Fearless campus leaders who stepped into the breach

13 May 2020 | 5 mins

This article was published online in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday 28 April and is reprinted with permission of the newspaper.

Neither Jane den Hollander nor Belinda Robinson had any idea what they were in for when they agreed to take an interim job running a university for a few months.

Last November Professor den Hollander, who spent nearly a decade as vice-chancellor of Deakin University, arrived in Perth, where she intended to retire.

Instead, University of Western Australia chancellor (and former High Court chief justice) Robert French persuaded her to run the university for a few months between the departure of former vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater in January and the arrival of Professor Freshwater’s successor, Amit Chakma, in July.

Professor den Hollander’s starting date was at the ­beginning of February and, just as she began, the coronavirus had its first serious impact on universities.

On February 1, the federal government imposed a travel ban on China that blocked nearly 100,000 Chinese students from coming to Australia unless they spent a two-week quarantine period in a third country.

Professor den Hollander remembers previous international crises during her career — 9/11, severe acute respiratory syndrome and the global financial ­crisis — that all affected universities.

After 9/11, when she was at Curtin University, there were students from the US who had lost family members but couldn’t go home.

“This is worse than all that,” she said. Now she sees international students who fear for their families and, having lost their jobs, are reliant on aid from the university.

Often their families in their home country can’t help them because they have lost their jobs, too.

At the University of Canberra, Ms Robinson has been in a similar position. The former chief executive of Universities Australia joined UC two years ago as vice-president of university relations and strategy.

Like UWA, UC also found itself without a vice-chancellor between the ­departure of Deep Saini last December and the arrival of the new appointee, Paddy Nixon. Ms Robinson was asked to fill the role for a few months. When she began on January 13 there were already challenges to deal with.

“Canberra had been real­ly suffering terribly after months and months of bushfires and smoke. It had really been very ­debilitating for those directly affected,” she said. A week later came a destructive hailstorm, which Canberrans found ironic after their trial by fire. Next came COVID-19.

Ms Robinson had to lead the effort to get all classes online in a matter of weeks. It was a colossal task because the university had not previously been a significant provider of online education. Staff put in “round-the-clock ­efforts to shift the university to a virtual campus within weeks”, she said.

“Given the summer we’ve had, how tired staff and students were, it was incredible to see the lengths they went to and the effort they put in.” Ms Robinson said she could see a potential benefit.

“The upside, if there is one, is that we’ve really turbocharged the strategic work we were in the early stages of, building short courses and microcredentials,” she said.

Earlier this month Ms Robinson handed over to Professor Nixon, who made it to Australia (from his former university in ­Ireland) on the last Qantas flight from London before the airline stopped flying the route. Ms Robinson is now back in her vice-president position at the university, as well as continuing in other roles including as chairwoman of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.

But Professor den Hollander is still carrying on as interim vice-chancellor at UWA. Her replacement, Professor Chakma, who is in Canada, is not due to start until July 6. She is “in awe” of what people have accomplished at the university in response to the crisis.

“Staff who’ve been teaching in one mode for years and years have adopted another mode,” she said. And the student sentiment has been “astounding”.

Despite the difficulties of the sudden shift to online classes, she said, students were expressing their appreciation and being constructive in their feedback for staff, saying, for example, “here’s three things you can do better”.

Professor den Hollander has sometimes worked in her office at the university. “I’m in splendid ­isolation. The campus is empty, there’s no life. It’s been taken over by ducks, magpies and crows.”

She is one to rise to a challenge and admits to even enjoying it. “There’s nothing like a crisis,” she said.

But she’s also emphatic. “I have no intention of taking ­another gig.” And there’s another thing. “I’m beginning to loathe Zoom with a passion.”

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