enough to dispel plausible suspicions of abuse of power,” Professor Schröder-Turk writes in an open letter to Sydney chancellor Belinda Hutchinson and vice-chancellor Mark Scott, co-authored with Murdoch law professor Jürgen Bröhmer.

The letter warns of the “chilling effect” a perception of victimisation can have on university staff’s willingness to “speak up”.

“Any disputed involuntary termination of a senior academic for code of conduct infringements carries with it at least a risk of a perception of a miscarriage of process,” it says. “The necessity of such a drastic step must be established publicly and in a convincing fashion.”

Professor Schröder-Turk has personal experience of university victimisation. Murdoch’s previous leadership tried to remove him as staff-elected member of the university’s senate, and then attempted to sue him for millions of dollars, after he went public with concerns that the university was recruiting unsuitable international students.

It was subsequently claimed that one of the grounds for the lawsuit, Murdoch’s allegation that Professor Schröder-Turk’s revelations had triggered regulatory action against it, was false. The institution eventually dropped its legal action against him.

Sydney said it had decided to open up about Professor Graeber’s dismissal because the misconduct process had concluded, and because of “the high level of misinformation currently in the public domain”.

“We take our privacy responsibilities very seriously, and do not comment on individual staff matters while misconduct processes are underway,” it said. “Now…we believe it is important to address some of the factual inaccuracies [and] make clear the decision to terminate Professor Graeber’s employment…was not a retaliatory action…in response to his public interest disclosure.”

The University of Sydney Association of Professors had previously released a statement saying the university management had “abused internal mechanisms” to achieve a “wrongful dismissal”.

“We…unequivocally condemn Professor Graeber’s…dismissal from employment by a committee of three, comprising two senior management figures and one academic representative,” the statement says. The academic representative was understood to have opposed the sacking, it adds.


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