The university at the centre of a stalking scandal investigated fewer than a third of sexual harassment allegations made against it, data shows.

AUT had the lowest investigation rate of any of New Zealand's universities, despite reporting a high number of complaints - 14 in the past five years.

Information released under the Official Information Act shows it investigated four complaints during that time, with just two upheld.

In comparison, Auckland University investigated all its 26 sexual harassment complaints and upheld at least 18 of those, with some investigations still ongoing.

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The figures come amid accusations from staff that the university does not understand sexual harassment or know how to properly deal with it - arising from a complaint about a senior AUT staff member by an Australian academic which was never formally investigated.

Dr Marisa Paterson, director of the Centre for Gambling Research at Canberra's Australian National University (ANU), laid a complaint against Professor Max Abbott CNZM last August.

The complaint detailed allegations of "prolonged and persistent stalking, sexual harassment, physical harassment and bullying" by Abbott over a two-year period.

Dr Marisa Paterson PhD says her complaint against AUT's Max Abbott was not properly investigated. Photo / Supplied
Dr Marisa Paterson PhD says her complaint against AUT's Max Abbott was not properly investigated. Photo / Supplied

Abbott, a gambling expert, resigned from all his roles at AUT on Friday night.

In recent days a number of AUT staff have told the Herald about their experiences in laying allegations at the university - claiming the process was difficult and off-putting.

Several staff claimed complainants were told the university would only investigate if their allegations were made "formally", but were not supported to take that step.

One academic complaining of harassment claimed HR even told her the case had to be a personal grievance if she wanted to take it further - but warned her that wasn't "in her best interest".

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Employment experts said the thinking at AUT seemed flawed and confused.

Auckland employment lawyer Helen White said all sexual harassment allegations should be taken seriously and so not need to meet any "formal" criteria to be looked into - particularly if it is a potential health and safety issue.

"These are challenging situations and when they arise you need to treat both people - the complainant and the alleged perpetrator - with a degree of respect," White said.

"But from a health and safety perspective - employers are supposed to manage risk and that includes potential risks so they should take reasonable steps to minimise a hazard in the workplace no matter how allegations are raised."

AUT refused to comment on its sexual harassment policies or HR practices while an external review of its policies - announced last week - was under way.

It would only say it had a "range of options" complainants could select on a case-by-case basis that best met their wishes if they wanted to raise sexual harassment allegations.

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However, in a letter to all staff this week, Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack apologised that complaints had not been dealt with adequately.

"I'm sorry for the experiences people have related to me in the last few days about harassment of any kind that has been let go without resolution or sometimes even response," he said.

Derek McCormack, vice chancellor of Auckland University of Technology sent an email to staff apologising for the university's failure to hear some sexual harassment claims. Photo / File
Derek McCormack, vice chancellor of Auckland University of Technology sent an email to staff apologising for the university's failure to hear some sexual harassment claims. Photo / File

Data on sexual harassment reporting at all government agencies was released to the Herald earlier this year as part of another investigation.

It shows there were four complaints last year about AUT personnel, the same year as Paterson's complaint. Three were investigated, and two substantiated. But in the previous years since 2015, only one allegation in 10 was investigated. It was not upheld.

Staff told the Herald they felt the university had been trying to frame the Abbott case as an isolated incident when it was clearly a cultural issue. They were also irritated by statements from the university's governing council saying it was unaware of any problems.

Last week, Chancellor John Maasland, the council head, told Stuff he had not heard "either directly or indirectly from any AUT staff who have concerns about sexual misconduct and the culture of AUT".

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A statement to the Herald said, "The AUT Council has not received any direct concerns about the culture of AUT."

However, the Herald knows Maasland was aware of at least one other sexual harassment case, because he was sent a letter about it last year.

The Herald is also aware of two other alleged sexual harassment cases at the university involving senior male staff, which should have been reported to council.

Both cases are well known within AUT - and were mentioned in correspondence between former staff member Sarah Trotman and McCormack this week.

Trotman, who has been outspoken about Abbott's alleged behaviour, said it was unfeasible that the council was unaware of the cases. AUT policy dictates the council must be told about both strategy issues or health and safety problems.

"If someone trips on a building site the council hears about it, of course they'd hear about this," she said.

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Former AUT staff member Sarah Trotman says there is a culture problem at AUT and the AUT Council - not management - need to oversee any review. Photo / File
Former AUT staff member Sarah Trotman says there is a culture problem at AUT and the AUT Council - not management - need to oversee any review. Photo / File

The Herald has approached some of the women at the centre of the other complaints, however none were ready to speak publicly.

One said she was too afraid of AUT to speak out, as she still worked there and did not want to further jeopardise her already tenuous position.

Another case cannot be reported for legal reasons.

Sexual harassment at New Zealand Universities 2015-2019

AUT

There were 14 allegations made. Five were made as formal complaints. Four were investigated. Two were substantiated. There were no settlements.

Auckland University

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There were 26 complaints received. All were investigated. Nineteen were substantiated or have an investigation ongoing. There were two mediated settlements.

Waikato

Waikato refused to answer the questions. However it said there were no complaints against staff in the time period requested.

Massey

Massey said it also had no complaints against staff.

Lincoln

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Lincoln had one complaint of sexual harassment. It was investigated and substantiated. The staff member was dismissed from employment with Lincoln University.

Victoria University

There were 11 sexual harassment complaints. Five were investigated. However four other staff resigned after being notified of the complaint and before it could be investigated. Allegations were upheld in one case, with one ongoing. There was one mediated settlement.

Otago

There were 11 allegations of sexual harassment, of which nine were treated as formal complaints. Eight were investigated, and all were upheld. There were no settlements.

Canterbury University

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There were sixteen formal complaints and six "informal". Of those, 19 were investigated, three were upheld and seven could not be substantiated. Seven were "undetermined" including where a party left the university before an outcome was determined. Two of those were subject to a confidential settlement.