Q&A with Prof. Michael Wilmore, new Dean HASSE

Published 07 June 2018

Next month Professor Michael Wilmore will leave his post as the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK, to join UNE as the new Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education (HASSE).

What excites you about joining UNE?

The university’s reputation as a centre of excellence in so many different facets of research and education is obviously a big drawcard. I like the fact that UNE is an established university that continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible in higher education through innovation in learning. The important social mission of the university in its region and its distinctive values are also really important, because they’re the foundation for everything the university achieves. I think UNE’s vibrancy as a scientific and cultural hub, and the way this is shared with thousands of students from many different backgrounds via its online programs, will make it an exciting place to work. It will be really fun getting to know the New England and meeting new people.

You’ll be joining UNE in the depths of winter. Being British-born, does that make you well equipped for the cold?

I’m from southern England, so many northern Brits will tell you that we get it easy when it comes to weather. But it still gets quite cold for a few months down south and this year we even had a couple of big snow storms. One thing I do like is the seasonality of the UK – the feeling that different times of the year have their own character. So I think I’ll feel right at home in Armidale.

You were born in the UK and spent your early years there before moving to Australia in 2004. What have you enjoyed about living in Australia in the past?

Our first time living in Australia was special because this was where our two sons grew up and where a lot of our most significant family memories are located. We felt really welcomed to Australian life through our boys’ time at school, kids’ sport and sharing the experiences of parenthood with new friends. It really wasn’t a very hard decision to become Australian citizens. However, it has been good to be back in the UK over the past few years, because we could spend some quality time with family, and the boys have had a chance to reconnect with their roots.

Your academic background in education and research is broad. What do you bring to the leadership of the new HASSE faculty?

Yes, I’ve certainly got a varied academic background. I’d probably describe myself first and foremost as a media anthropologist. When I chose my PhD topic, I set out quite deliberately to design it as an interdisciplinary project that encompassed anthropology, media studies and development studies via fieldwork in Nepal. Along the way, I also had a chance to continue my interest in archaeology. Subsequently, I’ve been fortunate to teach across a range of subjects, including tutoring for the UK Open University’s foundation course in social sciences. This totally transformed my understanding of what great education looks like.

Moving to Australia gave me new opportunities for research both at home and abroad, including education projects that parallel the work I’ve done as a lecturer and associate dean. The Faculty of HASSE covers so many of my interests that I’m sure it will be a perfect academic home.

You have experience of working in universities transitioning to new faculties. What opportunities does such a change offer staff and students?

Everyone in a university–staff members and students alike–is constantly learning. This learning should be challenging and meaningful, so people need to work collectively to meet these challenges.

Sometimes what you need most is peer support, which puts academic disciplines at the forefront of the learning environment. Disciplines usually generate the questions we’re seeking to answer through our learning. But sometimes disciplines need support to connect their members into social networks to access resources or to create and sustain wider working relationships. Faculties provide an answer to the question of how we can nurture strong disciplines and support them to reach their full potential. Sometimes this includes helping disciplines to work across institutional boundaries to foster interdisciplinary learning.

The faculty also has a responsibility to ensure disciplines meet standards of conduct and performance expected by the university and different interest groups. Again, the faculty helps disciplines and their members achieve those standards consistently and offers support if they’re not being applied appropriately. Faculties are a tried and trusted way to interconnect people and disciplines to the body of the university and other communities.

You have published recently about the professional development of academics and how to teach teachers to improve student satisfaction. What learnings would you like to apply at UNE?

One of my colleagues on this most recent project is Dr Thomas Kehoe, a UNE graduate and now academic in the faculty of HASSE. So, let me flip this around and say that UNE has already contributed to what we’ve done in that project.

We wanted to challenge several things in our redesign of the subject or unit review process. First, we started with the premise that there was nothing wrong with questioning subject quality. We’ve got to care about different measures of learning, including students’ own perceptions of their education.

Second, we challenged the idea that this was a problem only for individual unit leaders or the academic team directly involved in teaching a subject. Instead, we viewed this as a collective responsibility for the whole discipline group, because courses are only as strong as their weakest links. Everyone in the discipline should have a stake in the process of subject review. It’s a collective approach that I’ll try to foster at UNE.

Third, we wanted to provide a supportive and well organised framework for conducting subject reviews to minimise any impact on staff workloads.

Finally, we put a lot of emphasis on helping colleagues to evaluate the outcomes of their review to ensure they turned a potentially negative experience into one that had positive results for them, as well as for their students. We found that there are few things more satisfying than helping colleagues achieve better learning outcomes for students whilst greatly reducing the time they spend marking.

You have one son now studying at university in Australia. What do you feel are the strengths of the Australian tertiary education system, and regional universities like UNE in particular?

This is a big question! It will probably take a few months back in the Australia to reflect on and appreciate fully what I’ve learned from working again in the UK higher education system.

I think there has been a net gain for the Australian higher and further education system over the past decade, because the likelihood of students entering and then staying in post-school education and graduating with the qualifications they need for their future careers has increased. This ultimately benefits regional and online universities like UNE because they form a distinctive component within the overall higher education system. It’s important that UNE and other members of the Regional Universities Network are promoting the benefits of what’s been achieved in recent years.

That’s also why the Faculty of HASSE is particularly important for UNE and the New England region as a whole. The School of Education’s impact on the whole region cannot be underestimated given the number of teachers we’ve graduated in the past decades and the thousands of students whose lives have been influenced by their teaching. The School of Humanities, Arts and Social Science has made an immeasurable contribution to New England and the whole country by fostering cultural creativity and connections to the life of all people and communities who have called the region home over many centuries.

What are your interests outside work and what do you do to relax?

My family and friends are spread far and wide, so keeping in touch with them keeps me busy. Not surprisingly, travel also features pretty high on my list of outside interests. I know it’s an academic cliché, but I really do like reading and I’m a consumer of an eclectic range of music and visual culture. I’m probably happiest when taking a walk in an interesting city, beautiful countryside or along a beach. I relax by not obsessing about email or social media at the weekend.