VIC Ombudsman backs RMIT’s rejection of Snelling PhD

Victoria's Ombudsman has rejected complaints against RMIT University and its Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Daine Alcorn, by Douglas Snelling's biographer, Davina Jackson.

An investigation officer with the state Ombudsman's office, Jessica Downey, has found that Jackson's RMIT scholarship-funded PhD on Snelling was failed via 'academic judgment' and that there was no 'procedural irregularity' by RMIT's administrators.

In mid-2013, the Ombudsman was advised by Victoria's Independent Broad-based Anti Corruption (IBAC) agency that there was 'a case to answer' in Jackson's complaints to both agencies (and the Commonwealth Government's Australian Research Integrity Committee) about RMIT Chancellery's cancellation and overruling of its university appeals committee, after it had upheld Jackson's appeal against the failure of her thesis.

The appeals committee had received evidence from the head of RMIT's school of architecture and design, Professor Richard Blythe, that Jackson's Snelling research was wrongly judged as a theory rather than history thesis by two of its three external examiners, and that his school had wrongly accepted the examiners' reports. Blythe had recommended that two new examiners be appointed to re-review the thesis as a history document; the genre within which it had been accepted by the school.

After the appeals committee unanimously upheld Jackson's appeal and directed that the university's Graduate Research School 'examine the thesis in light of the examiners' reports', Professor Alcorn supervised a process in which the university's three Portfolio Deans accepted the two examiners' reports recommending failure, without examining the thesis or being informed that another examiner's report recommended a pass.

The Victorian Ombudsman's findings (as communicated to Jackson) are:

The Victorian Ombudsman has received  correspondence  from the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission  (IBAC)  dated 14 August 2013 to refer your complaint about RMIT University  (RMIT) to  the Ombudsman for consideration under the Ombudsman Act 1973 (the Act).

Your  complaint  relates  to  the decision of RMIT to fail your PHD thesis. Specifically you complain that:
> RMIT’s  appeal committee (the committee) ignored a ‘clearly written’ letter from Professor Richard Blythe Head of School, Architecture and Design
> RMIT’s  Chancellery  ‘flout[ed]’  the  appeal  committee’s unanimous judgment that the thesis had been wrongly examined
> the appeals process was manipulated by RMIT’S Deputy Vice Chancellor, Ms Daine Alcorn.

I made enquiries with RMIT pursuant to section 13A of the Act. On the basis of  the  information  provided by the university and your correspondence, I provide my comment below.

Professor Blythe’s statement

Professor Richard Blythe.

You  state  that  the  committee  ignored  a  ‘clearly written’ letter from Professor  Blythe.  I  have obtained a copy of a memorandum dated 6 October 2010  addressed  to  Associate Professor John Reece, Acting Dean, School of Graduate  Studies  in  which  Professor  Blythe  presents  his  view on the supervision and assessment of your thesis.

RMIT  has  advised  that  this  memorandum  was  included  in  your  appeal submission  and  distributed  to all attendees prior to the appeal hearing. RMIT  has  also  informed this office that during the hearing presentations Professor  Blythe  referred to this memorandum and expressed his opinion on the supervision and assessment of your thesis.

RMIT  has  informed  this office that it ‘carefully considered’ Mr Blythe’s submission and formed the view that ‘this was a matter of academic judgment rather than process error’.

When assessing complaints regarding the failure of a course or subject, the Ombudsman  considers  whether  the university has acted fairly and complied with  its  own  policies  and procedures. The Ombudsman does not review the academic merit of an assessment piece.

On this basis I consider that RMIT did not ‘ignore’ Mr Blythe’s opinion and consider it reasonable that they determined it to be a ‘matter of academic judgment’.

RMIT’s Chancellery ‘flout[ed]’ the committee’s unanimous judgment
You  state  that  the RMIT Chancellery’s post-appeal decision ‘to flout the appeal committee’s unanimous judgement’ was wrong.

I refer to an email of 16 November 2010 sent to you by Mr Craig Paterson on behalf  of the committee. Mr Paterson advises you the committee upheld your appeal and provided you with an outcome. This outcome provides that further action be taken by the School of Graduate Research Advisory Board (SGRAB).

On 14 December 2010, Mr Paterson wrote to you again to provide you with the findings of the SGRAB. In this letter Mr Paterson states ‘[t]his represents the  final  outcome  of  your appeal’. The final outcome of your appeal was ‘the original classification is confirmed. Your academic record will now be amended to reflect a NN (Fail)’.

RMIT  has  provided  me with a copy of an email sent by Professor Blythe to the  Dean,  School  of  Graduate  Research  which  states  that although he disagrees  with  the  view  of  the SGRAB he is ‘reassured that the process followed  has  been robust … is reasonable at least in a process sense … am confident  about  the  ability  of  RMIT to answer any questions around the integrity of this matter’.

Upon  review  of the above mentioned emails to you, I am confident that the SGRAB  undertook  the  actions  as directed by the committee. These actions finalised  your  appeal  process.  I  have  not  identified  any procedural irregularities in this process.

The  appeals  process  was manipulated by RMIT’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, Ms Daine Alcorn
I   have   not  identified  any  evidence  that  suggests  that  Ms  Alcorn ‘manipulated’  the  appeals  process.  As  previously  advised  I  have not identified any procedural irregularity in the appeals process.

This completes my consideration of your complaint.

Postscript 8 March 2015 Following receipt of new FOI evidence obtained by Jackson from several universities, the Victorian Ombudsman's office has reopened her complaint and will discuss the case again with RMIT's Chancellery (now under new administrators). The Ombudsman's office has stressed that it can negotiate but cannot control university policies or decisions.

Postscript 15 April 2015 The Ombudsman's office (investigation officer Michael Cavendish) advised that after reviewing Jackson's 'considerable amount' of new FOI material, it could 'not locate any instances of bias', did not change its view that 'RMIT has not made an administrative error' in handling the PhD appeal, and did not have the power to overturn the decision.