March 2021

Welcome to my first blog of 2021. I hope you all enjoyed a relaxing break over Christmas and new year, and that – like me – you are rejoicing at the presence once again of students on our campuses. I hope you are also making the most of the opportunity to catch up with colleagues whose faces you may only have seen on Zoom for over a year.

The year has certainly got off to an interesting start. Last Friday, Minister Alan Tudge gave his first major speech on higher education as Education Minister while launching a consultation paper on University Research Commercialisation.

His speech can be read in two ways. At one level, it was a familiar call for universities to get more involved in partnerships with industry to commercialise research. The consultation paper seeks feedback on the best ways of doing this. The Minister, and the expert panel he has convened for this purpose, seem genuinely open to ideas for how to improve Australia’s modest performance in this area. La Trobe will be making a submission.

At another level, though, the Minister also said that universities need to re-examine their purpose. I’m paraphrasing slightly, but his essential message was this: in the last decade or so, Australian universities have become too focused on chasing improvement in their international rankings so that they can attract more international students – which they have needed in order to sustain their research rankings. He described this closed loop as the university ‘business model’ that now needs to change because, in their chase for rankings success, universities have lost sight of their role of contributing to the national interest and the public good. COVID has exposed the frailty of that model. He wants our public service role reinstated.

I believe that this change of emphasis from Government is a good thing for La Trobe. Although we have benefitted from our international student recruitment in many ways, and have achieved modest rankings success in the process, we have never lost sight of the important role we play in supporting and sustaining the communities immediately around us – a role that we believe will only grow in significance as a result of the pandemic. That is why our new Strategic Plan is called ‘A university for the public good in a COVID-affected world’. That enduring commitment to the public good – through our teaching, research and community and industry partnerships – is one of the things that makes La Trobe such a special place to work. We can, literally, see the good we do in our communities.

All of this is consistent with a growing body of new thinking about the purpose of the modern university. Some of you may recall the visit to La Trobe of Professor Ronald Barnett from the University of London, who talked to us about the ‘ecological university’ as ‘one that has responsibilities in furthering the wellbeing of the many ecologies with which it interacts’; or Professor Mary Stuart from the University of Lincoln, who spoke about the ‘permeable university’ as one that 'removes barriers to interaction both within the institution and beyond it'. More recently, Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, has written about the need for a new ‘fifth generation’ of university, one that 'integrates broad accessibility to world class knowledge production with societal impact'.

There are common themes to these lines of thought that support the idea of a university for the public good, and which are well aligned with how we think of ourselves at La Trobe – somewhere that is accessible to students, and open to collaborating with the industries and communities around us to generate new knowledge and new ways of doing things that will have a positive impact. In short, we are a university whose time has come.

Orientation goes online

Congratulations to Rebecca Eaton and the Advising & Success team for putting together a terrific virtual orientation program [internal link]. Most activities were held last week, with new students undertaking live and on-demand sessions on everything to do with university life.

With sessions, workshops and activities from the Library, Student IT Support, ASK La Trobe, Wellbeing, La Trobe Abroad, Learning Hub, Career Ready, Sustainability, La Trobe Sport, and social activities, it was a great start for our new students and a tribute to our staff who have worked so hard to provide the best possible experience in a COVID safe way.

International winners

La Trobe students have achieved great success over the years at the Study Melbourne international student awards, and 2020 was no exception.

Congratulations to Justin See, a PhD student in Bendigo, who won the Premier’s Award for International Student of the Year as well as the International Regional Student of the Year award. Justin has presented his research on community planning and development at conferences across Asia, had an article published in the climate change journal Global Environmental Change, is an Intercultural Ambassador for the City of Greater Bendigo, on the Board of Directors for Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services, and a volunteer host of two programs on Phoenix FM Community Radio. I wonder what he does in his spare time.

And well done to Laurence Cashin, who is studying for a Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences at the Melbourne campus, who won Victorian Student of the Year for Internationalisation.

New Colombo Plan mobility funding

Stacey Farraway and the team in LTI did a brilliant job in coordinating La Trobe’s project proposals for the 2021 New Colombo Plan mobility funding round, achieving a 100 per cent success rate. Congratulations too to the academics leading the programs that won funding.

Of course, travel is still subject to borders opening up, but we’re hopeful that the 127 La Trobe students involved in the program will be heading off to their mobility projects in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Vietnam, Nepal, South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Japan as soon as they can. I’m sure that virtual programs will be valuable in the meantime.

Vale Olga Tennison AO

I was saddened by the news that Olga Tennison died in January at age 92. Olga’s health had been declining for some time, and her loss will be felt by many people.

Olga was a remarkable woman. I was lucky to meet her regularly over the last few years. She was lively company, and I was always struck by her intelligence and generosity. She was also our most generous benefactor.

Olga was very modest about her achievements, but she has left a remarkable legacy in the form of the work done by Cheryl Dissanayake and her team at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre. Olga and Cheryl had a special relationship, and you can read Cheryl’s wonderful tribute to Olga here [internal link].

We also convinced Olga to appear in one of the ‘Living History’ videos we made to celebrate the University’s 50th anniversary in 2017, and it’s terrific to see Olga and Cheryl together in the video.

Art meets science

I’m looking forward to visiting the façade of the La Trobe Art Institute (LAI) building in View Street next time I’m in Bendigo. Visual artist Danica Chappell has worked with chemical biologist Donna Whelan from the Department of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences to create a photographic collage that covers the View Street frontage. The creation of the work involved a microscope at our Bendigo campus, one of the most powerful microscopes of its kind in Australia.

Far From the Eye: Darkfield is part of PHOTO 2021, a major international festival of photography being held across Melbourne and regional Victoria in its inaugural year. It’s great to see the LAI putting artists and researchers together, and in this instance shows how photographic imagery is fundamental to the work of both the artist and the scientist.

There are other microscope-derived images on display at the LAI until 13 March, and you can read more about the collaboration here.

Gender equity

Our work on gender equity at La Trobe has never been more important. COVID has exacerbated gender inequalities; and events playing out on the national stage show that as a nation we still have a very long way to go to eliminate all forms of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace and in our society.

There is always more to be done, but I was proud to see our gender equity work recognised again last week when La Trobe was awarded a Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation for a fifth consecutive year.

I was pleased to see that the 2021 Tracey Banivanua Mar Fellowship was awarded to a Human Geographer working from the Albury-Wodonga campus, Sallie Yea. I look forward to hearing about Sallie’s research on human trafficking and modern-day slavery in the global seafood industry.

I hope that you can join with me and some special guests at the University’s International Women’s Day event on 8 March to celebrate our achievements and reflect on the work that remains for us to do if we are to achieve gender equity here at La Trobe and in our society. Our panellists will talk about how all of us can embrace the 2021 IWD campaign theme Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world and help to shape a more equal future.

Pressing on

The La Trobe University Press (LTUP), our publishing partnership with Black Inc., has been a huge success since its foundation in 2017.

One of the most successful LTUP books to date is Superpower, Ross Garnaut’s road map for Australia to become a leader in low-carbon energy. I’m delighted that Ross has chosen to publish his next book with us. RESET builds on the ideas in Superpower to show how the COVID-19 crisis offers our nation a unique opportunity to reset its economy and build a successful future.

The Press has published important voices in the unfolding debate about Australia’s relationship with China as well as books on science, history, economics and business, social science, biography, foreign policy, and Australian society and culture. The most recent publication is Open Minds, a topical exploration of issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech at Australian universities by Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone.

You can see a full list of upcoming titles here, including a new edition in the Australian Thinkers Series celebrating La Trobe’s own Inga Clendinnen.

That’s it for my first blog this year. I sign off now with best wishes for you all to be safe and well.