Navigating change

Professor Wenny Rahayu, Dean and Head of the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, talks with Giselle Roberts about using an engineering mindset to navigate change

There is no doubt that Professor Wenny Rahayu has endured one of the most demanding years of her career. In 2019, SEMS had hit its stride, particularly in terms of international recruitment. “Our ambitious targets had been realised,” says Rahayu. “Global demand for our courses was at its peak. International students comprised around 70% of the School’s cohort.” While late-2019 changes to student visa requirements in the United Kingdom had diverted some interest away from Australia, Rahayu and the SEMS looked to 2020 as a time of measured expansion and, most importantly, stability.

Then came COVID-19. As borders and businesses closed, and university campuses emptied out, SEMS scrambled to keep research and teaching afloat. Staff found themselves triaging calls from distressed international students who had lost their jobs and “could not afford to pay rent or buy food.” The School banded together to provide students in need with supermarket vouchers and support, but the waves of challenge and uncertainty kept coming.

Not surprisingly, Rahayu was charged with finding calm in the storm. With a PhD in computer science and an international reputation as an expert in data engineering, Rahayu is no stranger to change: She was appointed Dean and Head of School in 2014 and led SEMS in the wake of a major University reset. Her singular brand of level-headedness and compassion have earned her a reputation as an accessible leader who is not afraid to make the tough calls. COVID-19 required them in abundance.

“During Victoria’s first lockdown, I realised that the only way to get through this was to draw on the School’s strong collegiality and shared sense of purpose,” says Rahayu, reflectively. “In the past, I have encouraged staff to adopt an engineering mindset to solve School problems – because there is not a single engineering problem that cannot be solved innovatively and creatively. If you need water, there is an engineering solution to bring it in from somewhere else. If you need fresh air, there is an engineering solution to get it. Need a motor for a prosthetic leg? There’s an engineering solution for that too.”

“The approach allowed us to take a step back. We reframed what was happening as a series of problems that we needed to solve together. It got everyone excited because it put us in a proactive position. We knew, ‘If we can scope it, we know we can solve it.’”

Tapping into positivity at the height of a pandemic was no mean feat. Associate Head, Professor Luke Prendergast, describes Rahayu’s approach as “critical to staff morale.” “Wenny removed any sense of panic from the crisis,” he explains. “She calmly and confidently shifted our focus and helped us to develop a new set of priorities that will see us through the tough times ahead.

Rahayu was responsive and strategic. She formed two School committees – one to tackle strategic problems and the other to deal with operational issues – along with a range of smaller task forces to manage specific projects and optimise future success. “Most of our time was taken up responding to the day-to-day issues like timetabling, enrolments and lab access,” explains Rahayu, pragmatically. “Without separating operational from strategic, we would have exposed ourselves to the risk of focusing entirely on the coalface at the expense of strategy.”

Rahayu’s decision culminated in a complete rehaul of the School’s strategic intent. While international students may return in the future, SEMS has set its sights on the domestic horizon for now. A new hub for undergraduate engineering at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus is in the works, along with plans to develop stronger ties with regional partners. Flexible delivery of courses, diversifying student recruitment, and regional roadshows are also on the table. In the research space, Rahayu has innovative plans to create a ‘one stop shop,’ matching academic or industry needs with specialised capability in the School, to drive interdisciplinary outcomes.

One thing is clear: Rahayu is a strategist and a builder. She is woman who leads by example, never rests on her laurels, and graciously attributes any achievements to the strength of her team. “I think of myself as a member of the School, rather than a leader. I have so much passion for my discipline, which is something I share with my colleagues. We all want to bring engineering, technology, computer and mathematical sciences to the fore, we want to inspire students, and make research contributions that have real-world application and impact.”

But her colleagues agree: it is Rahayu who holds the compass that guides everyone through. Perhaps Head of Engineering, Professor Hossam Aboel Naga, sums it up best: “Wenny is one of the few leaders who has successfully found the balance between leading with heart and mind. For SEMS, that has made a world of difference.”

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