One of this country’s most prestigious providers of science research funding was not told of an investigation into one of its highly paid recipients, after which he left the country to take up a new posting at another university overseas.

An undergraduate student believes she was groomed by a senior lecturer in the science faculty of a top New Zealand university which she claimed led to brutal sexual encounters, detailed in a Newsroom report published at the weekend.

After the student made a complaint, the university investigated the lecturer’s actions. It upheld all of the investigated complaints, including that he formed a personal, unprofessional relationship with the student, used his position of power and influence to instigate a sexual relationship with the student, failed to disclose the relationship to the Head of School, and breached staff conduct policy.

(The investigation did not investigate three complaints – one because the investigator, an employment lawyer, could not find a suitable definition of ‘adult grooming’, and the other two because they involved sexual incidents that were the subject of a police complaint.)

The lecturer was stood down while the investigation was ongoing. It took nine months for the university to reach a conclusion, by which time the student had moved to Australia, unsure whether she would have to face the lecturer again in class if she stayed at the New Zealand university.

The senior lecturer, who is from Europe, had arrived in Aotearoa several years earlier following a teaching job at a top-tier US university and before long had secured more than $1m in New Zealand funding for his projects.

One of those funds was a prestigious Royal Society Te Apārangi Rutherford Fellowship worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to be paid over five years, with a small portion of that funding going to the New Zealand university.

Royal Society Te Apārangi awards highly competitive research funds and fellowships on behalf of the Government, funding that confers credibility for academics and helps them secure international jobs.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowship programme is fully funded by the Government through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to the tune of $8 million per year.

Society never told

The final outcome of the university investigation was completed earlier this year. The following month the university informed Royal Society Te Apārangi the lecturer would be leaving Aotearoa, and because recipients need to reside here to receive the funding his fellowship contract was terminated.

“No further payments were made post that,” a Royal Society Te Apārangi spokesperson told Newsroom.

But at no point did the university inform Royal Society Te Apārangi about the complaint, the investigation or the outcome.

Questions by Newsroom sent to the society were the first time it had heard of the lecturer’s conduct.

“Royal Society Te Apārangi was not aware there was any investigation… complaint, or outcomes concerning [the lecturer].”

The spokesperson went on to explain the society’s obligations in cases where recipients have substantiated complaints against them: “A contract for service with the host organisation and fellow has obligations which include complying with the Society’s own code of Code of Professional Standards and Ethics. As with any contract, we have clauses to enable contract variation or termination in response to change events.”

Privacy rules

In Newsroom’s investigation into the complaint, the student explained how she believed the lecturer “groomed” her into a relationship and took her to hotel rooms where she says he enacted brutal sex acts, one of which left her bleeding and having to visit a doctor.

Following the hotel incidents the woman, who had won a first year student award just months earlier, began to suffer from nightmares and anxiety and found it difficult to study.

“I didn’t have people to talk to about what I been through. I didn’t know it’s not supposed to be like that.”

During this time, she said the lecturer also accused her of being “mental” and sent her a link to bipolar screening tool suggesting she try it.

Under the responsibilities and standards section of its own code of professional standards and ethics for recipients, Royal Society Te Apārangi states members must not “…harass, bully or knowingly act with malice towards individuals or groups of people’”.

This includes conduct that, “…may be physically or psychologically harmful to the victim. Forms of harassment include but are not limited to…inappropriate physical contact; unwelcome sexual attention.”

In the earlier stages of the investigation, the student asked the university whether it would inform the Royal Society Te Apārangi about the complaint or the investigation.

It told her it couldn’t due to privacy rules. “I was also reminded about the confidentiality of everything,” the student told Newsroom.

The student then contacted the Royal Society Te Apārangi (before the university investigation’s final outcome had been reached) to ask about its complaints procedure. An executive officer replied that the issues she raised should be directed to the police and the institution involved “…but could take the complaint forward if they were upheld by the justice system or the institution involved.”

Possible penalties if a complaint about a member is upheld by the society include the publication of the member’s name.

However because the university never informed the society about the complaint, the investigation or the outcome, this action could not be considered.

‘Like the Catholic Church’

The lecturer now has a new teaching post at a university in Europe.

When Newsroom asked the New Zealand university whether it had informed the lecturer’s new employer about the investigation, or whether it had supplied a reference, it declined to answer, citing “privacy reasons”. The university in Europe provided a similar response.

The student who made the complaint told Newsroom the New Zealand university’s actions reminded her of the Catholic Church’s treatment of abusive priests. “It seems to be an open secret that even top global universities move predators around like the Catholic Church.”

She said every way she turned she came up against a wall of institutions that cited privacy as the reason they couldn’t answer her requests. “Why does privacy override female students’ safety?”

Newsroom asked Royal Society Te Apārangi whether it would request the investigation information from the university. A spokesperson said it wouldn’t.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi did not answer Newsroom’s questions about whether it had an expectation it should be informed by fellowship recipients and their host institutions of investigations such as this.

It also would not tell Newsroom when the last funding payment was made to the lecturer, stating it was “…contractual information that we are not be able to share with you.”

* Newsroom has not identified the university to protect the identity of the parties involved.

Bonnie Sumner is part of the Newsroom Investigates reporting team

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