The controversial filling of a seven-figure-salary role at UNSW Sydney has been referred to the state’s anti-corruption body. By Rick Morton.

Exclusive: UNSW referred to ICAC

A man wearing a black suit with a garden behind him.
UNSW vice-chancellor Professor Attila Brungs.
Credit: UNSW Community

The manner in which Professor Attila Brungs was appointed to his $1 million-a-year role as vice-chancellor at UNSW Sydney, and the alleged retaliation against executives who raised concerns about the process, has been referred to the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption by the state’s outgoing Tertiary Education minister.

Last month, the minister became aware of a long-running saga at the highest echelons of UNSW Sydney, which has embroiled senior figures including its chancellor, David Gonski, and Brungs. The complaint “about senior members of the Chancellery and governance at the University of New South Wales” was referred almost immediately to the state corruption watchdog.

Confirming the referral after a tipoff from a lawyer, the minister wrote: “In accordance with section 19 of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1994, I have made a section 11 notification to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, enclosing a copy of your correspondence with my office. I have asked the ICAC to provide you with a contact officer in relation to that notification.”

This is the second time ICAC has received information about governance at UNSW Sydney this year, but the new complaint involves critical insight into the institution’s handling of the original matter.

The concerns date back to the selection process for Brungs, a former University of Technology Sydney vice-chancellor, and set off a chain of events that would lead to allegations of significant breaches of integrity laws.

The 2021 selection process left many senior figures with arched eyebrows when it emerged a council subcommittee led by Gonski had shortlisted some candidates and then chosen Professor Brungs without any input from the rest of the UNSW Council.

A former vice-chancellor of a Group of Eight university and leader of the top university in New Zealand, Professor Dawn Freshwater, was told she was being closely considered and would be brought back for a second interview. She found out there would be no second interview when Brungs’s appointment was announced.

“There may technically not have been anything wrong with the way this was conducted,” a UNSW Council member said on condition of anonymity. “But it was not, I would argue, completely transparent and that concerned people.”

The Saturday Paper has spoken with eight current and former UNSW councillors, key personnel and people familiar with the operation of the senior university offices. Unless otherwise stated, all have been granted anonymity so they could speak freely and provide a more detailed account of what happened.

Email correspondence between one council member and the executive search firm Boyden, engaged to hunt for a new vice-chancellor in May 2021, reveals misgivings about the process.

“I have just been going through my diary and reviewing emails … and I noticed that all emails refer to ‘the’ preferred VC candidate, as opposed to the shortlist that has been finalised by the Council Selection Committee,” the email says.

“Can I please confirm that the Council will have the opportunity to meet with more than just one candidate (ie: the top two candidates at least) before the Council meeting on 7th June, given the importance of the appointment and to ensure equity as well?”

The council member later reiterated their concerns to UNSW Sydney’s chief human resources officer, Deena Amorelli.

“There is too much bias in the process if council only has the opportunity to speak to one candidate,” the councillor wrote. “It’s as if the decision has already been made.”

As it happened, Brungs was the only candidate the full UNSW Council had the opportunity to meet. He was confirmed as the choice later that day.

In September last year, UNSW Sydney’s chief operating officer, Sarafina Mohamed, made a complaint regarding the appointment process for the new vice-chancellor and subsequent management decisions.

This complaint was made in writing to the institution’s general counsel – and should have been treated, for the purposes of the NSW Public Interest Disclosures Act 2022, as a “PID”, which places special conditions on how it is handled.

Two days later, a position was advertised for an executive director to the vice-chancellor, who would operate at “a tactical, operational, and strategic level, handling oversight of initiatives for the Vice-Chancellor”.

These functions were substantially the same as those in the chief operating officer’s position, held by Mohamed. The position search, for which a recruiter was paid, was cancelled two months later after the intervention of Chancellor Gonski.

After a complaint, the ombudsman later referred Mohamed’s matter directly to ICAC, which then directed UNSW Sydney to engage external investigators to look into the issue.

It is not clear which elements of Mohamed’s complaint were referred for investigation. In correspondence seen by The Saturday Paper, from Mohamed’s lawyer, Amanda Harvey, to ICAC, it is clear the investigation commissioned by UNSW Sydney was established, conducted and completed during a period in which the university says it was “unaware” the complaint was a protected disclosure.

As recently as February 14, lawyers for UNSW Sydney, MinterEllison, claimed the university did not realise Mohamed’s matter was a PID even though it had been assessed as one by the ombudsman and referred to ICAC by the ombudsman and the university, and despite the fact the legislation does not require such certification. It is enough to merely suspect a complaint may be a PID.

“It is complete nonsense and frankly unbelievable that the university could claim that,” a source at one of the most senior levels of the institution tells The Saturday Paper.

“How to recognise and deal with a PID is core business for any public body and it is drilled into everyone over and over again.”

As a result of this apparent ignorance of the PID status of Mohamed’s complaint, none of the witnesses interviewed by the independent investigator engaged by UNSW Sydney, Q Workplace Solutions, were afforded the usual right of total confidentiality and legally enforceable protection from reprisal, retaliation or detriment.

Despite this, ICAC accepted the external investigation report. That report could not substantiate the complaint.

“In the circumstances, ICAC having endorsed the report and findings is extraordinary given the matters we have brought to ICAC’s attention and for which corrective action should have been taken,” Amanda Harvey wrote.

“We have now been advised by UNSW that they are considering making our client redundant, something we consider to be a direct result of the inappropriate conduct set out in our client’s complaint.

“Likewise, other relevant witnesses have also had their roles threatened or also been made redundant and will now be subject to comprehensive releases that will limit even ordinary investigation powers. The delay and inaction by ICAC now mean that only its powers of inquiry can properly address what has occurred.”

Mohamed was still employed by UNSW Sydney as its chief operating officer but on July 3, MinterEllison wrote to her lawyer to advise that it planned to “disestablish” the position of “COO (President and Vice Chancellor’s Office)” and replace it with a new role, “Chief of Staff, President and Vice Chancellor’s Office”.

Unlike the aborted first attempt to hire a position that replaced the COO role like for like, this notice describes the new role as being “required to operate at a more senior level with, commensurately, higher remuneration given the seniority of the role”.

Such a classification allowed Mohamed to be excluded from consideration for redeployment to the new role.

In the past fortnight, Mohamed resigned, almost a year since her concerns engulfed the chancellery, VC’s office and UNSW Council. As a result, the university now says it will not be making the COO role redundant.

In response to questions from The Saturday Paper, UNSW Sydney released a detailed statement defending its position.

“The Vice-Chancellor was appointed with Council’s full support to make improvements aligned with the University’s 2025 strategy. UNSW appreciates that change, including a change in leadership, may result in some staff feeling unsettled,” the statement said.

“UNSW took complaints seriously and treated them as a Public Interest Disclosure which entitles complainants to a range of protections.

“UNSW initiated an independent external investigation to thoroughly examine the matters, which was conducted under the direction and oversight of NSW ICAC. This included ICAC approving the appointment of the independent external investigator and the investigation process. ICAC was updated and regularly engaged on matters of process during the investigation.

“The independent investigator found all allegations made by the former UNSW employee to be unsubstantiated, without merit or without foundation.

“ICAC examined those findings and advised UNSW that, in light of all of the allegations not being substantiated, it would not be taking any further action.”

The handling of the PID and additional information was not part of that original complaint, but it is part of the new referral to the ICAC.

At the same time as Mohamed’s role was flagged for restructure, the university’s management board expanded at significant cost. One source says it has almost doubled in size.

Each additional deputy vice-chancellor role, with on-costs, is an expensive exercise: about $500,000, not including the complement of staff provided.

The expansion has put noses out of joint, because “budgets are tight”. A bemused employee noted that a multiday strategy workshop was held for senior executives at the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron club in Kirribilli last year. Brungs is a member of the club.

On Thursday, The Saturday Paper received a document confirming that his $3000 membership and anchorage fees at the invitation-only private club are paid for by the university as part of his contract.

“I am trying to pay the following invoice for Attila’s yacht squadron yearly membership and am getting rejected,” a university staff member wrote last year. “I don’t know why as my card limit is $5k. Would you mind if I put the amount on your card?” The invoice also included a $100 “donation” to the yacht club’s Squadron Foundation.

In another email obtained by this newspaper, home internet upgrades and the installation of security equipment, including a closed-circuit camera system, were also paid for by UNSW Sydney at a cost of nearly $7000.

Brungs was also paid a substantial bonus at the end of last year.

The university did not respond to questions about the yacht club membership and other contract benefits, including a subscription to a Pilates magazine.

Late on Wednesday, the minister who made the ICAC referral, Tim Crakanthorp, was sacked by NSW Premier Chris Minns and was himself referred to ICAC for an unrelated matter.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2023 as "Exclusive: UNSW referred to ICAC".

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