Adelaide vice-chancellor under investigation resigns

The vice-chancellor of one of Australia’s top 10 universities abruptly resigned on 20 July, two months after an inquiry was ordered into his conduct.

University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Peter Rathjen resigned “due to ill health”, according to the university. He had already been on indefinite leave from his position since 5 May.

A university announcement on 7 May said an inquiry would be undertaken by the state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.

Adelaide is a member of Australia’s Group of Eight top universities and one of the oldest in the nation.

Local reports in Adelaide said there was growing concern among members of the university’s governing council, as well as within the state government, that the corruption inquiry into Rathjen could drag into next year.

In an email to staff, university Chancellor Catherine Branson said the university council had accepted Rathjen’s resignation “due to ill health”.

“The university extends its appreciation for the contribution Professor Rathjen has made since taking up the role in 2018,” Branson said.

Rathjen is a British-born scientist and medical researcher who was previously vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania from 2011 to 2017.

A report in the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper says that just days before he resigned the top post at Adelaide, a company part-owned by Rathjen was placed in liquidation.

He was granted indefinite leave on 5 May, the day after university chancellor Kevin Scarce abruptly resigned his six-year term.

At the same time, the head of South Australia’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Bruce Lander, announced an inquiry into Rathjen’s conduct as vice-chancellor.

“I have commenced an investigation in respect of allegations of improper conduct by the vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide,” Lander said.

“I am also investigating the manner in which the university dealt with those allegations,” he said.

However, he stressed that “the fact of my investigation, which has only just commenced, must not be construed as a finding that any person has engaged in impropriety”. That would be a matter for findings at the conclusion.

He clarified that the investigation was “in respect of potential issues of serious or systemic misconduct and maladministration, not corruption”.

Branson, a former South Australian Crown Solicitor and a Federal Court judge, was appointed chancellor a week prior to the announcement of the vice-chancellor’s resignation. She takes up the position at the most challenging of times.

Huge financial losses

Rathjen’s departure, two years after taking up the post, occurs at the same time Adelaide joins other top universities in facing huge financial shortfalls from the collapse in overseas student numbers.

The university had earlier predicted revenues of more than AU$1billion (US$705 million) this year, but these have been replaced with expected losses of AU$100 million.

Several of Australia’s other leading universities are facing similarly dire economic collapses, having vastly over-estimated the profits they expected to generate from selling courses to foreign students.

The coronavirus pandemic led to bans being imposed by the federal government on overseas students enrolling in Australia. But that decision cut off the huge income flows the universities were expecting.