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New directions

Ready for change

When Peter Darvall became Dean of Engineering in 1988, the Faculty was in a healthy and stable position. As the Williams Report – which looked at the state of engineering education in Australia – had confirmed, Monash Engineering was among the leading engineering schools in the country. Nevertheless, the Faculty was ready for new direction. Darvall’s appointment to the deanship signaled the beginning of a new period for the Faculty.

In the same way that Lance Endersbee had been extremely different from his predecessor Ken Hunt, Darvall provided a stark contrast to Endersbee. He came to the deanship with a different background to Endersbee and an alternate approach to the running of the Faculty. Endersbee had been a highly capable and high profile leader with a long and distinguished industry career. Although his background and expertise was of great benefit to the Faculty, his limited experience within the academic environment was seen by some to detract from his leadership. While Endersbee’s deanship had been a period of strength, consolidation and relationship building, the Faculty was ready for a more academically focused leadership.

In this respect, Darvall offered the Faculty what Endersbee could not. Darvall was undeniably well-schooled in the running and operations of universities. In addition, since his arrival at Monash in 1970, he had progressed swiftly through the ranks of academic promotion from lecturer, to senior lecturer, reader and then finally, after his appointment as Dean, to professor.

By the late 1980s the Faculty was starting to see the results of the introduction of combined double degrees and the new coursework masters. The Faculty was also reaping the benefits of continually increasing industry funding for research and for research facilities that flowed on from the close ties with industry that the foundation staff had established, and that Endersbee had pushed to new levels.

Endersbee’s period of leadership was characterised by innovation and increased flexibility in the type of engineering education that the Faculty offered. Darvall continued along this path. In 1989 the Faculty ‘moved away from the pass by year system so traditional in Australian Engineering Schools’. Prior to this point, engineering subjects at Monash had spanned the length of the academic year. Students who failed a subject would have to repeat the entire year. With the new system, each subject or unit spanned one semester rather than the full year. Students who failed a unit would, under the new system, be required to repeat that specific unit only, rather than an entire year.

The change to a unitised system was far from smooth. There had been strong pressure from the University leadership to unitise and Engineering had resisted this pressure for as long as it could. When it finally moved to the new system, there were difficulties. As David Secomb, former administrative head of the Faculty recalls, few staff had a clear grasp of the new course structures and it was a challenging time.

When the Faculty of Engineering finally made the decision to move to a unitised system it boldly embraced the idea. In an article published in the Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, Darvall argued that the pass by unit, semesterised system was of great benefit to students and to the Faculty. It enabled students to progress through their undergraduate studies at different rates, based on their own circumstances and ability. The new system also introduced a greater degree of flexibility to the course structure and content and facilitated the development of a wide range of combined degrees.

The Faculty was clearly on the right path – and moving in a direction that set it amongst the leading faculties of engineering in Australia. The Williams Report had confirmed this and Darvall’s style of leadership indicated that he was eager to foster continued development. In fact, former Head of Civil Engineering William Young noted that one of Darvall’s greatest strengths as Dean was his ability to welcome change and create an environment that actively encouraged it. But, in order to continue to facilitate new directions and further development, Darvall had to make some fundamental alterations to the internal operations of the Faculty.