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The highs and some lows of being a Dean

brisk headshot

Some personal recollections from Mike Brisk, Dean 1995 – 2002

Being the Dean at Monash Engineering was probably the most exciting, challenging, uplifting and generally enjoyable period in my professional life. It was also at times frustrating, infuriating, depressing and stressful. 

A couple of months before I took up my appointment as Dean I had lunch with Peter Darvall, my predecessor. As I was joining Monash after 12 years in industry Peter assumed I might wish to make some changes and chose to give me some advice. I can recall almost his exact words: “Introducing change into academia is like moving a cemetery across the road – you get no help from the residents”.

Well, Peter was partly a pessimist and partly an optimist. There were times when I received great enthusiastic support from my very lively colleagues for which I remain very grateful; and there were times when the dead hand of obstructionism and delay, often in the guise of academic debate, was deeply frustrating to say the least. In short, there were times of wonderful “highs”, and times – fortunately infrequently – of depressing “lows”.

The first of the latter caught me quite by surprise. At my first Academic Board meeting the then highly controversial subject of performance assessment for academics was being debated. Having come from industry where the process was taken for granted, I made a comment to the effect that poor performance might on occasions result in a salary decrease. The resulting gasps of horror around the Board room were dramatic. For some weeks this new upstart Dean received much less than warm welcome. Clearly, speaking one’s view openly was not always a desirable academic trait.

In the mid 1990s the effective integration of the Engineering Schools at the Caulfield and Gippsland campuses into the overall Faculty fabric was still a challenging issue more than five years after the official mergers had occurred. Caulfield, with its strengths in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in particular, posed fewer problems. Whilst there were issues, things generally worked out quite well, and when we were able to refurbish some of the School facilities to a high standard it was indeed a “high”. I have to confess that I had somewhat of a “soft spot” for the Caulfield School to the extent that I felt quite a twinge of disappointment when I learned that all Caulfield Engineering activities were eventually transferred to Clayton after I retired, although I can sympathise with all the reasons for this.

Gippsland Engineering was a very different situation. When the Head of School there resigned I was Acting Head for nearly a year in 1996-97 until a new Head was appointed. I recall the twice weekly early morning 140km country drives to the Churchill campus as relaxing and enjoyable. Sadly, I cannot say the same for most of the days spent dealing with the issues at the School – a time of tribulations indeed. In time the Gippsland School became a significant drain on the Faculty’s finances and I sought to close it towards the end of my time as Dean. I will not elaborate on the details of the angst, heartaches and downright hostility this generated, except to note that this was definitely the lowest “low” !

So what were some other “highs”?

In 1998 the Monash Malaysia campus opened. Seeing our work to establish the Engineering School at the (original) Monash Sunway campus bear fruit and the School begin to prosper was very gratifying. Malaysia had become a favourite destination of mine during my involvement in consulting work there in my chemical industry days in the early 1990s. Visits to the Malaysian campus to meet the students and participate in the School’s Industry Advisory Board meetings were stimulating and enjoyable. Over the next several years my Associate Dean (International), Prof Carlos Tiu, and I, with outstanding assistance from Malaysian businessman and good friend of Monash Engineering, Mr A P Yong, gave presentations at many Malaysian-Chinese secondary schools to market the Faculty – both the Malaysian and Australian degree programs. Meeting and interacting with a wide range of very able and very earnest (and so polite and deferential!) school students was refreshing and motivated the educator in me. It’s very pleasing to learn of the ongoing success of the Malaysian campus (now in its new home), and the introduction of a Chemical Engineering program there.

On the subject of being an educator – or more accurately, a teacher in this case – I thoroughly enjoyed the undergraduate teaching I did throughout my time at Monash – a very definite high. Despite less than enthusiastic comments from the then Vice Chancellor who seemed to believe Deans did not have the time to devote to teaching, I taught a final year Chemical Engineering course in Process Control every year. Honesty compels me to say that I did not enjoy the marking of 50 or so exam papers and more than double that number of assignments each semester, but I did enjoy the lecture, tutorial and personal interactions with the students. Consistently receiving good student feedback scores in the teaching surveys did no harm to my ego either (!) and enabled me to speak firmly with a clear conscience to any academics who needed to improve their teaching. However, my stint at lecturing for one semester to some 300 first year students in Central One lecture theatre on an introductory Chemical Engineering subject was definitely not a highlight. I felt I needed first hand understanding of the issues of first year teaching – I certainly gained that. My experience – which I did not seek to repeat – made me greatly admire my colleagues who taught large first year classes.

The Engineering Faculty buildings at Clayton were (and are) a somewhat confusing matrix of partially interlinked structures, some dating back to the 1961 start of Monash. As a result Engineering suffered from having no obvious main entrance, so it was great news when funds became available to construct Building 72 and provide the Faculty with a front door as well as much needed additional offices, labs and other teaching spaces.  At the same time a bequest to the Faculty which had provided scholarships for some years was very generously converted by the family members involved to a substantial lump sum donation. The Sir Alexander Stewart Conference Centre was incorporated into Building 72, providing a modern facility of which we could be proud. Whilst the planning process was prolonged and not without its frustrations, the outcome was unquestionably a real highlight for the Dean and all involved.

The Faculty has developed over the years a number of student exchange agreements with overseas universities. Two stand out in my memory, but for very different reasons. The exchange agreement for Electrical Engineering students with Lulea University of Technology, Sweden proved very successful, and I have to say the hospitality I received when visiting Lulea in 2001 was an undoubted “high”. Also in 2001 I went to Jakarta, Indonesia to sign an agreement with Engineering at Tarumanagara University. Qantas lost my luggage and I attended the very formal signing ceremony wearing a hastily purchased shirt and tie, trying manfully to look as if I represented a leading university amongst all the sartorially splendid local dignitaries. Not exactly a “low”, but it could have been better.

Monash Engineering has always been very active in research, much of it with a strong applications orientation, something that, with my industry background, I found very pleasing and sought to encourage. Perhaps this was most clearly illustrated by the fact that the Faculty at one time was simultaneously involved in nine Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs). This was more than any other Australian engineering faculty at the time. That definitely rates as a “high” and I made sure my fellow deans were well aware of it, particularly when I was fortunate enough to be elected Chair of the Australian Council of Engineering Deans for 1997-1999, a role which in itself was both a personal high and an acknowledgement of the standing of Monash Engineering.

There were other events that could be mentioned which resulted in successful, satisfying outcomes for the Faculty an hence for the Dean. But, on a purely personal note, what most often contributed to my “highs” were the contributions made by and interactions with my colleagues – despite Peter Darvall’s predictions. They came from all levels within the University. At the top, Chancellor Jerry Ellis and Deputy Chancellor Geoffrey Knights, themselves both engineers, who showed great interest in and support for the Faculty. At the “coalface” Martin Hopper, for many years the Faculty’s and the Dean’s “general factotum” as well as workshop and audio-visual coordinator, could always make it happen no matter what the task. There was David Secomb, Faculty Academic Manager who steered the annual VTAC selection process so well; Bee Holmes Faculty Financial Manager who helped keep our bottom line well in the black at all times; and above all my Personal Assistants who worked with me as Dean, dealing with my memory lapses, being protective, and trying to make sure I did not do too much wrong! There far too many others to mention but I am grateful to all of them.

On this occasion of its 50th anniversary I wish Monash Engineering every success in all of its endeavours. May its Deans and all its staff have as many highs as I enjoyed, and very few of the lows.

Mike Brisk