Alleged comment on schoolgirl’s ‘brown’ skin and assault charge force Australian university Vice-Chancellor to resign

The 16-year-old girl’s father has accused Prof. Brigid Heywood of wiping saliva on the student’s face and making a remark about the colour of her skin.

The University of New England (UNE) Vice-Chancellor, Prof Brigid Heywood, resigned after she was charged with common assault and behaving in an offensive manner near a public place or school. NSW police said:

“Following extensive inquiries, officers attached to New Eng­land Police District issued a 65-year-old woman a future court attendance notice for common assault and behave in offensive manner (sic) in/near public place/school.”

As per a report in the Sydeny Morning Herald, the girl’s father has accused Prof. Brigid Heywood of allegedly wiping saliva on the 16-year-old student’s face at an International Women’s Day event held at Armidale’s Ex-Services Memorial Club on March 8, 2022. Further, the girl’s father has also accused Prof. Heywood of allegedly making a remark about her skin colour.

The alleged incident occurred after a discussion at the event when the teenager approached another panel member to say that she related to that speaker’s experience of racism.
The father said:

“When she said that, the vice chancellor licks her finger with saliva and rubs it on my daughter’s face and says something to the effect of ‘Oh you’re brown, yes you’re right, it’s not coming off’”

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The father, as per SMH, has rejected the police statement that emphasised there was no physical harm to the alleged victim.
He adds:

“In this day and age, saliva on someone’s face, is that not an injury?”

In a statement, UNE’s Chancellor James Harris said that Prof. Heywood strenuously denied the allegations.

The statement said:

“The university council and Professor Heywood acknowledge the criminal charges laid against her on 1 August 2022, and the widespread attention and concern this has garnered within the university and the broader community.

In this context, Professor Heywood formed the view that it was in the best interests of the university that she resign from her position and [the] university council has accepted her decision.

Professor Heywood has advised the university council she strenuously denies there is any truth to the charges and will defend them. Given the charges are before the court, the university council does not intend to make any comment about the charges or their subject matter.”

UNE has been under pressure from the community, NSW Labor’s tertiary education spokesman Tim Crakanthorp, local MP Adam Marshall and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) who called to stand down Prof. Heywood pending the court proceedings.

Tim Crakanthorp (NSW shadow minister for Skills, TAFE and Tertiary Education) tweeted late Wednesday, “these are serious allegations and given their nature it’s appropriate that the vice chancellor step down pending their investigation.”

Chancellor Harris in his statement praised Prof. Heywood for “her strong leadership of the university in navigating a period of tremendous change”.
He said:

“Professor Heywood considers it a great honour to have been the vice-chancellor and chief executive officer.” 

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The statement added:

“The university council wants to clearly state that it remains deeply committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for its students, staff and community at all times.” 

The girl’s father told the SMH that the University council “are the ones that need to be put on the spot. The public needs to know how the UNE is dragging their heels.” He added that since the incident his daughter has become “withdrawn.”

UNE Vice-Chancellor Prof. Heywood (UNE Facebook)

Prof. Heywood in an email accessed by SMH to the UNE staff “strenuously denies there is any truth to the charges and will defend them”.
She adds:

“University of New England must move forward with certainty of clear leadership. That is not something that it is appropriate for me to be a part of given current extenuating circumstances.”

Prof. Heywood joined UNE as its 14th Vice-Chancellor following an academic career spanning several countries. Prof. Heywood joined UNE from the University of Tasmania, where she was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research). Before that, she was Assistant Vice Chancellor – Research, Academic and Enterprise at New Zealand’s Massey University.

Prof. Heywood is scheduled to appear in court in September on assault charges and UNE’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof. Simon Evans will take charge until the council appoints a new Vice-Chancellor.