SINGAPORE: The National University of Singapore (NUS) has “fallen short” in its handling of the dismissal of Tembusu College fellow Dr Jeremy Fernando, said the college’s rector Professor Tommy Koh.
Dr Fernando was sacked by NUS after it was found that he had “an intimate association” with an undergraduate.
Speaking to journalists at a press conference at Tembusu College on Friday (Oct 23), Prof Koh said: “The university can learn from the Singapore Government from the way it dealt with SARS in 2003 and COVID-19 in 2020...The policy is to be open rather than closed, to be transparent rather than opaque, to give timely information to your stakeholders rather than withhold such information.
“So using these two, three criteria, in my view, NUS has fallen short.”
Acknowledging that there was a "considerable gap" between the date the university dismissed Dr Fernando and when the rest of Tembusu College was informed, Prof Koh noted that NUS had a “rather conservative culture” - and felt that when a staff was dismissed, HR practice would be “don’t tell the world that somebody has been sacked”.
He added: “But the point I made to NUS is that this HR practice is applicable in the private sector, but not applicable to a public institution like this. And Tembusu College is a public institution, I have many stakeholders - I have 600 students, I have faculty, every one of them has a right to know. And in this respect, I think NUS has fallen short.”
READ: Sacked NUS professor had 'intimate association' with undergrad; university makes police report
READ: Student group calls on NUS to show 'transparency and accountability' in handling case of professor sacked for inappropriate behaviour
NUS said it made a police report on Wednesday, and the police on Thursday confirmed a report was lodged and that investigations were ongoing.
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in a statement on Thursday called on the university to clarify why it filed the police report.
“We can understand why some are upset at NUS’s actions. From a trauma-informed, survivor-centric perspective, it is not ideal to file a report if a sexual assault survivor is reluctant. A crucial component of healing from trauma is regaining a sense of control - a sense that is often eroded during an invasive, violating assault,” said AWARE in the statement.
“Survivors should, as much as possible, be allowed to exert their own autonomy and agency in their own cases. We believe this is an essential principle for support services for victims of trauma; after all, a survivor would probably be less inclined to access support - even if she desperately needed it - from a service that would force her to do things against her will.”
"MUST MOVE TOWARDS GREATER TRANSPARENCY"
Responding to questions about how NUS will deal with similar incidents moving forward, Associate Professor Leong Ching, NUS dean of students and associate provost (special projects) said the university tends to “err on the side of caution”.
Assoc Prof Leong was speaking alongside Prof Koh and Master of Tembusu College Associate Professor Kelvin Pang.
“In this instance and going forward, I believe we can and must move towards greater transparency,” she said.
“We will have greater transparency in sexual misconduct cases, including our internal communications of such cases. How might we achieve greater transparency without compromising the privacy and welfare of victims?
“And the second (pledge) is to look at the speed of police reporting. We understand that there is a need to comply with our legal obligation, but also concurrently to proceed with caution in the exceptional circumstances which we had earlier outlined - the possibility of the complainant self harming and threat to the safety of the complainant as well.”
Assoc Prof Leong clarified that the university had reached out to inform both students before the police report was made, and had succeeded in informing one of them. "But we could not reach the other, and we informed both students immediately after (the report)," she added.
Responding to questions about why more details surrounding the incidents that led to Dr Fernando's dismissal were not released initially, Assoc Prof Pang said that university found sufficient evidence of a breach of the Code of Conduct.
"There was no need, and there was nothing established at that point in time about the sexual misconduct, and I don't think it was fair, or (it was) premature at that point in time to release that in a statement, even though the complainants had given permission," he added.
Assoc Prof Pang said that during a Tembusu College town hall earlier on Friday, the college had pledged to engage with alumni, as some of them may have known Dr Fernando.
The college also plans to engage professional resources to support the students, and support the Community Support Working Group formed by students earlier this week, he added.
“We're very disappointed that this has happened, the students and staff members are all grieving.”
READ: Tembusu College students form group to 'rebuild', 'strengthen' trust following dismissal of college fellow
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
In its statement on Wednesday, NUS had said that it received two complaints alleging that Dr Fernando had “behaved inappropriately” as a teaching staff.
The university first received a complaint against Dr Fernando on Aug 27, and he was suspended on Aug 31. On Sep 7, NUS received a second complaint from another student, it said in its statement.
In both cases, a no contact order was issued to prohibit him from contacting the complainants. The students were also interviewed regarding their complaints on 31 Aug and Sep 9 respectively.
NUS completed its internal investigation of the first complaint on Sep 5, and the second complaint on Sep 21.
Dr Fernando was informed of the alleged misconduct on Sep 21 and given seven working days to “respond with additional information/mitigating factors”, said the university. He responded on Sep 30.
On Oct 7, NUS informed Dr Fernando that he was dismissed following internal investigations on his conduct, and the two students were also informed of the outcome of their complaints in separate sessions.
On Oct 18, Tembusu College sent out an email to all staff members and students to inform them about Dr Fernando’s dismissal, said NUS. The next day, the care officer contacted both students who had filed the complaints to “check on their well-being”.