A way forward

Professor Luke Prendergast, from the College of Science, Health and Engineering, talks about responsive leadership during COVID-19

By Dr Giselle Roberts

It’s Thursday morning and Luke Prendergast looks well settled in his study in Mount Eliza. Books, sports trophies and a soccer ball or two line the shelves behind his desk, while the blue-sky view from his window casts sunlight from the outside world into one that has become a whole lot smaller. Prendergast is as good-natured and sensible as ever. “The situation has been rough on everyone,” he says. “Academic staff and students, teachers and school kids, industry and hospitality, we’re all just dealing with it the best we can. And we are fortunate to live in a time where we can do things online. Shutdown and lockdown doesn’t mean that everything stops. It means that some things stop, but we can still connect with each other and carry on with whatever we can.”

While working from home has taken some adjustment, Prendergast admits he has become more focused and more efficient. His kids have adapted to home-schooling and his two-and-a-half-hour commute has been slashed. “I really need that extra time right now,” he adds, smiling.

Prendergast has been through his own professional baptism of fire in recent months. After a six-year stint as Head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, he became Associate Head of the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (SEMS) in March. “My position changed, just as the University was moving its operations online,” he says. “Staff were frantically making videos of their lectures and, at the same time, trying to upskill on Zoom classes, virtual break-out rooms and teaching technology. In those first weeks, we did a lot of troubleshooting with academics asking, ‘How do I do this?’ or ‘Have you got any advice about that?’” If Prendergast was overwhelmed, he took it in his stride. SEMS needed all hands-on-deck, and he has been working hard to support Dean and Head of School, Professor Wenny Rahayu, to navigate the waves of challenge and uncertainty.

Luckily, Prendergast is pragmatic to his core. An expert in applied and robust statistics, he has championed the practical application of his craft, providing crucial biostatistics and meta-analysis support to a range of health-related projects. “I like working with researchers, sitting and thinking on hard problems, and developing solutions that provide statistical credibility and strengthen outcomes,” he says. Long-time collaborator, Professor Nora Shields, describes Prendergast as an “expert at crunching data,” who also “brings thoughtful, responsive advice, practical knowledge and solution-focused thinking to every research project.”

It’s this unique brand of thoughtful practicality that has already made a difference to SEMS, where the plight of the School’s international students has loomed large. “As a result of COVID-19, many international students found themselves without jobs or support,” Prendergast explains. “A lecturer in engineering started receiving calls from students who could not afford to pay their rent or buy food.” When School leadership were informed, they responded by providing students in need with supermarket vouchers. “We also created a video featuring messages of support from our academics and lab assistants,” he adds, proudly. “It makes a big difference to students when they know, in tangible ways, that we are thinking of them and are here to help.’”

Prendergast acknowledges that research has taken a hit, particularly in areas like civil engineering, where “staff need access to particular labs and certain types of equipment.” The scramble to move teaching online, an influx of COVID-related paperwork, and the changes wrought by home-working and home-schooling have also had an impact. Finding time to finish papers and meet journal deadlines has become a balancing act. “I used to drive to work knowing that I had meetings in the morning and would have time to work on a paper in the afternoon. Now my schedule changes hourly, along with my to-do list. The challenge is trying to find the time for everything.”

The online teaching crisis has, in some ways, passed. Now the School, and Prendergast, are working hard to manage workload, refine the budget and produce a course portfolio that can be delivered efficiently and effectively. “We’ve all been through the frantic part,” he says. “Now we are thinking about what happens next, what the future is going to look like. There’s no hiding behind it. The tertiary sector is in financial trouble and we need to play our part in helping to refocus our offerings.”

La Trobe’s leadership, Prendergast believes, will be key to the University’s survival. “La Trobe has been exceptional in the way it has managed this crisis,” he says. “Everyone from the Vice-Chancellor down has played their part. Staff haven’t complained about additional workloads or the stress associated with moving teaching online. They’ve just got on with it. And the University has been open and transparent about where we stand and how we will move forward. We’ve had regular updates from the Vice-Chancellor, the Senior Executive Group and the College Provost. In SEMS, Wenny has provided us with remarkable leadership. Staff are anxious, but they are not panicking, and that is because we have had very good leadership at all levels.”

Prendergast is optimistic that La Trobe can take the lessons learned from COVID-19 and emerge stronger and more focused. “This is our opportunity to transform the way we deliver education,” he says. “In the past, some academics have been reluctant to engage with new technologies. Now they know they can teach online; it can be beneficial to students and it is efficient as well. Those lessons will guide us as we work on course rationalisation and determine what our students will need in the post-COVID world.”

“We need to learn from this experience and do things differently. We have proven we are up to the challenge.”

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