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June 29, 2016

Exclusive: ‘Wholly inappropriate’ actions taken without College’s knowledge

Prof Cathal Kelly: 'You can either protest very publicly and take a very public position, and I respect people who do that.. then there are also organisations like ourselves who have access to what we believe to be key influencers in Bahrain'

In an exclusive interview with RCSI CEO Prof Cathal Kelly, the College head apologises over the Bahrain controversy and says actions fell short of high standards. But he is ‘disappointed’ with portrayal and criticism of the College. Dara Gantly reports.

The Chief Executive of the RCSI has “unreservedly apologised” for actions taken by staff at the RCSI Bahrain, including the interviewing of three students who were asked to swear an oath of loyalty to the Bahraini Royal Family and sign a declaration that they would not participate in further protests.

“That was wrong; it should not have happened,” Prof Cathal Kelly told Irish Medical Times yesterday, in an exclusive interview.

The College had received complaints concerning the three students’ attendance at the protests last February from the Bahraini Ministry of Education.

These complaints took the form of photographic material supplied to the College by the Ministry, which precipitated the interviews.

The CEO – who had responded earlier yesterday to a number of queries from Barrister at Law Dr Simon Mills – said the actions, made on the initiative of a senior staff member in Bahrain without the knowledge of the College in Dublin, took place during a time of “significant turbulence” within the Kingdom and were instigated in what the individual thought was the best interests of the students. “I honestly believe that the person who was responsible for that was trying to best protect the students. But their response was completely and wholly inappropriate, without the knowledge or authority of the College,” Prof Kelly told IMT, adding that the first Dublin heard of the incident was when it went to investigate the query raised by Dr Mills.

The individual in question has subsequently changed post and is now working “in a consulting role with the College” — not in an executive role and not in contact with students, the CEO added. However, Prof Kelly said he did not want to personalise the incident in question. “I think it is easy from a distance, and from the quiet and calm of Ireland, to criticise individuals. The people were in a very difficult situation and were dealing with events that were unprecedented, even to the RCSI, which has operated overseas for many years. They got many, many things right; they got the vast majority of things right, but this was incorrect. And yes, this person is no longer in an executive role in the university.”

It is easy from a distance, and from the quiet and calm of Ireland, to criticise individuals

Addressing the claim that the university in Bahrain had also received a request for information on the academic and overall performance of 11 nursing students apparently identified at the protests, Prof Kelly said the request came from one of the government agencies that sponsors students and involved normal information that the College gives to such bodies on a student’s academic progress and attendance on a regular basis. He stressed that none of this information or documentation went to any outside agency, no further action was taken, and the students in question have progressed with their courses.

Concerns remain over the treatment of one of RCSI Bahrain’s clinical tutors, Dr Fatima Haji, who was given a five-year jail term by a Bahraini military court on September 29. Dr Haji was among 20 medical staff handed down prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years last month. Also convicted of ‘incitement to overthrow the regime’ were Dr Ali Al Ekri, Dr Bassim Dhaif, and Dr Ghassan Dhaif, all of whom were trained at the RCSI in Dublin, and who received 15-year sentences. Dr Zahra Al-Sammak, who also trained in Dublin, was given a five-year sentence. Following the international outcry over the rulings, the Attorney General of Bahrain announced last week that the medics would now have a new trial before a civilian court.

While the RCSI CEO said he did not want to comment on any individual staff member out of respect for their confidentiality, speaking in general terms he did say that at the height of the unrest some 15 ‘clinical mentors’ — employees of the health service in Bahrain who participate in teaching for an additional fee paid under a private arrangement with the university — were suspended from their hospital duties and thus could not teach and were not paid. Since then, Prof Kelly said 10 have returned to their clinical work and have informed RCSI Bahrain that they are now available to again teach and receive fees. While Prof Kelly described the situation as a “rapidly evolving” one, his understanding was that there were currently five people still suspended from their hospitals who have not received that additional payment from the College.

“The view the university took was that it was not making any judgement on these people or their situation,” the CEO explained to IMT. “We informed them that we would be happy to pay them as long as they were able to teach in a clinical setting. The communication with them was very friendly and they equally understood that.

The RCSI CEO responded yesterday to a number of queries from Barrister at Law Dr Simon Mills (pictured)

“But I can understand, as we said in our statement, and I am sorry that this could be misinterpreted. It certainly appears insensitive of us, and could be misinterpreted [in terms] of our position.”

Keen to put the situation in what he termed its “broader context”, Prof Kelly said events in Bahrain since February had been an “unprecedented challenge” for the College. While it had “fallen short” of the high standards it sets for itself, the CEO stressed that at all times the College’s focus had been on the safety and security of its students and staff and fulfilling its educational promise to those students by providing high-quality training, which he believed had been achieved.

“I am disappointed that people don’t seem to recognise that,” said Prof Kelly. “People don’t seem to recognise the challenging environment that we are working in. And obviously by working behind the scenes on other issues, we will never get credit for that.”

On the continuing operating of the College, which saw graduations take place on schedule on June 13 last, the CEO said people from the outside had “misinterpreted” this as some form of “collusion with the government”.

“In truth, for many of these students they were the first in their family to go to university and they had gone through considerable stress driving around roadblocks and security to get to their hospital, to get trained and to get qualified. I must say, we were very proud of their achievement and we were honoured to celebrate their achievement,” he said.

Yet the majority of criticism at that time wasn’t because of any specific actions the College had taken, but more for its inaction on condemning the treatment of the three RCSI graduates arrested by the authorities and subsequently convicted in a military court and given sentences of 15 years. Was this criticism for not speaking out strongly fair, in the CEO’s eyes?

Prof Kelly said he believed organisations could have two ways of dealing with a situation like the one faced by the College in Bahrain. “You can either protest very publicly and take a very public position, and I respect people who do that. Many more significant organisations than ours – be it the EU, the Irish Government, the US government — have done that. Then there are also organisations like ourselves who have access to what we believe to be key influencers in Bahrain. We felt that the best approach for us would be to continuously advocate in private with key influencers for a better outcome and to address the issues of concern,” he explained, adding that he was “very mindful” that the day the College took a strong public stance would be the day that it lost that access.

“Was our access influential?” he pondered. “I would not be arrogant enough to suggest that. I, and many of my colleagues, have been out there acting as advocates, but very definitely, and very deliberately, not taking a public position. Our sense was that while the public position would have been very popular and looked for in Ireland with the ‘home audience’, it would have reduced our effectiveness where it counted — in Bahrain.”

“While the public position would have been very popular and looked for in Ireland with the ‘home audience’, it would have reduced our effectiveness where it counted — in Bahrain”

Yet the other charge levelled at the RCSI by its critics is that its significant financial investment in the Kingdom was influencing that decision. “To be honest, that has not influenced our response,” replied the CEO.

Pearl Square in Bahrain, one of the main areas of the recent unrest

“Irrespective of whether we had any investment there or not, our obligation would be to protect the jobs and the security of the staff, and to protect the security and the future of those students. I think our behaviour during this period — in honouring our educational commitment to these students — is critical to both our reputation and the wider reputation of Ireland.” He was adamant that if the College had not invested a penny in Bahrain, its response would have been exactly the same.

The CEO was excited about the recent appointment of Prof Tom Collins, formerly of NUI Maynooth, as the new President of RCSI Bahrain. Tasked now with examining how the College can “identify learnings from this experience”, Prof Collins apologised to the students yesterday (Tuesday, October 11) on behalf of the university and returned their documents to them.

Prof Kelly said the new President had an outstanding reputation as an educator and would be a wonderful ambassador for Irish education abroad. “We and many others are working in parts of the world which have very different governance, political and legal systems from our own. I think all of us need to learn from this and learn how an Irish higher education institution can create value through education and learning, and yet behave in an appropriate manner in different and sometimes very challenging environments.

“One of the new President’s key roles will be to be objective, impartial, to bring his vast experience to this and try to capture the lessons we need to learn,” added Prof Kelly. “In those particular instances that you have highlighted, we have fallen short of the high standards we wish to set for ourselves and that we will continue to aspire to and hopefully deliver on.”

It certainly has been a tough week for the RCSI in terms of reputation management, with the Editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) the latest to call on the head of the RCSI to “clarify his position as a matter of urgency” in relation to the College’s links with the government of Bahrain following the sentencing of the medics. Dr Fiona Godlee said clarification was needed urgently “unless the College wants to open itself to charges of complicity”.

Prof Kelly is disappointed with such coverage. “Our aim as a higher education institution in a foreign country is to create value through education and learning. Through this extraordinarily difficult time, which was unprecedented for us and I would respectfully argue unprecedented for anyone, we have focused on our primary mission — the safety and security of our students and staff.

“I feel disappointed, particularly for RCSI people who are working abroad in these challenging environments. While nobody gets everything right all of the time – and clearly mistakes have been made – I think they have done an extraordinary job in handling this. And I think they deserve a lot of praise and a lot of credit. I am disappointed for them that they are facing this type of criticism.”