25 March 2022

Fair Work Commission thwarts ANU sacking of lecturer for skinny-dip kiss with student

| Ian Bushnell
Australian National University building

The ANU says the decision is inconsistent with the University’s approach to its workplace. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The ANU has failed to sack a mathematics lecturer who skinny-dipped and had intimate contact with a female student at an academic beach retreat in 2017, but he may still not get his job back.

The Fair Work Commission has found that the ANU had unfairly dismissed Dr Scott Morrison, saying that the interaction was consensual and while his behaviour afterwards may have been clumsy and poorly judged, he had not breached any University policies.

It ordered his reinstatement, but the ANU has since appealed.

At the time of the ANU Kioloa campus retreat, Dr Scott Morrison was in his early 30s and the student in her early 20s.

On the evening of 21 November 2017, they had gone to the beach to view ‘bioluminescence’ in the water and Dr Morrison had stripped to go for a swim, asking the student first if she minded.

She said no and subsequently stripped to her underwear and joined him in the water, where she swam up to him without encouragement, wrapped her legs around him and kissed him, which he reciprocated.

After leaving the water, they sat on a grassy area and continued to kiss. The student took off her remaining clothes, but that was the extent of the intimacy.

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The event occurred over a 30-minute period and the pair returned to their separate accommodation. Dr Morrison’s wife came to the retreat the next day and he told her about what had happened.

In the months after the retreat, the student pursued Dr Morrison in the hope of starting a relationship, but he did not reciprocate, although he was concerned not to hurt her feelings.

He even suggested the student talk to his wife, giving her his wife’s mobile phone number. During that conversation, the student told Dr Morrison’s wife that she felt a special connection with him.

Afterwards, Dr Morrison’s wife asked him to avoid the student because “it’s only going to make things worse for her”.

On 31 January 2018, Dr Morrison and the student met on the ANU campus, and Dr Morrison apologised to her for his lapse in judgment and suggested it would be best if they did not have further personal contact and that he wanted things to return to how they had been before the beach retreat.

Both agreed that the matter should be kept private.

The student attended seminars that Dr Morrison conducted from time to time and continued to receive emails about them. She concluded her studies in June 2018, but more than a year later, in August 2019, she told the Dean of Students about the retreat and made a formal complaint a few months later.

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The ANU wrote to Dr Morrison on 1 November 2019, some 18 months after his last contact with the student, requesting a meeting on 6 November 2019 to discuss a complaint. He was subsequently suspended pending an investigation into the complaint, which found he had engaged in serious misconduct.

On 16 January 2020, the ANU advised Dr Morrison that his employment would be terminated, and the dismissal was confirmed in late February 2020.

But Deputy President Lyndall Dean found that Dr Morrison had not breached any ANU policy and ANU staff are not banned from engaging in a consensual relationship with a student.

She found that Dr Morrison was no longer the student’s supervisor at the time of the retreat, having finished determining her grades for the semester.

Dr Morrison had no obligation to notify the ANU about the interaction, and there was no breach of the Harassment Policy.

There was nothing pre-meditated about the events and the student had initiated the interaction.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the interaction between the two was fully consensual. The Relevant Student was a woman in her early 20s. There is no basis to doubt that she knew what she was doing,” Deputy President Dean said.

She found that while Dr Morrison’s poor judgment, particularly later when he involved his wife, might have resulted in some disciplinary action, it was not a valid reason for his dismissal.

“It is likely that Dr Morrison’s unwillingness to engage in a relationship with her upset her, culminating in her complaint to the University some 18 months after the interaction,” Deputy President Dean said.

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She did not accept that Dr Morrison had consistently failed to understand why his conduct was inappropriate, saying he had accepted he had been ‘foolish’ and deeply regretted the emotional distress the student had experienced.

The ANU said in a statement that it respectfully disagreed with the decision and reasons of Deputy President Dean, which are inconsistent with the University’s approach to its workplace.

“The University is appealing the decision and has successfully obtained a stay of the reinstatement order while the matter is determined on appeal,” it said.

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