A university sex pest professor who persistently harassed a student has lost his unfair dismissal claim.
The man tried to blame his inappropriate conduct on an undiagnosed autism condition, however the Fair Work Commission rejected this defence.
Damning text messages
Aaron Harwood worked as an associate professor at the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering and Technology on a salary of more than $162,000.
He began targeting the research assistant, an international student, in 2016.
At the time, Harwood’s discretionary budget funded her employment.
A series of damning WeChat messages between Harwood and the woman revealed his unwanted advances.
In those messages, he offered to show the student her exam results before they were released.
This was a breach of university rules, so he urged her, “Just don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.”
When she later turned down an invitation for coffee, he replied:
“Just tell your group members there’s a new man in your life and you need to spend some quality time with him.”
In a subsequent late-night exchange, he asked her out for a walk, to which she replied, “no no no no no”.
Harwood replied: “It’s just a couple of people spending some time together … It’s only serious if we choose to make it serious.”
Later he texted: “Do you [want to] see the new movie Arrival coming out Nov 10?
“I’d like to ask you to see it but you don’t think that is appropriate.”
The student replied: “Yeah you got it! Inappropriate!”
Apology letter backfires
The university commenced an investigation after the woman made a formal complaint in May last year.
With his dismissal immanent, Harwood wrote an apology letter in last ditch bid to save his job.
In it, he wrote that he knew that pursuing a personal relationship would be in breach of university policies but that “at that time in my life I would have accepted risking my career for you”.
Instead of helping his case, the letter provided proof of his deliberate motives in breaching university policies, according to the Fair Work Commission.
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University sex pest associate professor loses unfair dismissal
Fair Work deputy president Ian Masson noted the significant power imbalance between academic staff and students.
He said this leaves students vulnerable to unwelcome and inappropriate behaviour.
Harwood conceded under cross-examination that a staff member pursuing a personal relationship could put a student under pressure.
He also accepted that the university had an obligation to protect them.
In a total lack of insight into his own conduct, Harwood told the university investigation that “the university bore some responsibility for his conduct and should have protected him from situations where he would be one-on-one with students”.
Harwood was diagnosed with autism in 2019 and claimed his disability led him to misinterpret the woman’s responses.
Fair Work deputy president Ian Masson rejected that defence.
“There is simply no medical evidence before me that would allow me to conclude that the applicant’s medical conditions stands in mitigation of the conduct.”
He therefore found that Harwood’s dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable.
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