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Strategy and vision

A point of contention

Mike Brisk was taking the Faculty in new directions. The Engineering presence at the Sunway Campus in Malaysia was running successfully and the Faculty was expanding its activities. However, the Faculty was still dealing with major issues stemming from the mergers with Chisholm and Gippsland. Despite Darvall’s strong leadership during this period and Brisk’s strategic direction for the Faculty immediately after, the reality was that the Faculty had never fully adjusted to the challenges of amalgamating three very different tertiary institutions. There were differing standards of entry into the degrees offered at each of the three campuses. There was also a great disparity in teaching style and research output between the three campuses, and this caused division across campus borders as comparisons were made unfairly. External changes also impacted greatly on the Gippsland campus and it struggled to maintain its student numbers and quality once the electricity industry was privatised in Victoria.

Brendon Parker, former Head of Engineering at the Gippsland campus, recalls feeling disappointed in the scarcity of visits to his School from staff in the Faculty. He commented that ‘nobody wanted to go down to Gippsland, they never really grabbed hold of Gippsland as a part of the Faculty’. Similarly, operations at Caulfield were problematic. While research activity among the previously teaching-focused staff had improved, there were still major differences in focus between the Caulfield campus staff and their Clayton colleagues.

Integration of these disparate campuses promised to be the most divisive issue that had faced the Faculty in its history. Nevertheless, a solution had to be found. Brisk’s first move was to develop a single BE degree, offered across all campuses but with different specialisations available on each. This took several years of complex negotiations and, even when achieved, was not without its problems. Brisk understood that running two parallel schools of engineering at Caulfield and Clayton, only 10 kilometres apart, was costly and, with staff constantly having to travel between Clayton and Caulfield, time-consuming and dangerous. Over several years he led a staged consolidation of the two schools on the Clayton campus. First, each specialisation group at Caulfield became a division of the relevant Clayton department, staff numbers were pruned and then the remaining staff were relocated to the Clayton departments.

The Gippsland solution was different and much more difficult. With student numbers in the La Trobe Valley still declining, the School was haemorrhaging money. Despite remedial measures, which were at great cost to the rest of the Faculty, the situation only deteriorated. Over four years Brisk made numerous representations to senior university management that the operations at Gippsland were not viable or sustainable. Peter Darvall, who was by then well entrenched in university management and leadership, recalls Brisk passionately arguing for the activities at Gippsland to be terminated. Finally, when Darvall was Vice-Chancellor in 2002-2003, Council agreed, and in late 2002 it was announced to Gippsland staff and students that the School would close at the end of 2003. A “teachout” would be mounted at Gippsland in 2004-05 for third and fourth year students; students at lower levels would be given financial assistance to finish their courses at Clayton, and special arrangements and financial assistance would be provided for distance education students.

After 70 years of engineering education in the Valley the announcement caused howls of outrage, unprecedented public and political comment and violent student protests. Brisk, who did not baulk at personally addressing protesting staff and students at Gippsland to explain the measures to them, was subjected to personal abuse, threats and actual violence, such as few deans have had to endure. That week’s La Trobe Valley Express devoted its first six pages to the volatile situation. However, Brisk endured the public outrage and persevered, and he and his successor, Tam Sridhar, between them saw out the Gippsland closure. Through a new School of Applied Sciences and Engineering (the renamed School of Applied Sciences) and the introduction of a new course in civil and environmental engineering that had strong industry support, the remaining engineering interest in the Valley was catered for. It quickly gained provisional accreditation and strong endorsement from Engineers Australia.