NUS admits it has ‘fallen short’ in handling ex-lecturer’s sexual misconduct allegations; shortcomings due to ‘conservative culture’

(From left) Associate Professor Kelvin Pang, Professor Tommy Koh and Associate Professor Leong Ching at the media conference In Singapore. ― TODAY pic
(From left) Associate Professor Kelvin Pang, Professor Tommy Koh and Associate Professor Leong Ching at the media conference In Singapore. ― TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Oct 24 — The National University of Singapore (NUS) yesterday admitted to its shortcomings in the way it handled the allegations of sexual misconduct against a former lecturer.

The university sacked Tembusu College lecturer Jeremy Fernando after its internal investigations last month found him to have had an “intimate association” with one of the two undergraduates who lodged complaints against him.

NUS then filed a police report against him on Wednesday.

Speaking to the media after a town hall with Tembusu College students yesterday, Professor Tommy Koh, rector of the College, said that NUS has “fallen short” by not being transparent enough about the case.

“The human instinct is to run away from the problem, and that instinct is bad policy,” said Prof Koh, a veteran diplomat.

“The (right) policy is to be open rather than closed, to be transparent rather than opaque, and to get timely information to your stakeholder rather than withhold such information.

“Using these three criteria, in my view, NUS has fallen short.”

He attributed these shortcomings to the university’s “rather conservative culture” where it believes that “when you dismiss a staff (member), apparently HR (human resources) practice is that you don’t tell the world that somebody has been sacked”.

“(Tembusu College) has many stakeholders; I have 600 students, faculty — everyone of them has a right to know,” Prof Koh said.

Associate Professor Leong Ching, NUS Dean of Students and Associate Provost of special projects, pledged that there will be greater transparency on future sexual misconduct cases, “without compromising the welfare of the victims”.

“Overall, what we want to change is the culture of NUS. The culture must change from one that is conservative and erring on the side of caution to one that commits itself to timely, accurate and respectful communication,” she said.

She added that the university will also report allegations to the police quicker, and will do so bearing in mind the risk that the victims may not wish for the school to do so.

NUS made the police report on Wednesday, almost two months after the first alleged victim had complained about Dr Fernando.

Assoc Prof Leong also maintained that the university is obliged to report the matter to the police, despite the accusers’ unwillingness to do so. The Association of Women for Action and Research on Thursday questioned NUS’ decision, saying it is not ideal to file a police report if the victim is reluctant.

Meanwhile, Tembusu College will be reaching out to alumni who may have had interactions with Dr Fernando to see how best to support them, said Associate Professor Kelvin Pang, master of Tembusu College.

Prof Koh was then asked if the college had known of Dr Fernando’s published work in 2017, which discussed the idea of sexual relations between teachers and students.

“I had not read this before and didn’t know about this,” said Prof Koh. “If I had read this beforehand, I would have counselled (Dr Fernando).”

In a circular to students on Friday evening, NUS provost Professor Ho Teck Hua said the university is rethinking its approach in several areas.

He added that NUS and Tembusu College recognise that information about Dr Fernando's dismissal could have been shared with staff and students at the college in a “more open and timely manner”.

“We erred in our efforts and we aim to do better,” Prof Ho said.

“Moving forward, we will provide greater transparency in cases of sexual misconduct, including in our internal communications, and consider the speed of reporting cases to the police where needed, without compromising the privacy, safety and emotional well-being of complainants.

“The university has tended to take a cautious approach to matters of transparency and engagement, but we will now strive to create a culture that is more open and transparent.” ― TODAY

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