Gerry Wrixon may be down but he ain't out yet
As I write this article I know from the outset that UCC and their legal attack dogs – possibly McCann Fitzgerald, who have carved out a lucrative career from pursuing UCC’s legal hounding of employees and staff - will almost certainly be coming after me. I should declare an interest immediately. A close member of my family attempted a so far unsuccessful challenge to UCC as a consequence of a refusal to cooperate with what he believes were inappropriate and possibly corrupt practices within the Department of Applied Social Studies at UCC. That issue is not the subject of this article.
Professor Gerry Wrixon has presided over one of the most acrimonious and difficult periods of UCC’s history. Allegations of financial and other impropriety at the university have dogged him, not least of which are those referred to in an article in the Irish Examiner last week. Do take the trouble to go to the link and read it before carrying on:
But the Examiner report is only the half of it.
A former employee of UCC, Dr Stuart Neilson, who worked in the Department of Epidemiology, has been threatened with legal action unless he takes down a website giving an account of his struggles against bullying and unfair employment practice at UCC. Dr Neilson will not have been surprised to receive this latest threat from UCC given the following remark made to Dr Neilson by Professor Ivan J Perry, Head of Department, on the 11th October 2002:
"If you feel the need to refer to your legal rights then you obviously have no place in a department like this and I will not be renewing your contract - it will be better for all of us if you leave."
Professor Ivan J. Perry, Head of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College Cork, 11th October 2002.
Here is the text of the letter sent to Dr Neilson by UCC’s legal adviser the week before last:
31st August 2006.
Dear Dr. Neilson,
Re: Your Allegations against Professor Ivan Perry.
It has come to my attention that you are publicly alleging on one or more websites that you have been "bullied and harassed by Professor Ivan Perry whist employed at University College Cork" (in your words). This matter was investigated in 2003 accumulating in a letter to you by the President confirming that a report had been completed under the University's procedures and that no further actions was required beyond those recommended by the investigators into your allegations.
It is of course a matter for you to determine at the time how you wish to pursue matters, but as far as the University is concerned, the University procedures have been gone through and a report issued to you. As a consequence, for you to make accusations in a public manner concerning one of the University's Professors and by implication the procedures adopted by the University, is unacceptable.
May I ask you to immediately cease making public statements of this nature, remove all such allegations from your website (and any other site in which you are involved) and confirm by return that you have done so.
Should you not have responded positively within seven days of this letter, then you leave the University with little option but to pass the matter to our external lawyers to pursue further. I hope that this will not be necessary.
Secretary / Chief Legal Officer”
Dr Neilson’s website can be read here: http://www.iol.ie/~stuartneilson/ but he has been compelled to remove some of the text of his complaint as a precaution against the threat contained in the letter above.
Of further interest to web users is the response of IOL to pressure from UCC to take Dr Neilson’s site down. Earlier this year UCC became aware of the site. On 1 June, IOL removed the documents from the site under the IOL / BT Ireland Acceptable Use Policy ("causing annoyance") and advised Dr Neilson that he could link to another host so long as the “annoyance” was not on their server. IOL contacted Dr Neilson on 20 June to say even linking was an “annoyance”, listened to his argument that all the material was elsewhere than IoL's server and took no action. On 6 September he received the legal threat to remove the site. Dr Neilson accepts that IOL have done their best to accommodate the conflicting interests fairly but the point that ought to be of concern, surely, is UCC’s attempt to silence him from mentioning even the fact of having complained. Is this not bullying in itself, leaving aside completely the substance of Dr Neilson’s complaint and the outcome of his pending legal challenge to UCC?
”As I read the threat, I am warned not to mention even that I made a complaint of bullying as it "by implication" is some form of accusation against the University.”
That is an interpretation of his rights as defined on this website:
Here is a summary of Dr Neilson’s concerns in his own words:
1) I complained describing behaviours which are indisputably bullying by UCC's own policy definition;
2) UCC did not fully investigate or act on that complaint;
3) UCC has no right of appeal and the finding is not open to question;
4) UCC converted my post to permanency without informing me;
5) I was prevented from returning to work by HR despite being certified fit;
6) I lost my (now permanent) job because I complained;
7) The University is threatening to sue me for publicising this sequence of events.
Litigation Litigation Litigation
Anyone reading the newspapers over the last few years will hardly fail to have noticed that University College Cork has a questionable track record when it comes to employee relations. Below are listed over 30 recent and current legal cases involving UCC, obtained by a search of the public Legal Diary at www.courts.ie, and this list includes only cases scheduled for court dates. There are outstanding writs served against UCC with no scheduled date (such as Dr Neilson’s). There are cases that have been conceded by UCC without defence that have resulted in confidential settlements.
JUDGEMENTS OF THE HIGH AND SUPREME COURTS
Fanning v. University College Cork  IEHC 264 (24 June 2005)
National University of Ireland Cork -v- Ahern & Ors  IESC 40 (10 June
Fanning v. University College Cork  IEHC 70 (22 October 2003)
X and University College Cork  IEIC 7 (4 March 2003)
Barlow v. Fanning  IESC 53 (02 July 2002)
Fanning v. University College Cork  IEHC 85 (25 July 2002)
Sweeney v. National University of Ireland Cork t/a Cork University Press
 IEHC 70;  2 IR 6;  1 ILRM 310 (9th October, 2000)
Howard v. University College Cork  IEHC 138 (25th July, 2000)
Fanning v. University College Cork  IEHC 236 (7th July, 1999)
RECENT AND CURRENT CASES (HIGH COURT EXCEPT WHERE NOTED OTHERWISE)
Bannon -V- University College Cork
Bannon -V- University College Cork (Supreme Court)
Barlow, Kenneally and O'Suilleabhain -V- University College Cork and Fanning
Corcoran -V- University College Cork
Fanning -V- University College Cork (231)
Fanning -V- University College Cork (260)
Fanning -V- University College Cork (2003)
Fanning -V- University College Cork (3114)
Fanning -V- University College Cork (5115)
Fanning -V- University College Cork (12971)
Fanning -V- University College Cork (15653)
Fanning -V- University College Cork (Supreme Court)
Fernando -V- National University of Ireland Cork
Hayes -V- University College Cork
Howard -V- University College Cork
Linehan -V- University College Cork & Ors
McCarthy -V- University College Cork
McDermott -V- University College Cork
NUI Cork -v- Ahern & Ors
NUI Cork -v- Ahern & Ors (Supreme Court)
O'Brien -V- University College Cork
O'Hanrahan -V- NUI Cork
O' Higgins -V- University College Cork
O' Higgins -V- University College Cork (Supreme Court)
O'Mahony -V- University College Cork
O'Neill -V- University College Cork
Schewe -V- University College Cork
Sweeney -V- National University of Ireland Cork t/a Cork University Pre
University College Cork -V- Commissioner of Valuations
University College Cork -V- Cross Refrigeration Ltd
University College Cork -V- Revenue Commissioners
University College Cork -V- Revenue Commissioners (Supreme Court)
"I am no stranger to the inside of a courtroom." boasted Mr Noel Keeley, thankfully now a former Vice President for Human Resources at UCC, on the 19th March 2003, and clearly untroubled by all this implied about his success in his job.
OUTCOMES OF CASES DERIVED FROM PRESS REPORTS
Professor Fanning was the subject of various complaints by 20 staff in the Economics Department and has been involved in numerous High Court and Supreme Court cases since 1999. Additional investigation and mediation has involved both the Anti-Bullying Centre, Trinity College and John Horgan, a
former Chairman of the Labour Court. Staff who came into conflict with Professor Fanning have variously been on extended sick leave, been transferred to other departments, been accommodated in specially designated research centres geographically separate from Professor Fanning, or accepted sizeable financial settlements. Total liabilities are approximately 6 million euro.
Ahern & Others are 43 security staff represented by SIPTU in an equal-pay claim that was supported by the Rights Commissioner. UCC unsuccessfully appealed the recommendation to the Labour Court, then to the High Court, then to the Supreme Court, losing on every occasion. The case has been
returned to the Labour Court (June 2005). Pay arrears are approximately 1.5 million euro and legal costs are of a similar magnitude.
Professor Howard was the subject of allegations of bullying by 6 staff in the German Department. She is, in effect, suspended from all duties in an arrangement where she suffers no financial loss. The cost to UCC in additional salary and pension rights is approximately 1 million euro.
Dr Schewe was one of 6 complainants against Professor Howard. UCC insisted that this would not affect Professor Howard's judgment on a panel assessing Dr Schewe's suitability for promotion. Dr Schewe applied for and received an injunction removing Professor Howard from the panel.
Professor Hyland was accused of bullying while Head of the Education Department. UCC initially refused to address the complaint, but settled in confidence following an Equality Tribunal hearing. Professor Hyland is effectively suspended from duties in her department and has been promoted to Vice President. Failure to appoint a replacement Head of Department has been expensive and caused resentment.
Professor Moran, the previous President of UCC, was threatened with a libel action for disclosing the date on which a development contract with Owen O'Callaghan was signed - the action was dropped. Other university officers and auditors have been similarly drawn into legal threats (according to The Phoenix).
All of this expensive legal activity eventually came to the notice of the Public Accounts Committee who questioned Professor Wrixon about it. Here is a transcript of parts of that exchange with commentary beneath each of the issues referred to:
1. Disputes cost far in excess of 125,000 euro per year
Professor Wrixon: I looked at our legal costs for the last four years. Some are reimbursed under public liability insurance policies. For those four years the average legal costs have been ?250,000 per year,half of which has to do with capital projects and purchasing land.
Deputy Curran: Is ?250,000 the amount after reimbursement?
Professor Wrixon: Yes. Ongoing legal costs averaged ?125,000 over the last four years. For an organisation of 2,500 people, that is reasonable.
The figure of 125,000 euro per annum provided by Professor Wrixon is at variance with the facts. The liability in relation to three highly public cases alone (Fanning, Howard, Ahern & Others) exceeds 10 million euro, as itemised below. Failure to deal with staff grievances is a major contributor to UCC's budget deficit. The true cost to UCC of disputes should include the cost of routine legal advice, the cost of litigation, the value of settlements and the salaries of staff on suspension and sick leave. President Wrixon's response appears to include only the first of these.
2. There is not one, but many legal disputes at UCC
Deputy Burton: Note 27 on page 22 on contingent liabilities relates to various legal proceedings. How many cases have crystallised and been settled? How much did the settlements cost? This would relate to the situation in September 2002.
Professor Wrixon: We have one major ongoing legal case which has been covered by our insurance policy. Therefore, there is no related contingency. It is being appealed to the Supreme Court.
3. A university cannot operate uninsured
Deputy Burton: What amount is involved? If there were significantly high numbers of such cases, would they affect subsequent attempts to take out insurance for legal cases?
Professor Wrixon: Insurance cover is no longer available to us.
Deputy Burton: Why has such cover been refused? Was it because the level of claims against the university was deemed to be high?
Professor Wrixon: Yes.
Irish Public Bodies Mutual Insurances Ltd has presumably taken the view that liabilities incurred by UCC are unacceptably high, and presumably greatly exceed 125,000 per year. I do not know if there is a customer confidentiality issue involved, but they presumably have quantified UCC's outstanding liabilities. It is clearly of urgent public interest to regularize UCC's lack of insurance before this disaster becomes
4. UCC loses cases, defended against professional advice
Deputy Burton: Has the court so far upheld the university's point? I presume the parties are members of staff.
Professor Wrixon: In the original High Court action the university's case was upheld but that decision was reversed on appeal to the Supreme Court. The case was sent back for retrial. In the second High Court hearing the plaintiff's case was upheld and the university is appealing the decision
to the Supreme Court.
In NUI Cork -V- Ahern it was UCC's choice to appeal a Rights Commissioner reccomendation and then to appeal a High Court Judgment to the Supreme Court. A member of the governing body has stated that in one instance UCC received 5 successive barristers' briefs advising against court action and
nevertheless proceeded. The President did so against the advice of his own officers and the governing body.
5. UCC has a highly confrontational, litigious attitude to disputes
Professor Wrixon: As we are talking about future litigation, I have no way of predicting what the cases will be. Ideally, none of these matters should ever reach the courts. We have put in place many procedures and mechanisms for settling disputes without recourse to legal means. That, however,
remains the right of any citizen. The university did not bring any of these cases but we are aware of the Deputy's point and I hope our procedures will minimise or eliminate the numbers going to court.
The following is the text of a letter written by Dr Neilson to the Public Accounts Committee about the cost of UCC’s litigation:
"UCC Accounts, Committee of Public Accounts 1 December 2005
Dear John Curran,
I wish to take issue with a number of President Wrixon's misleading statements to the Committee of Public Accounts on 1st December 2005. Contrary to his evidence, UCC has many outstanding legal cases and not just "one major ongoing legal case". It is patently false that "the university did not bring any of these cases", as noted below. President Wrixon should be challenged to produce an accurate and comprehensive valuation of the costs of disputes at UCC.
His evidence to the committee trivialises the magnitude of complaints at UCC and falsely characterises all complainants as "dissenters" from a "distant past .... quiet ivy grove". I for one have published three books, have many papers in leading international medical journals, have undertaken commercial
consultancy and receive royalty income - I have not been adversely affected by recent changes at UCC and barely know the President himself. My complaint is purely of unacceptable management practices in my former department.
I have repeatedly asked for and been refused information about the extent and cost of bullying / harassment at UCC, where it is a significant problem. Without reference to individual cases and without compromising confidentiality, UCC should reasonably be able to provide:
The number of complaints and their outcomes
The number of writs, tribunal hearings and court cases
The number of staff suspended from teaching or other duties following
The cost of staff suspension
The cost of sick leave
The cost of legal fees, litigation and settlements
If these figures indicate a significant problem of bullying / harassment at UCC, the Minister for Education is empowered to appoint a Visitor to oversee an investigation of UCC's administration and complaint handling. The Visitor provides an alternative route for the resolution of outstanding complaints
without recourse to litigation and without consequent adverse publicity.
My personal interest in this issue is that UCC refused to address my complaint of being bullied / harassed by my Head of Department; President Wrixon wrote to inform me there was no appeal to this decision; Vice President for Human Resources Noel Keeley invited me to sue UCC and boasted
that he was "no stranger to the inside of a courtroom"; I was not permitted to return to work unless I conceded the complaint was unfounded; and my employment was then terminated. I have been advised that there is no doubt that my complaint is well-founded and that UCC's liability would be
substantial if my case were to succeed.
With best wishes"
Gerrard Wrixon is shortly due to retire. He should have done so a year ago at the age of 65 like all public servants but his tenure was exceptionally extended thereby setting a potentially costly precedent for anyone who might equally feel that they were too important to their employer to retire at the statutory retirement age. As anyone following the links below will see, Professor Wrixon’s confrontational personality has determined the ethos of the college throughout his extended tenure there, which charge was notably brought to his attention during an interview with Charlie Bird on RTE in (2005). Wrixon usually responds to the charge that he is a bully by saying that it is only the begrudgers, old-fashioned types and people who can’t cope with innovation who have a problem with his style. This allegation has annoyed the socks off those who know otherwise and it does nothing in any case to address the substantive points that his critics make, with some justification.
Professor Wrixon also points to his own achievements and the vast sums of research money that he has procured from the corporate sector for tied projects and building works on and off the campus. But those sums have nothing to do with the day to day running of the university which is in a parlous state in the view of many of UCC’s academics. The deficit at UCC is greater than the whole of the combined deficit of the other universities.
Further commentary on Professor Wrixon’s style of management can be found here:
His official biography is here:
Here also are some links to press items concerning Professor Wrixon’s management of the university which refer to financial and other issues such as the retention of depleted uranium rods at the university, a gift to UCC from the Reagan administration.
And here are some links to reports of Wrixon’s ‘windfall’ from the sale of Farran Technology:
With regard to employee relations, UCC have put in place an investigative and appeals process which in the opinion of an independent assessor was seriously inadequate in dealing with Dr Neilson’s complaint. It says:
"I do not believe, on what is before me, as a report on [this] complaint outcome by Gerard Wrixon that any court will consider that the complaint was investigated in accordance with the Universities own policy or at all properly or thoroughly"
"this report is a whitewash of the facts"
(An Employer and A Worker, Time Limit, Case EET995 issued on 03/08/99
Here are details about another, unsuccessful, complaint in relation to the Department of Education
(UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK and MARY KEOHANE, Appeal Against Rights
Commissioner's Decision Wt 527/99, Case DWT0147 issued on 30/11/2001
Neither report refers to Professor Hyland by name – and the ‘An Employer and A Worker’ on the face of the record is strikingly reticent about the parties to litigation. I wonder why.
Certainly some of the employees who have experience of Professor Hyland in her investigative role have found her dismissive of their concerns. They feel that she showed little understanding of issues such as fairness and due process. For example, taking at face value the protestations and explanations of alleged bullies without adequately attempting to verify the truth of what they were saying – even when concrete evidence would have been readily available to her in support of the complainants case. Or declining to take evidence from witnesses who would concur with the complainant’s allegations.
Here is an example of how Hyland draws conclusions in favour of UCC even where her own report would appear to contradict her findings:
"He also apologised for any upset he (Professor Perry) might have caused to Dr. Neilson, stating 'it was never my intention to undermine you in any way. I take great care not to cause offence to my colleagues. It is obvious I have failed in this instance and I apologise' .. In conclusion, the investigators do not uphold the complaint by Dr. Stuart Neilson under the University's Duty of Respect and Right to Dignity Policy." Professor Áine Hyland, Vice-President and Chair of the Equality of Opportunity Committee, University College Cork, 19th May 2003.
And to top all that, UCC rule out any possibility of an appeal against Professor Hyland’s decisions, themselves always, wouldn’t you know, taken wholly at face value by Professor Wrixon:
"Having considered the content of the report, I am of the view that no further action is required" and "there is no right of appeal in respect of the outcome of an investigation into a complaint of bullying or harassment."
Gerard T. Wrixon, President of University College Cork, 22nd May and 25th August 2003.
Contrast and compare Wrixon’s conclusion with the following:
‘"It is also obvious that the alleged bully was willing to allow the complainant to believe he was dismissed, when that was not the case, and to further write him a letter of farewell, knowing that his leaving was under the false impression that he was dismissed. There is - therefore - evidence
of the above and of mismanagement and questionable judgement, which explains perhaps why the complainant felt so aggrieved as to make his formal complaint."
Health and Safety Authority report on University College Cork, 27th January 2004
But UCC have also had run-ins with the Anti Bullying Unit section of the Health & Safety Authority. UCC had to be compelled by the ABU to release the details of Dr Neilson’s case in 2004 when UCC refused to comply with the law and tried to prevent them from seeing the files. On one occasion the ABU representative who had travelled from Dublin having notified UCC that she was coming to inspect the files, was refused access. UCC complained, via McCann Fitzgeral solicitors, about her conduct. She noted:
"The letter from McCann Fitzgerald was the third reaction from UCC to my request for access. My first request was in person and was refused -1 visited Cork on 19 Sept 2003 and Mr Paul Ryan said he couldn't give me access to the file. My second request was by phone to Mr Noel Keely on 22nd Sept 2003 and was refused, as he requested a written response outlining the legal reason for that request. I consulted the MOP'S document and sent a very comprehensive letter to UCC outlining our legal remit and options and requested compliance. After using these three different approaches to UCD, when they once again failed to give access and sent a letter from ## [ deleted ] ##".
Dr Neilson found out that UCC had falsely claimed to her that they had found bullying in previous investigations. See this High Court judgment:
http://www.bailii.org/ie/cases/IEHC/2005/H264.html Fanning vs UCC June 2005
UCC does not recognize bullying / harassment and has never upheld an internal complaint. UCC falsely claimed (to the HSA) that a complaint of bullying / harassment had been upheld and this claim is the subject of legal action. There is no right of appeal to internal complaints, which must therefore proceed to litigation.
UCC was served with an Improvement Notice by the Health and Safety Authority (IN DJ53907) on 28th November 2003 in relation to failures in its internal complaints procedures.
In all of this, there is of course the personal cost to so many people of careers interrupted or lost and the impact on their families and colleagues. In an institution where no complaint of bullying is ever upheld the effect on staff is to intimidate and to depress. And beyond that, the impact on students and the provision of third level education is incalculable. This is not about how much research money or how many buildings university leaders may have procured from the corporate sector or what benefits those donors may derive from their investment. It is about managing a significant national resource to the optimum benefit of its users. Can Professor Wrixon seriously claim that he has managed to do that?