A university professor who was sacked for inappropriate conduct including sending a series of text messages to a student has had his unfair dismissal claim thrown out.

Associate Professor Aaron Harwood was fired from the University of Melbourne in September last year, following an independent investigation over his conduct.

The investigation upheld allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviour, finding that he was ‘pursuing a relationship’ with a research assistant and former student in 2016 by repeatedly asking her out on dates.

Mr Harwood made an application for unfair dismissal in October last year but that was dismissed at a Fair Work Commission hearing on Monday.

Associate Professor Aaron Harwood was sacked from the University of Melbourne in September last year after an investigation 

Documents from the tribunal suggest Mr Harwood pressed Ms Zhang to take a break from her work and accompany him for a coffee

The allegations related to his interactions with Qianwen Zhang, an international student who attended the University between 2015 and 2017.

Ms Zhang was enrolled in a class taught by Mr Harwood, before working for him as a casual research assistant for four months from December 2016. 

Documents from the tribunal hearing show a series of text message exchanges between between Mr Harwood and Ms Zhang, which provided part of the basis for his termination.

In one exchange, Mr Harwood had pressed Ms Zhang to take a break from her work and accompany him for a coffee.

After telling Mr Harwood she was with her own ‘group members’, he suggested she tell them she had ‘a new man’ in her life, before telling her to ‘call me’. 

In another exchange, Mr Harwood asked when he would get to meet Ms Zhang’s pet cat before asking if he could propose ‘a really inappropriate question’. 

Ms Zhang replied with a cat emoji with a startled expression.

Mr Harwood asked Ms Zhang when he could meet her pet cat

Ms Zhang declared Mr Harwood’s suggestion that the two go to a movie together was ‘inappropriate’ 

A text exchange between Mr Harwood and Ms Zhang after she raised concerns about exam results 

In a third exchange, Ms Zhang attempted to tell the professor his suggestion that the two go to the movies together was ‘inappropriate’. 

Mr Harwood said: ‘if I wasn’t a lecturer and we’d just met somewhere I like to think things would be different.’

Ms Zhang in turn pointed out that the professor was ‘married’.  

The two also exchanged messages after Ms Zhang raised a concern she had for an exam result when enrolled in one of his classes.

‘Well later you can review exam,’ Mr Harwood said.

Ms Zhang said she could not ‘afford if the mark goes down’. 

Mr Harwood then told her not to ‘stress too much’, and that she could ‘come this week and see…just don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret’.

The second allegation that resulted in Mr Harwood’s termination of employment was that on one occasion he had, uninvited, ‘touched Ms Zhang’s back and rubbed it in a downward direction’.

The hearing revealed Mr Harwood had stated that he ‘never deliberately attempted to make physical contact with Ms Zhang,’ but ‘if contact did occur it would have been coincidental’. 

He used the examples of bumping into someone while crossing a busy street or ‘ushering’ someone through a busy area with his hand.

Mr Harwood was also alleged to have ‘touched Ms Zhang’s back and rubbed it in a downward direction’ 

Mr Harwood’s text messages to Ms Zhang were used as the basis for allegations he pursued an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with her 

Mr Harwood was notified of his termination of employment on 21 September 2022 

In his application to the fair Work Commission in October, Mr Harwood sought ‘reinstatement and back pay for the of period since dismissal or an order for compensation in the alternative’.

But on Monday, Fair Work Commission Deputy President Ian Masson concluded that he was not ‘satisfied that the dismissal was harsh, unjust, or unreasonable.’

‘I am not satisfied that the Applicant was unfairly dismissed,’ he said. 

Mr Harwood commenced employment with Melbourne University in 2002 and was initially engaged as a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering. 

He was promoted to a Senior Lecturer position in 2007, and in 2021 received a promotion to Associate Professor.

A report stated the university’s commitment to ‘eliminating sexual misconduct and developing a victim‐centred and trauma‐informed approach’.

The review found the benefits of a stand alone sexual misconduct policy were well documented.

Source: | This article originally belongs to Dailymail.co.uk

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