Academic sacked for spending grants on massages could receive compensation payout

A university professor who used research grants to pay for reflexology treatment, massages, wine, cosmetics, tourist attraction tickets and a noodle-maker is set to win compensation after the Fair Work Commission ruled his dismissal was harsh.

A Queensland university dismissed one of its professors in February last year for alleged serious misconduct, following an investigation into his use of Australian Research Council grants.

The professor was chair of information technology and chief investigator for nine ARC grants. He has been involved in highly advanced research designed to achieve early

diagnosis of diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The professor was accused of inappropriately obtaining reimbursement from the university, for expenses he charged against specific research grants.

The items purchased included air fares, wine, massage and reflexology treatments, cosmetics, clothes, shoes, a camera, a noodle maker, speaker systems, groceries, bedding and tourist attraction tickets.

Commission deputy president Greg Smith, in his judgment, said the professor genuinely believed he was entitled to spend the money. He believed many of the expenses were consistent with grant guidelines, and the discretion in the way he spent the money was “consistent with the exercise of academic freedom”.

Mr Smith said he was not persuaded the expenditure was appropriate. While the professor did not believe he was spending the funds “in any way other than that approved by the grant”, he said many of the items claimed “could not reasonably be seen as associated with research”.

However, while accepting the breaches were serious in nature, Mr Smith said he could not agree they constituted serious misconduct, as he could not find that the professor “engaged in wilful and deliberate behaviour contrary to the lawful and reasonable direction of the university”.

He found the university had a valid reason for sacking the professor but that the dismissal was harsh. In seeking reinstatement, the professor’s lawyers said he did not have to be a chief investigator if he resumed employment at the university.

But Mr Smith said it would “seem absurd’ to reinstate the professor “as the chair of an area but in the knowledge that he could not take the lead role in research activities and be excluded from any financial decision”.

“Reinstatement cannot be limited to just salary, it must comprehend the full scope of the position previously held,” he said.

A decision on compensation is still pending and will be decided on 15th March.

The university, in a one-line statement, said: “This is an important matter for the university given the principles underlying the case, and we note the findings of deputy president Smith.”

iHR cautions that unfair dismissal is a contentious area of workplace law for employers, and offers advice around performance management, workplace investigations and terminations.

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