NUS admits falling short, vows to be more open on sex misconduct cases

Above: Tembusu College fellow Jeremy Fernando was sacked in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by two female students. Right: Tembusu College rector Tommy Koh speaking at a National University of Singapore media briefing ye
Tembusu College rector Tommy Koh speaking at a National University of Singapore media briefing yesterday. With him are the college's master Kelvin Pang and NUS' dean of students and associate provost (special projects) Leong Ching. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Above: Tembusu College fellow Jeremy Fernando was sacked in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by two female students. Right: Tembusu College rector Tommy Koh speaking at a National University of Singapore media briefing ye
Tembusu College fellow Jeremy Fernando was sacked in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by two female students. Right:

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has fallen short in its handling of recent sexual misconduct allegations against former Tembusu College fellow Jeremy Fernando, said the college's rector, Professor Tommy Koh.

It has pledged to be more open in the way it provides information about sexual misconduct cases.

The university sacked Dr Fernando after it found that he had an "intimate association" with an undergraduate.

Prof Koh said yesterday at a media briefing: "Going forward, NUS will be more open, transparent, more willing to disseminate information in a timely manner."

He acknowledged that NUS, as a public institution, had not given timely updates on the case involving the former college don.

NUS first received a complaint about Dr Fernando on Aug 27. A second complaint was made on Sept 7. It sacked him on Oct 7, and released a public statement on Oct 18.

Undergraduates have criticised the university for not being more forthcoming about how it handled the case and not updating the student population.

"The university can learn from the Singapore Government in the way it had dealt with Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003 and Covid-19 in 2020," said Prof Koh, spelling out three criteria which he thought NUS did not meet.

"The policy is to be open rather than closed, to be transparent rather than opaque, to give timely information to your stakeholders rather than to withhold such information," he said.

"NUS has a rather conservative culture and felt that when you dismiss a staff (member), the HR practice is that you don't tell the world that somebody has been sacked."

But he noted that this practice is applicable in the private sector but not to a public institution like NUS.

NUS' dean of students and associate provost (special projects) Leong Ching, who was also present at the briefing, said: "The culture (at NUS) must change from one that is conservative and erring on the side of caution to one that commits itself to timely, accurate, respectful communication.

"And in so doing, we must be able to tolerate greater risks and take these risks."

NUS will be more transparent in internal communications regarding sexual misconduct, without compromising the privacy and welfare of victims, Associate Professor Leong said.

It will also "look at the speed of police reporting", she said, adding that the university has a legal duty to inform the police of such cases.

But the university also has to make judgment calls in "exceptional circumstances".

This means NUS may be more cautious and delay reporting if there are certain mental health risks, such as the possibility of self-harm on the part of the complainants, she said.

On Wednesday, NUS said it has made a police report against Dr Fernando. It added that its internal investigations found that Dr Fernando "had an intimate asso-ciation" with an undergraduate - a serious breach of its staff code of conduct.

This was adequate cause for summary dismissal, and separate from the students' allegations, Prof Leong said in explaining Dr Fernando's sacking.

"As long as you have some intimate relations (with students), you have already breached the staff code of conduct," she said.

Yesterday, Associate Professor Kelvin Pang, master of Tembusu College, said that there are checks in place when hiring college fellows, and urged students to raise matters with NUS if they feel "mildly uncomfortable" in any situation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2020, with the headline 'NUS admits falling short, vows to be more open on sex misconduct cases'. Print Edition | Subscribe