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To start with I wanted to ask you if you could share three things that most people wouldn’t know about you?
I’m originally from Western Australia, I’ve been at Curtin for nearly six years and it’s been fantastic. What else might people not know about me…
How about something in line with your story—where you came from and who shaped you into who you’ve become?
I’m originally from Western Australia, and although I was educated outside of Western Australia entirely I had very strong family roots here. My father was from the Margaret River area and my grandmother was a writer. She’d write about history and told lots of stories and the stories always linked us as children back to Western Australia, which was wonderful. And she was a wonderful role model because for a woman at that time she was really quite independent, and she spent a lot of time thinking and a lot of time writing—even right up until she was well into her 90s she would always have wonderful conversations about the current state of the world and about politics.
At Curtin I often spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that, still, a number of our students are the first in their families to go to university, and universities are destinations of opportunity; they’re so important for individuals and those individuals go out and change the course of life for their families and whole communities. But I was privileged that my grandmother herself had gone to university back in the very early days of UWA and I’ve never taken that for granted because I think I was privileged to have her as a role model and I think a lot of what we do in universities, all of us, is to create those opportunities and those role models for others in the future.
And you have been doing that. You Studied at ANU and then went on to have a 24-year career at UQ, progressed from leadership role to leadership role until you became Vice Chancellor here in 2014. On top of that you’ve also been involved in numerous organisations related to higher education, and then in 2015 you were made an officer in the general division of the order of Australia for distinguished service. What drove you to go above and beyond in this sector?
I mean universities are wonderful places and they’re critically important institutions in strong civil societies that provide opportunities for young people. I often talk about the first 10 years of my career teaching and researching and two things I discovered when I came to university was that I was very interested in research—my work is in the scientific study of human behaviour—and I caught the research bug very early on. I went into Honours and then a PHD, As a PHD student involved in tutoring I found that I really liked teaching. I enjoyed the two way process of education, of working through how to impart information and knowledge in an engaging way, and I enjoyed learning from my students as I prepared for the classes. So they were the two big things that I discovered fairly early on and I spent 10 years involved in a large research group and had quite a number of PHD students working on it who’ve gone on to do wonderful things.
I gradually moved into leadership roles really, I think, because of my strong commitment to universities and the role of universities and realising that I could have as much impact on the future and on the strength of our institutions and the strength of what we do in leadership roles. So I didn’t necessarily have to be engaged in the research myself, I didn’t have to actively be engaged in teaching, but I could have an impact by being involved in leadership positions that allowed others to be successful in those roles—allowed other lecturers, academics and teachers to have an environment where they could be successful and in turn have an impact on the environment that would attract students and then allow them to be successful.
So, you didn’t necessarily know that you wanted to eventually end up here?
No, I didn’t ever one day wake up and think, My goal is to be a Vice Chancellor, or to be a head of a faculty or head of a school.
How do you think that your background in psychology has filtered into the various leadership roles you’ve had?
People ask me this quite a lot, and I often answer in two ways. One is that I think if you’re trained in the discipline of psychology, because it’s a very broad discipline, it means that you can relate across the breadth of disciplines that are taught at most universities. So you can be quite comfortable within the Humanities as much as the Health Professional professions, and of course right through to the scientific disciplines. So I think that psychology means that you’re able to interact across the breadth of what a university does, but I guess more specifically one does have insights into a whole range of things, like ways to communicate and ways to understand the views of others.
That’s really important too, because universities are becoming increasingly more diverse and there is more pressure for them to be inclusive and to make stances for that and to stand up for minorities. I know the Curtin Student Guild campaigned for marriage equality for example, I’m sure the university probably did too?
Certainly the whole of the senior executive team was very clear in its support for marriage equality, and the university has recently, along with a number of other organisations, publicly endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
I saw the video you did about the report on sexual harassment and assault on campuses as well, and I know the Centre for Stories is doing a project with you about women in STEM.
Yes, there’s always good things happening, and universities have a number of responsibilities. I mean we teach, and we research and we enrich the communities of which we’re embedded, but I also think the rest of the communities look to universities to take leadership on some of the big issues facing society.
So with all of these years across different universities what do you remember of the Student Guild at ANU? Or the University of Queensland to start with, and then we’ll go on to Curtin.
As a student at ANU I was certainly engaged in what the student union was doing back in the early 80s. It was a very active student union as you’d expect it to be and I was always engaged and always aware of what the student union was doing. I had a number of friends involved in student union roles. As an undergraduate a lot of the events and activities and clubs were organised by the student union, which certainly contributed to the very broad and highly engaging campus experience that I had.
At the University of Queensland I worked very closely with the student union through my leadership roles. I was always, and still am, a great supporter of having student representatives on major university bodies in different roles. I worked quite closely with the student representatives of the student union.
And what about your work with the student guild here at Curtin University? What are some of the works that the University has done with the Guild in your time here?
I was very impressed when I arrived here to discover that the University and the Guild have a very good relationship. And I was very pleased to discover that very early on in the establishment of WAIT the Student Guild was also formed. So for our 50 year celebrations as a university we acknowledged the Guild and we had a wonderful event where many of the Guild Presidents were able to come back. That was a lot of fun and it was fun tracing the history of the Guild alongside the history of the University.
Since I’ve been here I think it’s been a strong and collaborative relationship. I think the work that we have done together around Respect Now, Always has been completely aligned and I think it’s more likely to have an impact as a consequence. I think we’ve worked hard to increase the number of student voices on a number of our committees, working parties and selection committees for key staff. We certainly sought both the Provost and myself to have a stronger student voice in those kinds of deliberations and processes of decision making at Curtin, and I’ve been really pleased with them. I think, what I’ve been impressed with is the level of engagement of the Student Guild, the respectful relationships and engagement. We don’t always agree on everything, but I think there is mutual respect, I think the University is highly respectful of what the Guild contributes and achieves and vice versa. I’ve certainly appreciated all my interactions with the Guild but that doesn’t mean, as I said, that there has been the odd issue we didn’t agree.
But that’s a part of your working relationship because the University and the Guild both exist for the interest of students but for different purposes. It’s great that there’s always respect between the two though.
And there’s been some really positive things like Respect Now, Always that, together, we have been far more powerful than we would have been alone.
The Respect Now, Always campaign has been incredible. Are they still working on a mandatory Respect Module for all students as well?
Yes, so we’re launching the respectful relationship training programs in second semester—and the Guild has had a lot of input into the development of those modules which will be rolled out to the whole student body from second semester, with new students being required to work through those modules, but they’ll be open to all students. But yes, the collaboration with the Guild means they are well tested with the student body, that they’re highly contemporary, that they pick up on the kind of issues that are relevant to respectful relationships in the 21st century.
There are other contemporary issues the Guild and Curtin face surrounding campus life. What do you see for our future, what can we do to maintain our sense of community in the coming and likely challenging years?
I spend a lot of time thinking about what the value of the off-campus experience—recognising of course that our students are often accessing course material different modes of delivery, they’re increasingly involved in work integrated learning. We’re very keen to have our increasing number of students involved in mobility opportunities but that means we have to focus on the value of the off-campus experience.
Now some of that is changing the classrooms and engaging in more flipped classrooms, project lead teaching etcetera, but it’s also around student events. This is where we work together with the Guild for the core events the student body is looking for. We have to continuously scrutinise which sort of events the students want, when they should be held, what their focus should be on, how clubs and societies should evolve and how they need to be supported into the future. My sense is that there are many things that we would see as being core to the student experience that we want to ensure are retained, and they’re a focus for why students are attracted to Curtin, but there also needs to be evolution and change. There’re things that I did as an undergraduate student and engaged in that will be different to what undergraduates and other students are looking for now, and we have to be responsive to that and work with the Guild to make those sorts of changes. We’ve been working closely with the Guild we’re seeking to build more student accommodation on this campus, close to another 1000 beds, and that will bring more life onto campus but those extra students on campus will be looking for different sorts of events, different sorts of facilities and with resource outlets students in the future will be looking for different sorts of outlets, and I think we’ve got to understand those changes and be responsive to them.
I agree, I find that even with my younger sister her university experience has been so different from mine, so it’s good the University and the Guild are eager to adapt to the individual needs and wants of students.
We talk a lot about the sticky campus—that once students are here there’re the kinds of spaces and the kind of facilities that they’re looking for to stay on campus, even if they’re not in class. I think you have to be quite deliberate about understanding what our students are looking for on campus beyond the delivery of the classes. Take the library facilities for example, they’re set up for private studies, for group work, for students to access online material. That’s lots of other things, but it’s because we want to attract students onto our campus and we want them to stay here as long as they want to. We obviously recognise that a lot of our students want to access our courses online, and of course we’re a very active participant in Open Universities Australia.
So where do you see the Student Guild fitting in as Curtin expands?
Well I think into the future I see the Student Guild being a core part of all of our campuses—we have a strong student body at each of our campuses, and that student body is heavily engaged with the University around delivering the services and support and experiences that students are looking for. But that will evolve, and it has to evolve from both ends. The Guild has to continue being that mechanism for the student voice, for students to be heard, to be part of the deliberations as universities seek to adapt to the needs and preferences of future generations. That student voice is going to be critical in how we make those changes, what our campuses will look like into the future, our academic calendar, the nature of our courses, the nature of our experiences, that we support the students. For me, the student voice has got to be centre stage in those deliberations and those discussions and I see that need being strengthened into the future as we move into a period of quite significant change, as we prepare new graduates for a much more volatile labour market. So it does mean we have to be agile and we have to be responsive and we will only be successful in doing that if we’re working together.