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Three photo portraits in a row; the first is Professor Michael Briggs, the second is former Deakin Vice-Chancellor Fred Jevons, the third is former Chancellor Justice Asche.

October 21, 2022

The Briggs Affair Part 2: The push for a University inquiry

In the first instalment of this story, we introduced prominent researcher and academic Prof. Michael Briggs, who became Deakin’s Dean of the School of Sciences in 1976. But soon many in the international research community started to question the integrity of his work. We pick up the story in the early 1980’s, as Deakin leadership attempt to take action. 

Pictured above (left to right): Professor Michael Briggs, former Deakin Vice-Chancellor Fred Jevons, former Deakin Chancellor Justice Asche. 

Pressure to act 

When questioned by Jevons about the problems with his research, Briggs explained the lack of evidence of the trials on the need for confidentiality. He also claimed he had a social responsibility to inform users of the Wyeth product, but admitted he’d overstepped the mark on claims of a Deakin Hormone Laboratory. 

With mounting evidence but no substantial action taken against Briggs, Dr Jim Rossiter, a member of the university Council and head of the ethics committee, took a stand. He wrote to the Chancellor, Mr Justice Asche stating that unless Deakin acted, the press might do so first, with consequent damage to the university’s reputation. Rossiter would become Briggs most fierce opponent and the cause of his undoing. 

Rossiter wrote to Briggs asking him to dispel the rumours. In response, Briggs complained of being seriously slandered and threatened legal action. 

Undeterred, Rossiter wrote to the Chancellor saying he thought there was ‘considerable possibility’ that some or all of Professor Briggs’ research work was fraudulent. 

Asche responded that while the matter was vital to the University, it was necessary to presume Briggs as innocent until found to be guilty.  

When questioned by Vice-Chancellor Jevons about Dr Rossiter’s concerns, Briggs again stressed the sensitive nature of his work which required the records be destroyed.  

With pressure mounting, for Briggs it became clear that a more formal investigation was imminent. 

A few days after his discussion with Jevons, Briggs requested up to a month’s sick leave. He reported that he had very high blood pressure, his hypertension was not responding to treatment, and he would have to decide whether to continue in his position or seek early retirement on medical grounds. 

Under legal advice, Jevons urged Rossiter to submit a letter of complaint which would spark an Inquiry. Jevons informed Briggs of the complaint and an inquiry was established. 

The first inquiry 

For much of the inquiry Briggs was overseas meeting with representatives of Wyeth International and Schering, or on sick leave receiving treatment for hepatitis and other complaints. 

In his defence, Briggs’ solicitors pointed to errors and misjudgements in the investigation – specifically misuse of a university regulation. Rather than focusing on questions of innocence or guilt the Inquiry examined process, and the case was dismissed on technical grounds. 

The very legalistic finding appalled Jevons (and many others – even the lawyers on Council), but Chancellor Asche felt constrained about criticising it. 

In the Council minutes, Asche states the judgment must be accepted and pointed to the need for some re-drafting of the regulations. He reminded Council ‘most earnestly’ of the presumption of Briggs’ innocence.  

In his summation of Jevons’ actions, the Chancellor emphasised that he did not believe Jevons should in any way be criticised for the failure of the inquiry. In discussion with Jevons before the Council meeting it was agreed that Asche’s statement would read ‘the Vice-Chancellor acted reasonably and properly’. But Chancellor Asche surreptitiously changed the wording to read ‘the Vice-Chancellor did not act unreasonably’. 

The VC objected to this change. At the next meeting of Council, the wording of the resolution was changed to state the VC had acted ‘reasonably’ but the Chancellor was not willing to reinstate the word ‘properly’. Many consider this a stab in Jevons’ back. 

So what was the fallout? Find out in the final instalment next week. 

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