Former staff and students of the ancient-DNA researcher Alan Cooper have expressed surprise that Charles Sturt University has appointed him as a faculty member after the University of Adelaide dismissed him in 2019 for “serious misconduct”. But some say that he still has important scientific contributions to make.
Before his dismissal from the University of Adelaide amid allegations that he had bullied staff and students, Cooper was a prominent figure in his field. As leader of the university’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), he used genetic material to chart the migrations of prehistoric people and their domestic animals around the globe. His work was published in Science and Nature (Nature’s news is independent of its publisher).
In a statement to Nature, a spokesperson for Charles Sturt University confirmed Cooper’s appointment to its Gulbali Institute for Agriculture, Water and Environment, which is based in Albury-Wodonga, saying that Cooper “is a leading figure in the development of ancient-DNA research and was involved in many important early discoveries in the field. He brings significant global networks and achievements to Charles Sturt University”.
But some of Cooper’s former co-workers and students, who spoke to Nature on condition of anonymity, have expressed shock at the university’s decision to hire him.
One of his former students says: “Given everything that’s in the public domain, the most surprising thing is that Charles Sturt Uni got this passed by their legal and risk team.”
Nic Rawlence, who was a student of Cooper’s at ACAD and has spoken out in the past, says that his experience of Cooper’s behaviour makes him “concerned for the well-being of any junior staff or students where Alan Cooper has a position of authority over them”.
Another former student says: “As I see it, his repeated behaviour patterns show he cannot safely be put in any position of power over others, but he should not be permanently unemployable and still has meaningful scientific contributions to make.”
In an email to Nature, Cooper says that since leaving the University of Adelaide, he has undergone professional counselling and management training. “[This] has taught me an enormous amount over the past three years,” he says. “I’m very confident that the robust systems Charles Sturt has in place will support me and my colleagues to produce great research outcomes.”
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The University of Adelaide suspended Cooper in August 2019, after an investigation into the ‘culture’ of ACAD. Then, in December, it dismissed him. At the time, the university said that it would not comment on the circumstances, but that they did not relate to the quality or integrity of Cooper’s research. The findings of the investigation have not been made public.
Cooper began offering grant mentoring and preparation services through a company called BlueSky Genetics that he set up the following year. According to a statement on the company’s website, Cooper commenced legal proceedings against the University of Adelaide for unfair dismissal in January 2020, and in July of that year the university settled the claim out of court.
The University of Adelaide declined to comment on Cooper’s new appointment, but said that “an unfair dismissal application in the Fair Work Commission was resolved in 2020”.
Cooper denies intentionally bullying others. On his website, he says: “I remain deeply sorry to have caused anyone offence or hurt.” He adds that he has become aware that his drive to “pursue big ideas and produce results can also cause stress to some group members” and that he “did not pay sufficient heed to other viewpoints”.
The statement adds that the counselling and training that he has undergone “has included accepting that I am neuro-atypical, which has helped me identify areas to work on such as low frustration tolerance when under stress, and how this can impact relationships”. It continues, “I will continue to do everything in my power to keep learning, and to ensure that such issues never re-occur.”
A former ACAD staff member who also requested anonymity describes Cooper as “a remarkable researcher”. But they add that they hope Charles Sturt University has plans in place to make sure that Cooper’s management style is closely monitored. “I’ve seen the best and worst of Alan,” they say.
A Charles Sturt University spokesperson declined to comment on specific arrangements for Cooper’s employment, owing to privacy concerns. But they added that “Charles Sturt University is firmly committed to ensuring a positive workplace culture through staff working collaboratively and collegially with each other. All academic staff at Charles Sturt University are subject to probation requirements.”