University of Canberra case tests anti-bullying boundaries

IN 2008, James Warden was in the bosom of the University of Canberra. He helped stage its 40th anniversary celebrations, wrangled government money for a new Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage and became its first director.

A year later, Mr Warden was no longer director. Last December, he was gone from the university. The falling out is documented in 17 pages of a statement of claim filed with the Federal Court, where Mr Warden is seeking damages. He has his first hearing date on Friday week.

Mr Warden, whose background is in history and cultural studies, says he is unsure why he came undone, but believes that his treatment at Canberra is not an isolated case. "The level of intimidation and persecution left me no option but to resign," he said. He thinks enthusiasm for his institute did not survive a change in middle management.

In September 2009, he said, he was abruptly removed as director and confronted with the first in a series of "throwaway" allegations. "They were a shopping list of complaints, none of which were documented," he said. According to Mr Warden's statement of claim, the university's allegations included "unspecified irregularities" in spending at the institute.

Mr Warden denies any such thing, pointing out that expenses had to be signed off by the dean and acquitted under an ACT government deed of grant. The university also claimed Mr Warden continued to hold out as institute director to undermine his replacement. "Not true," said Mr Warden. He said publications that were in print when he was director appeared after his removal. Introduced at a conference as director, he corrected the record.

The university began a formal investigation into his case and appointed a review committee. "It was minor administrative stuff that they had trumped up as serious misconduct," Mr Warden said. "I was lucky that I had a competent committee with integrity who looked at it and said, 'There's nothing here'."

At odds with the views of the committee, the university told Mr Warden he was "formally censured", according to his statement of claim. At one point in the drawn-out conflict the university directed him to see a psychiatrist. "He said, 'Nothing wrong, looks like an industrial issue'," Mr Warden said.

One of his legal claims is novel for higher education. His lawyers argue the university as a corporation engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct because it led him to believe it would abide by its anti-bullying policy. The university declined to comment on legal grounds.