December 2020

2020 is the year we may all want to forget; but, whether we like it or not, it’s also a year that will live on in the memory: a year in which our normal lives went into suspended animation and brought new ways of doing things; a year that brought life-defining changes – and perhaps a sort of liberation – for some, but anxiety and desperation for others; a year that will leave its permanent mark in different, and perhaps unpredictable, ways.

It started with the bushfires (of which the current bushfires are an unsettling reminder). I hope we will always remember the way our community responded in January: by providing practical and financial assistance to affected students and staff; by making student accommodation at our Albury-Wodonga campus available to the police and visiting US firefighters; and through our bushfire experts, including Mike Clarke, Jim Radford, Jim McLennan and Ian Porter, contributing thoughtfully to the public conversation about bushfires, global warming and its ecological effects, both here and overseas.

I said at the time that I hoped that La Trobe would be remembered as a University that took its civic responsibilities seriously in a time of crisis. There’s no doubt we did everything we could to respond to the bushfires.

I think we can say that we’ve seen the same La Trobe community spirt in our response to COVID-19.

Once again, I want to acknowledge your amazing work this year. The effort involved in moving more than 2,000 subjects online, including putting our entire semester 1 teaching load online in the space of a week, was just extraordinary; and I have heard many stories since of staff doing great things for our students to ensure they could progress with their studies and have a great experience along the way. It’s clear from surveys of student satisfaction that our students have truly appreciated your hard work in difficult conditions.

If you want a reminder of what it’s all been about, our ‘Grads Fest’ has been taking place at Bundoora over the last week. Over 4,000 students and their families are celebrating their graduations on campus at the end of a year like no other. Congratulations to Tory Dillon and the events team on another brilliantly conceived and executed event.

You have all gone out of your way to support the University and your colleagues in many other ways, especially by supporting the Job Protection Framework which is helping to save so many jobs at the University. It is remarkable that our community agreed to share some of the pain of our financial circumstances in order to protect the careers and livelihoods of others. Inevitably, given our financial challenges, we have had to say goodbye to many valued colleagues over the course of the year – but I am pleased that, for the most part, they were able to make the decision for themselves rather than have it forced on them.

I hope that you have valued the support provided by the University this year – the Wellness Days (one more to come on 23 December!), greater flexibility in carer’s leave, and the application of the ‘performance relative to opportunity’ criterion when it comes to assessing performance.

Council and Senior Executive Group decided early this year that the impact of the pandemic on the sector, and on La Trobe, would be so profound that it required a fundamental reset of our strategic direction. This is now enshrined in our new Strategic Plan (A University for the public good in a COVID-affected world) that sets out a vision, and path towards its realisation, for the next decade. This will see us become a more valued, relevant and effective University, with a much clearer sense of our strengths, working for and with our students and communities at a time of great national need. The hard work we are doing now to secure the finances of the University will set us in excellent stead when we are able to grow again in the future. I’m grateful to all staff who took the trouble to contribute ideas to the development of the Plan, especially the discussants at a specially convened meeting of the Academic Board. The result was much stronger for your collective input.

Many of our staff have exemplified our cultural qualities brilliantly this year. For example, a team in the Business School led by Geraldine Kennett developed the Leaders in Lockdown program that attracted over 12,000 registrants and demonstrated real connection to our industry partners. Our online Open Days and international roadshows, coupled with our COVID-19 Industry Response Program delivered in partnership with Investible, showed true innovation to overcome the barriers of lockdown. The efforts of our nursing students helping with COVID-19 testing in the regions, and the generosity of our staff and supporters in raising more than $750,000 to help 1,200 of our students who were hit hardest by the pandemic, demonstrated a high level of care for those in our communities.

There’s also been a huge logistical effort led by Robyn Harris and our Operations Group, who have very effectively kept up with the Government’s directives and managed everything required for working from home, campus deep cleaning, permits for researchers and essential staff, student placements, and numerous other logistical elements of keeping the University running during the pandemic. This has involved staff from every campus and area of the University – once again, thank you.

It was terrific to recognise some of these achievements at our Staff Awards event a couple of days ago. I was very impressed by the calibre of all the nominees and winners on the day. I also know that we received a record 256 nominations for our staff awards this year – yet another indication of the extraordinary work we’ve all done in 2020.

In amongst all of this, there were many significant achievements to celebrate in 2020. We achieved our highest-ever ranking in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings; and maintained our top 400 positions in the QS and ARWU rankings. We can all be very proud to say that our University is ranked in the world’s top one per cent.

In 2020, we were also ranked 4th in the world in the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking that measure universities’ contribution to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. This included being ranked 1st globally for gender equity and 2nd for our contribution to health and wellbeing. Many of our disciplines and courses were rated very highly across the various sector and industry ranking schemes during the year.

There were many individual staff achievements this year. It’s impossible to list them all, so I would like to mention a few of the highlights of this remarkable year.

But before I get to that, I want to remember a much-valued colleague who died early in the year.

Vale Professor Dennis McDermott

It’s impossible to look back on 2020 without reflecting on the loss of Professor Dennis McDermott in April. Dennis made lasting contributions to scholarship and practice through his teaching and research on the social determinants of Indigenous health, racism, incarceration, policy, equity, Indigenous social, spiritual and emotional wellbeing, workforce development, and effectiveness of service delivery.

As our inaugural Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), he had a huge impact during his 14 months at La Trobe. We will continue in our efforts to progress the work that Dennis began to foster Indigenous knowledge, values and ways across the University.

Research excellence

We performed well in the ARC funding programs this year, with La Trobe researchers winning more than 20 grants across the Future Fellowship, Linkage, Discovery and Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) programs. Katie Holmes, Susan Lawrence and Katherine Ellinghaus also won funding to lead projects under the ARC Special Research Initiative for Australian Society, History and Culture, with many of our colleagues part of their research teams.

We were awarded $1.7 million under the ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme for projects led by Tony Bacic and Grant Van Riessen. And, as we’ve come to expect, the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research (CHEEDR) led by Andrew Harvey won more than its fair share of funding from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

Jodi Oakman and Amy Dennett received funding under our rapid response research grant program with Optus and Medibank, along with our Professor of Digital Health, James Boyd, for a joint project with Ani Desai – who in turn was named a 2020 Victorian Young Tall Poppy by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science.

Very recently, we received notification that Suresh Mathivanan, Wei Shi and Richard Simpson have been included in the 2020 Highly Cited Researchers list from the Web of Science, a highly anticipated annual list of researchers around the world who have demonstrated significant influence in their field. Congratulations to this trio on this prestigious recognition.

In 2020, Cheryl Dissanayake was named a Global Research Leader by The Australian, with Dinh Phan recognised as one of the nation’s Rising Research Stars. David Greening, Jennie Pryce, Richard Heersmink and Anthony Lyons were named as national leaders in their fields.

Our DVC for Research and Industry Engagement, Sue Dodds, has just been appointed as Chair of Universities Australia’s Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Research) Committee. This is a strong endorsement of Sue’s expertise and leadership on research and industry engagement issues, and a positive reflection on everyone involved in research at La Trobe.

Teaching excellence

Our teaching staff went above and beyond this year. Students often talk to me about how their teachers have made themselves available and provided extra support with their online learning. We’ve seen some early data from the Semester 2 Student Feedback on Subjects surveys indicating how much students appreciated the hard work that went into online learning during 2020. Once again, thank you.

In 2020, Dilhani Premaratna was awarded a Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning in the Australian Awards for University Teaching (AAUT). Dilhani was recognised for her innovative approach to teaching two third-year animal health capstone subjects, including using 360-degree video technology that encourages students to engage with theory and then apply knowledge to tackle real-world problems.

In October, Birgit Loch was awarded an Advance HE Principal Fellowship, leading a group of colleagues from SHE College including Janet McConville, who was awarded an Advance HE Senior Fellowship, and Advance HE Fellows Aaron McDonald, Amanda Shaker, Pam Harvey, Jennifer Selkirk-Bell, Jason Buccheri, Mandeep Kaur and Terri Meehan-Andrews. Congratulations to these scholars on this prestigious recognition of their professional standing and achievements in learning and teaching.

I’d also like to share a powerful example of impactful teaching by the Bouverie Centre, so ably led by Jeff Young. The Centre delivered a very successful online Graduate Certificate in Family Therapy to Indigenous students in Melbourne in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, and will complete a third cohort from Palm Island, Cooktown and Townsville, in April 2021. Congratulations to all involved.

Public scholarship

The pandemic meant that we had to move our events online this year. Even so, the events schedule was as busy as ever and we burnished La Trobe’s longstanding reputation for contributing to public discussion and debate. We had large online audiences (often three or four times bigger than the physical events they replaced) for Robert Manne’s Ideas and Society ProgramBold Thinking and the regular discussions presented by La Trobe Asia, amongst many other events and discussions.

It was a breakout year for history lecturer Yves Rees, who presents the Archive Fever podcast with Clare Wright and who won the Calibre Essay Prize for their essay Reading the Mess Backwards.

And, in a remarkable performance, four La Trobe scholars were shortlisted for the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

I was thrilled to see that Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies’ book, Sludge: Disaster on Victoria’s Goldfields, published by La Trobe University Press, was shortlisted in the Australian History category, along with Emeritus Professor Judith Brett’s From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.

Lucy Treloar was shortlisted for the Fiction Award, and also won the Australian Society of Authors’ 2020 Barbara Jefferis Award for her dystopian novel Wolfe Island, which she wrote as the creative component of her PhD in creative writing at La Trobe.

Award winners

We’ll have a few more trophies to display on our bookshelves when we get back to our campuses next year.

Firstly, congratulations to Russell Anderson who won the Education Technology award at the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Awards for his innovative Lightboard Studios project. And well done to David Hoxley on being shortlisted in the Learning Experience category at these awards for the FARLabs virtual laboratory he pioneered.

At the 2020 Engagement Australia awards, Anita Smith won the Excellence Award for Outstanding Leadership in Engagement, in recognition of her leadership and collaborative community engagement in heritage protection and management in the Pacific Islands and Australia.

Finally, I was delighted to see that Professor Kay Crossley, Director of the La Trobe University Sport and Exercise Medicine Research Centre, has been awarded Victoria’s highest scientific honour, the 2020 Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation in the Life Sciences category. Kay is the first physiotherapist to win this award. Congratulations Kay – this is an incredible achievement!

It wasn’t just our academics who took home awards this year, however. Some of our professional staff were also recognised for their important contributions to the University. Our Vice-President for Strategy and Development, Natalie MacDonald, was inducted into the prestigious Victorian Honour Roll of Women in recognition of her incredibly hard work at La Trobe and, previously, in the Queensland Government sector.

Our fabulous Alumni and Advancement team won two awards in the competitive Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Awards, beating teams from around the world; and no-one was surprised to see our brilliant University Events team get the gong for In-House Event Management Team of the Year from Meeting and Events Australia. Well done to Tory Dillon and her team!

And we’ve just picked up two of the top prizes at the 2020 HR Australia Awards, with La Trobe winning Best National Diversity and Inclusion Program for our work in Gender Equality; and Best Leadership Development Program for our Culture Influencers Leadership Development Program. Well done to Zemeel Saba, Tasha Weir and everyone involved in these award-winning programs!

Net Zero

We continued to make good progress in our sustainability mission in 2020 and were able to undertake some important Net Zero capital works for which we had budgeted before the pandemic struck. I look forward to getting around our campuses early next year to see the new solar car ports at Bendigo and Albury-Wodonga, solar roof panels at Mildura, and the energy-saving LED lights that we’ve installed at all our campuses.

We also announced several projects being funded under the $500,000 La Trobe University Net Zero Fund supporting research, scholarships and student initiatives, sponsored by electrical equipment manufacturer Sonepar.

Celebrating our students

All our students should be very proud of the way they continued in their studies this year despite the challenges presented by COVID-19. Some have also had their exceptional work celebrated on the national and global stage.

We announced the inaugural recipients of two very important scholarships: Peruvian researcher Cecilia Bravo Huaynates commenced a PhD study that will identify ways of empowering women who have been victims of gender-based violence, with support from the Aiia Maasarwe Research Scholarship; and Gopika Kottantharayil Bhasi from Thrissur in the southern Indian state of Kerala was chosen from more than 800 applicants to receive the Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD Scholarship, and is doing research to improve farming practices.

Australia’s peak body for cybersecurity, the Australian Information Security Association, named our Bachelor of Cybersecurity student, Emily Pendlebury, as its Cyber Security Student of the Year; our law graduate Emily Treeby was awarded the Supreme Court of Victoria Prize; and a team of second-year engineering students from Bendigo won a global innovation challenge that was run in partnership by the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship and Hochschule München University in Germany.

I was delighted to open The Age a couple of weekends ago and see Katta O’Donnell listed in the Good Weekend's 40 Australians Who Mattered following her Federal Court challenge on climate risk and government bonds. And finally, doctoral students Jesse Martin and Angeline Leece were part of a team that unearthed the earliest known skull of Homo erectus and co-authored a paper in Science this year. They also pieced together the fragments of another fossil, the best-preserved Paranthropus robustus specimen ever found, and published their findings in Nature Ecology and Evolution. It’s an extraordinary story and a fitting way to end a recap of 2020.


It has been another productive year at La Trobe – even more remarkable given the circumstances in which we found ourselves.

Thank you so much for your support during this extraordinary year. I wish you and your families a happy and safe festive season.

I look forward to working with you in 2021. In the meantime, have a good break – you certainly deserve it.

John