Reflections

Personal Memo 1

eye-big.jpgI come to this doctoral study via two routes. One is my 28 year career as a university manager and my involvement with the Association of Tertiary Education Management during that time. The second is my second career as a strategic foresight practitioner.

My career as a manager started in 1979 in a new university (Griffith University) where there was an attempt to break the mould of the conventional university. I had been in the first cohort of students in 1975 which was a special experience in terms of involvement in the delivery of the course itself. Working in the school where I had studied under the auspices of two of the best managers I was to ever have resulted in me buildilng a deep appreciation of the academic institution and the work of academics. My role was not an end into itself. It was an integral part of an academic operation. The academic was my customer, even though that term was not used at the time. Nor was the term manager used – more conventional terms like Registrar and my title of Graduate Clerk were reminiscent of the traditional university. I loved being in the university, its environment, its focus on knowledge and learning. It was that love that kept me going over the next 28 years as I lived through the changes that shaped the university of today, and that have seen new forms of management structures, systems, processes and leadership emerge.

I followed a conventional career path, working my way ‘up the ladder’ until I was a director of a corporate planning unit. I’d done all the right things including getting a Masters degree in Educational Administration and volunteering with the professional association – Association for Tertiary Education Management – and ultimately becoming its President from 2001-2003 leading a move to be overt about professionalisation of the role of the university administrator. That was a fraught time for me, as I battled some ridiculous behaviour on the part of some members of the Council, and some personal attack, and some naivety on my part on what the role of President was all about. I was about to move into my second attempt at a PhD and I left the Council with the words to the effect of “I will prove you wrong about professionalisation.” I had a point to prove which convinced me that I would complete a topic on the professionalisation of university administration and the relationship between academics and administrators.

My first attempt at a PhD started in the late 1990s at the University of Melbourne where my topic was Neighbouring Professions: Academics and Administrators in Australian Universities. Why I discontinued three years in is not a topic for this blog as it involves personal interactions with my supervisor best left in the past. I promised myself I would finish it, and enrolled again in 2003 on a similar topic. That attempt too was doomed to failure before it began, mainly because I was now deeply into the world of foresight. I withdrew to focus on building my foresight capacity which was becoming more important to me for reasons I could not yet articulate.

Being involved in foresight emerged in 1999 when the Vice-Chancellor at Swinburne asked me to do foresight, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. But I set out on my task and the struggle and frustrations that had been characterising my work over the past few years seemed to wane a little as I learned more about foresight. At the same time though, with my continuing interest in the relationship between academics and administrators, I was noticing that there was vitriol now and critique of what they viewed as incursions into academic work like publishing, which I was doing. To say academics seemed distinctly unimpressed with corporate managerialism was an understatement, but it was this development that had allowed me to build a career in university management. At the same time, this development was beginning to alienate academics and managers from each other.

I wrote and said at the time that administrators were their own worst enemy at times, which I came to understand as a lack of that appreciation of working in an academic institution, academic work and the values that underpinned them. The role of university manager was taking on a life of its own and to my mind, that was not a good thing. The joy of working in the university had been disappearing, to be replaced by a growing commitment to using foresight in my strategy work at Swinburne.

I decided that I needed a formal grounding in foresight and in 2003 enrolled to do the first subject in the Masters of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne. It was 100% on line which suited my personal learning preferences. I went in with the intention of learning more about the knowledge base of foresight and half way through that subject, I realised I had to finish the year. The excitement that comes from the new, from having my mind opened to things I had never thought about before, thinking in systems and globally, having my worldview and underpinning assumptions challenged by new knowledge, ideas and ways of thinking made it very clear that I had found a home, a tribe.

The belief in yourself that comes from contributing to the learning of the group, being challenged by the group and surviving and being the critical thinker in public that I wanted to be was life changing. I reached the space at the end of the first year where I ‘got’ foresight, where I realised my thinking and how I saw the world had changed and that there was no going back. I ended up completing the Graduate Diploma which was fine as life had intervened along the way.And more importantly, the two strange PhD experiences I had in the past were replaced by faith that I would do my PhD and that the future would have something to do with it.

Early in 2004 after spending three years struggling to get foresight embedded in the university strategy processes, it became clear that the new Vice-Chancellor was killing foresight softly, or more aptly described as death by a thousand cuts. His worldview didn’t include foresight. The day I returned to my office after him telling me he was writing the university strategic plan on his own was the day I realised I couldn’t work with him and it was clear to me he didn’t want to work with me or foresight approaches. Worse, after years of accepting the foibles on new VCs and just getting on with it, I realised I had to leave – I was grieving for the loss of foresight and without that in my job, I couldn’t work there anymore. I more or less asked him to let me leave with grace, which he did, and I moved to Victoria University in 2005 and a much more supportive Vice-Chancellor and manager. I had made it clear from the start that I woudn’t be staying there forever which gave me a new sense of freedom in my work which was to me an interim step in moving to working full-time in the foresight world.

In 2006 after a year from hell that included an AUQA quality audit, a restructuring of my department and two involuntary redundancies, I arrived at work one day in November and stopped a few steps into my office. I could not do this anymore. I had to leave. Frightening but reassuring thoughts, and the decision was made. A different ‘had to leave’ space from when I realised I had to leave Swinburne – I was leaving from a position of strength not grief. The Vice-Chancellor let me go part time so I could finish up what I was doing while setting up the business for which I will be eternally grateful. I left at the end of 2007 to move to working in Thinking Futures full time.

In 2011 I discovered an online doctoral program through the University of Liverpool and after some thinking enrolled, looking forward to a repeat of the most intense learning experience of my life in the first year of the Swinburne Masters. Above 6 weeks later I withdrew, unhappy as well as disheartened and amazed at the rigidity of the application of the Learning Management System. I felt like I was in an undergraduate course rather than a doctoral program. The focus was on process, adhering to the rules and never, even forgetting the word limit of a forum discussion piece. As the universe is prone to do, the morning after the evening where I’d submitted from formal withdrawal, I received an email about the introduction of a new PhD by Practice Based Research. I emailed my interest immediately and started in 2012. I felt like I was home again.

At the end of the first year, I had an epiphany of sorts, realising that trying to focus my topic on the relationship between academics and administrators wasn’t the whole story – that the future of university management was where I needed to be. I’d still be dealing with the intersection between academic and manager work but it would be placed in the context of the future of the university. I would make the point I promised to prove but it would be in a more informed, more contextual way.

3 thoughts on “Personal Memo 1

  1. How important your resilience and self-belief has been, Maree! There must be many Ph.D candidates (women?) who go through a tangled personal, professional and intellectual story like yours, but few would have simultaneously woven in and out of the shifts that Australian university and management have undergone, as you have done.

  2. Thank you both, I really appreciate your support. I made that promise to complete in 1991 or thereabouts and it’s going to be fulfilled! Life sure is tangled, but in a couple of years there will be more clarity about university management!! !! :)

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