Battle for positions at MLC renews tensions

FORMER Liberal senator Judith Troeth has taken a swipe at the embattled board of Methodist Ladies College, which axed popular principal Rosa Storelli in September, saying she has nominated to join its ranks because she would not like to see another principal summarily dismissed.

''I think there are some actions that the board have taken that I don't regard as commensurate with good board policy,'' Ms Troeth said.

She is one of several high-profile Melburnians who have nominated to fill vacancies on the board as tensions continue to fester within the MLC community over the soap-operatic sacking of Ms Storelli.

Some parents and old collegians remain angry with the board over its handling of the saga, which they believe has destroyed the reputation of the prestigious school. Ironically, under its constitution the board itself must decide if it appoints critics to fill the vacancies.

Ms Troeth, who famously stood up to former prime minister John Howard over asylum seeker policy, said she and her sister had attended MLC and she wanted to see the school at the forefront of girls' education.

''I know how to consult with stakeholders … People who have an interest in the school should have some avenue for expressing their views and I would like to see evidence of that in the future,'' Ms Troeth said. ''I'd like to be on the board simply to acquaint myself with how things work now and possibly see how we can improve the model. I wouldn't like to see the same thing happen to another principal in terms of summary dismissal.''

In a letter last month, chairwoman Louise Adler said the board had strong support from the MLC community, including staff.

''We also have broader community support, including very strong and continued unsolicited supportive contact from many other prominent schools,'' she wrote.

One of the school's major benefactors, Marjorie Nicholas - a member of the family that is heir to the Aspro fortune - has also nominated to join the board. In September she accused the board of ''mind-blowing hubris'' and vowed to withdraw financial support ''whilst this debacle continues''.

Mrs Nicholas, a former partner in a city law firm, has been connected to MLC since she came to the school as a boarder in 1955. Her daughters and two of her granddaughters attended MLC and in the late 1980s she was invited to chair the development committee, which raised $3 million for the school's swimming and gymnastics complex and the redevelopment of the oval.

Other board nominees include Reverend Joan Wright Howie, the minister of Habitat Uniting Church in Hawthorn and Canterbury, and clinical psychologist Dr Jennifer McIntosh.

In a speech posted on the website mlcfairness.com, Dr McIntosh says board members ''made a profound series of errors''. ''In my darker moments I have wished they would fall on their collective sword and just leave. I know instead we should, with grace, encourage them to see our reality and enable them to take actions that are restorative,'' the speech says.

However, it will be the board itself that will decide whether some of its fiercest critics will join its ranks.

Under MLC's constitution, the members of the board (except the principal) appoint new members by resolution passed at their extraordinary general meeting, to be held on November 14.

More than 20 people have put their names forward for board positions, to be filled from January 1 next year.

MLC's website calls for nominations for two long-standing board vacancies to be filled, at least one of which needed to be an alumna of the college and at least one a member or adherent of the Uniting Church.

All candidates must have a direct connection with MLC and at least one must have strong experience in managing complex stakeholder needs and interests.

Three members of the existing board - chairwoman Louise Adler, Professor Belinda Probert and Tony Peake - have renominated because their three-year terms expire at the end of the year. The Sunday Age believes another board member is considering resigning because of work commitments, which would mean six positions would be up for grabs.

Corporate governance expert Professor John Roberts, who has close links with MLC, said good governance at the school would be best served if the board members whose terms expire at the end of the year stepped aside to allow new leadership to reunite the community.

''It has emerged that whilst Ms Storelli was accountable to the board and could be sacked, there are no formal mechanisms through which the board can itself be called to account for its actions,'' he said.

Last month the board issued a statement saying the debate over Ms Storelli's termination had raised a number of issues about the governance of MLC.

It said the board would begin a consultation process and all sections of the school community would get a say on what changes, if any, they believed were needed to the way the school was governed.

An independent expert will also be appointed to compare the way MLC is governed with similar institutions.

■jtopsfield@theage.com.au

The story Battle for positions at MLC renews tensions first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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