In late 2019, after 15 years at the University of Adelaide as one of the top performing researchers, I was dismissed for violating their employee code of conduct, following a sudden onslaught of negative social media posts regarding management issues. My HR record was entirely clean, and I had never been given any warning about problems with my behaviour or management, nor had I received any management training or support. I had obtained my own ARC Fellowship funding throughout my entire tenure, and had only received encouragement about exceeding my KPIs and the high performance of ACAD members and outputs. However, following the negative social media coverage, a Culture Check was performed, but I was never shown the resulting report which formed the basis of the dismissal. As a result, in January 2020 I commenced unfair dismissal proceedings at The Australian Fair Work Commission, which the University of Adelaide settled out of court in July 2020. Unfortunately, they did not reinstate me.
Prior to my dismissal and throughout the legal process that followed I was strongly instructed by the University not to respond to media enquiries, unfortunately leaving a very one-sided narrative in the public sphere. I firmly reject any resulting negative characterisations that have resulted over the course of a two-year scattershot trial by social media. I would however highlight the tragic irony of online bullies who gain attention for themselves by complaining about bullying, and the incredible destruction they are causing to personal lives, and the field in general. They are totally destroying the openness and communication, free questioning and energetic argument that are essential for good science, and breakthrough discoveries.
My career has been characterised by building large multi-disciplinary groups that perform research at the highest possible standard, resulting in over 35 papers in Science and Nature. I am known for pushing myself and others to think and perform at world-leading levels, to obtain funding to support group members, and to establish the careers of postdocs and PhD students through top impact papers and Fellowships. My definition of success is when all group members are lead authors on Nature/Science level papers. However, my management skills were not good enough for me to realise and appreciate that this level of drive, my style of casual behaviour, humour and language, and my need to pursue ideas and produce results can also cause stress to some group members. This was a failure on my part, and should not have happened. I remain deeply sorry to have caused anyone offence or hurt - and emphasise I have never intentionally bullied or harassed anyone, and would never do so. My focus has always been on achieving the best possible science in a friendly casual environment, with as many fun social and professional activities as possible. I accept that I have allowed this casual approach to over-ride valid concerns at times, and did not pay sufficient heed to other viewpoints. To correct these issues I have undergone professional counselling and management training since 2020, and now that I am aware of them will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that such issues never reoccur.
ACAD was an amazing, productive, fun, and exciting research centre for 15 years, the outputs of which I will always be extremely proud. Funding and building a group of 30-40 researchers with only a single FTE support position from the University represents a truly remarkable achievement. During this period we brought in over $23M in grant funding, won numerous student awards, gained 12 Fellowships for postdocs and staff, and won SA Scientist of the Year 2016, the Eureka Prize for Scientific Collaboration 2017, SA Science Excellence Award 2018, and published 18 papers in Nature or Science (an average of 1 per year). I look forward to returning to this level of scientific performance as soon as is possible.
The university has named ancient DNA researcher Jeremy Austin as the centre’s new director. Austin has been the centre’s deputy director since it was established in 2005, and he says Cooper’s departure will leave “a very large void”. “To run a large, highly successful group of researchers with lots of external funding and connections with high-profile international collaborators, you need a big-thinking, risk-taking head, and that was definitely Alan,” he says. “I’m definitely not that person,” he adds. Austin says that he wishes Cooper had retained his position under strict supervision and management conditions, given the outstanding quality of his science. He hopes that Cooper will be able to continue to contribute to research, “which is what he does really well”. Austin adds that he is disappointed in the university. He says it failed in its duty of care to students and staff members who were unhappy, and also to Cooper, because he wasn’t given warning that his behaviour was problematic before his suspension. The university declined to comment on whether Cooper had been warned about his behaviour before his suspension.