The past 18 months have been something of a baptism of fire and drought for Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education (HASSE), Professor Michael Wilmore.
While he's relishing being back in his adopted homeland - British-born Mike worked at universities in Adelaide and Melbourne from 2004 to 2016 - the timing of his appointment has brought unexpected trials.
"I've loved being back in Australia and it's been incredibly eye-opening coming to live in a regional centre, but I couldn't have chosen a more challenging time to arrive at UNE, with the drought and now the bushfires," Mike says. "I don't feel like I have moved back to Australia; in many ways I'm experiencing it for the first time. I'm getting so many insights into an Australia that I knew about but didn't really understand. It's been an incredible experience."
Fresh from Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, where he was Executive Dean of the Faculty of Media and Communication, Mike embarked on a review of UNE's schools of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences (HASS) and Education. Now he's eager to act on the findings.
"In both cases we discovered amazing opportunities to continue doing what we've traditionally done but also to meet the new needs of the coming decade," Mike says. "Australia needs its regions to be robust, and UNE has an important contribution to make as a major provider of education and research."
UNE's contribution to education is well known - through training new teachers, providing professional development for existing teachers and enhancing school leadership through departmental partnerships. "Our contribution is not only through producing great graduates, but also through a range of other exciting collaborations," Mike says.
However, as he prepares to become a trustee of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia, Mike has had pause to consider the less obvious impacts of HASS academics and graduates. "It's incredible to consider all the things we are involved in - from regional planning and environmental sustainability to international studies and Indigenous affairs," he says. "The diversity of the HASS School reflects the diversity of human life, and I'm interested in exploring how we can make the biggest contribution possible to the creative life and culture of the region."
In the coming year, Mike will bring together members of UNE's HASS team under one umbrella for the first time, in a new department covering the fields of creative arts and communication. And the entire New England region - and beyond - stands to benefit, as demonstrated by the university's recent involvement in the Tamworth Country Music Festival.
"The vibrant program of activities we put together for the festival included song-writing, music technology and vocal performance sessions, plus auditions for the UNE Music program," Mike says. "We shared what we do with a new audience and this has enabled us to develop some interesting new collaborations. It demonstrated what UNE has always done, but highlighted how much of Australia's vibrant creative arts scene is influenced by the work of UNE graduates, staff and researchers. We've undersold ourselves for a long time."
Improving engagement with industry and professional bodies is one of Mike's major ambitions for 2020, especially for HASS. "Education has always been well connected with industry, through work placements and our relationships with departments of education," he says. "But we haven't always recognised the opportunities within HASS. I want to ensure we improve our engagement with the community, industry and the people driving government policy at all levels. Unless we are part of those conversations we will be regarded as peripheral to them."
A good example is the introduction of the new subject Professional Practice in Criminology, which follows the establishment of UNE's new Centre for Rural Criminology. Those senior students taking the subject form research teams to work with industry partners and solve real-world problems within the criminal justice system, helping the students to develop practical professional skills and affording their partners valuable new ways of thinking and potential solutions.
Mike says he is calling on his own abilities as a social anthropologist to help equip all HASSE students for future challenges. "It's my job to inspire a faculty environment in which students and staff can work collaboratively and supportively," he says. "Our teaching staff at UNE has a passion for developing students with the same passion for theatre performance or regional planning or primary school education, whatever the case may be. They want to see them graduate and go on to do innovative and creative things that give their discipline currency and relevancy.
"Our faculty does incredibly valuable work that helps us to understand the world we are going to be living in, especially the impacts challenging environments will have on regional Australia. That's the very human side of what we do and that's what makes our work so inspiring."