The Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen is investigating a complaint about the appointment of the principal’s business partner to a top job at the institution.
An internal panel is being formed to look into a whistleblower’s concerns about the recent recruitment of vice-principal Gordon McConnell.
The Press and Journal can reveal that Professor McConnell and RGU principal Ferdinand von Prondzynski are the only directors of a company involved in the ownership of a £12million castle in Ireland which was put up for sale at the end of last year.
The business connection was not declared in the published minutes of meetings of the RGU board in December last year, or the university’s academic council in March this year, despite both men being present.
Asked if the link was declared to the board or executive before, during or after the appointment process – and if it believes a potential conflict of interest may have arisen – an RGU spokeswoman said: “The university is aware of the matter.
“We are following our public interest review policy procedure and are therefore not in a position to comment at this stage.”
Under RGU’s conflicts of interest policy, board members “must disclose any private or financial interests which could give rise to a conflict of interest”.
It is understood that a whistleblower made a complaint on Monday.
One source who was keen for the link to be investigated told the P&J: “There may be a simple explanation, but good governance demands that any potential or even perceived conflicts of interest are identified.”
Prof McConnell, who started his new job as the university’s vice-principal for commercial and regional innovation in January, became a director of Knockdrin Estates Ltd in 2006.
The company held assets which included Knockdrin Castle, in County Westmeath, Ireland – the family home of Prof von Prondzynski, who is the only other director of the company, and its secretary.
When Prof McConnell became a company director in 2006, the two men were based at Dublin City University, where Prof von Prondzynski was president, and Prof McConnell was the head of the president’s office.
Prof McConnell and Prof von Prondzynski, who is a Scottish Government adviser, were unable to comment yesterday due to to the review policy procedure.
In March last year, RGU announced former Scottish Enterprise official Jan Cutting had taken on the vice-principal role which Prof McConnell now holds.
But just a few months later at a meeting of the university’s academic council, a report by Prof von Prondzynski revealed Ms Cutting “would be stepping down from her post” to become director of marketing, and that the
vice-principal role would be “filled again as quickly as possible”.
The principal reported the change to the RGU board the following month, July, and he said it was likely an interview with “a candidate” could take place as early as September.
An October meeting of the RGU board was informed that a “contract had been signed” with the new vice-principal, who was later named as Prof McConnell.
In December, the board was told a “key consideration” for Prof McConnell, who had served in senior positions at Arizona State University and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, would be “disruptive innovation or innovation-driven growth” that could help the university “regain its competitive edge”.
Asked about the process for appointing Prof McConnell, an RGU spokeswoman said: “The appointment process was in line with the university’s approved recruitment policy and procedure.
“The role was not re-advertised and there were not any other candidates.
“The interview panel consisted of the chair of the board of governors, the principal, two members of the executive, the director of HR and an external panel member.”
Asked why Ms Cutting had changed jobs just a few months after her appointment, an RGU spokeswoman said: “The university does not comment on personal employee matters.”
Under the terms of the university’s whistleblowing policy, an investigation panel should be formed and meet for the first time within 15 working days of the complaint to establish whether it should be upheld and to produce a report for the board chairman, normally within 30 days of its first meeting.