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My Story: Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly, Equity Director at Queensland University of Technology, recently visited Curtin University to collaborate with the National Centre team. We took the opportunity to speak with Mary about her career, the social justice initiatives embedded within QUT, and the importance of inter-institution cooperation.

NCSEHE: The Australian, when it named you one of the Top 50 in Education in 2012, referred to you as a natural leader and an advocate for inter-university cooperation. What inspired you to take on leadership roles throughout your career?

Mary: The Top 50 in The Australian was meant to be “of influence” in the higher ed sector. It was put together by journalists and I was quite surprised to be named and relieved to find my own Vice-Chancellor was in there as well! Then I was dumped the next year – I wasn’t on the list. Such is the transitory nature of fame and influence. It got a surprising amount of attention, but I’m slightly cynical about it. Well, amused about it, really.

In terms of leadership, I’ve always taken the view that if you want something to change, then it’s better to be in charge than not, and that if you have ambitions to reform, transform, or improve things, it’s really hard to do that from the middle or from the bottom of the food chain. So for me it’s just a means to an end.

I haven’t had a classic career. Although I’ve been in a single industry – the education industry – I have moved around a bit. For ten years I was a school teacher during which, in voluntary capacities, I developed some skills and interests through the Teachers’ Union, which ran as a Parliamentary-style democratic body where you learnt to run campaigns, to do media, to argue cases – all the sorts of skills you need for advocacy. I learned those skills through the Union and then got elected to a leadership position within the Union. That wasn’t a merit-based application process; that was a classic election amongst – then – 30,000 members. I don’t think that’s quite the same as what other people might consider a standard progression up ranks. It was more of a zigzag.

During my ten years in the Union – as long as I spent in the classroom, I spent outside of it – I was able to also engage in both industrial and professional peak bodies, like the ACTU and so on, where the focus was essentially public policy or legislation. It was very skill-building.

I had a distinct break after that, because then I managed a national professional body that was focused on teacher licensing. Again, I learned how to run national things with multiple stakeholders and make public policy and so on.

I came into my current job as QUT had placed an advertisement in the newspaper, and I applied for it and got it, and I’ve been in that job now for the last 17 years. If there’s a distinct change, it’s that – from schooling to higher ed. That was a shift.

The other crucial issue is timing. I think my generation had the benefit of a wave of social reform that we probably haven’t seen since in the sense that it was the post-Vietnam war in Queensland, there was quite a lot of public agitation around civil liberties and other political issues – there was second-wave feminism from the mid-70s onwards – and I was young through all of that period and really learned to see that social change was not only possible, it was your job. It was your job to do it wherever you were, whether you were in the classroom or out of the classroom. That was part of what being human was. In a sense I think the major learning was you can do social change from any job, but it’s better to be in charge of something that is dedicated to social change. Like the job I have now.

NCSEHE: Your first job was that of a high school teacher, and you spent some time in the late 70s to mid-80s working in both rural and urban areas. Which environment did you prefer? Were the respective student cohorts different from one another? What challenges do teachers and students in rural locations face?

Mary: I spent a short time in North Queensland and it was fantastic. I’m not sure I prefer urban or rural – I didn’t see it as such a stark difference. In some ways the students were the same wherever you went, and I enjoyed it in both settings. I loved school teaching. The kids were a little bit different from each other because this was pre-Internet and so the rural kids I taught were very much of their place and their interests were local and their knowledge was local. That was both a good thing and a challenging thing as a school teacher. They’re probably not like that now. I think the communications technology has really changed how kids see themselves in the world and the sense of place is probably not as strong. In terms of the challenges, it’s the tyranny of distance, it’s the access to cultural capital, the building of experiences which may or may not be available in their town or in their district, and what that all does to broaden your thinking and so on.

NCSEHE: You’ve gone on the record previously as saying that everything you know about student behaviour you learned in the classroom. What would you say those learnings were?

Mary: I learned about the diversity of human beings. Because schooling is a universal service – students are compelled to go – and you get to meet and deal with all sorts, including their parents. That’s an eye-opener. It makes you see the world from other people’s points of view because you have to in order to be able to connect with them, to those learners. You have to understand how they think and what they know and what they’re interested in and so you start to see their differences and their similarities.

I think it teaches you to read people and to be able to put yourself in their heads because teaching is just a process that takes kids from where they are to somewhere else. So you have to know where you’re starting from or you can’t do it.

NCSEHE: So empathy, basically?

Mary: Clearly empathy, because you could see who the troubled ones were and you got to understand their personal circumstances and what that did to their learning and their education. You could basically see society laid out in its layers and its patterns of privilege and disadvantage and the legacy of history, the legacy of poverty, the legacy of racism – you can see all of that as a school teacher. It teaches you a lot.

In a sense you have a predisposition, you either like people or you don’t, you find them interesting or you don’t, but the craft and the knowledge base of teaching requires you to understand people and to work out their philosophical views of the world so that you can connect with them.

Teaching is more than rapport. It’s using rapport, or insight, for a purpose. The process of understanding students and thinking about what they know and what they need to know and be able to do, and what they WANT to know and be able to do – which are often two different things – is for a purpose. It isn’t just about being liked, and in some ways the mantra was “You need to be respected, not liked.” As a school teacher you learn not to be needy. It didn’t matter if students liked you for what it did for you, it mattered for the learning. So it positions you outside and above the relationship with the students, and you learn to be quite analytical about it without being cold. It’s relationship-building for a purpose.

NCSEHE: Your current position is an administrative one in higher education, and very different from teaching high school students. What would you say the key differences are?

Mary: When I first started in higher ed I was a little bit taken aback by the culture and decision-making process and so on. It was very different from anything I’d been used to. Schooling, which is essentially the public service, or professional bodies or unions or businesses and their modes of decision-making – unis were very different from that. Not particularly democratic, policy was everywhere but optional. There was essentially a kind of organisational structure which looked like a corporation but wasn’t. It was a loose collection of bits and pieces and you had to – if you wanted to change it – you had to develop a change model that could work in patches and grow its critical mass over time. That’s a very different change model from other ones I had used in different sectors.

It took me a while to figure out how the University could be changed internally and what that model of change looked like, but after I got the hang of it that proved to be not too difficult in the end.

The difference between higher ed and schooling is essentially the difference between a non-universal service, which is higher ed, and a universal one. Schooling was for everybody and was very grounded as a result, whereas higher ed was exclusive, had a view of itself as being a bit exclusive… People would talk to me about being at the cutting edge of social and cultural change and you’d think, “Hmm, okay.” Universities, I think, are just products of their own histories and their histories tell them that they’re at the top of the food chain. When a body like that goes to do social justice, they have to think differently about the world and how they’re going to contribute to social justice both within the university and within the community. Universities are major players in the field of knowledge creation, but they’re not the only ones, and the knowledge they create is not the only form of knowledge that’s around. There’s practitioner knowledge, there’s Indigenous knowledges, and so on. The days of universities having a monopoly on knowledge creation and scholarship of discovery are over. Universities position themselves quite differently now, as partners with industry, partners with government, partners with community, and see their work in a much more collaborative way.

NCSEHE: You are a big supporter of inter-university cooperation and collaboration. In your opinion, why is that so vital and why have you been a key player in that area?

Mary: It’s important because the important things in life are too big for one institution or one sector. One of those things is social justice – overcoming poverty, racism and disadvantage. Universities have a role to play there, but it’d be ridiculous to think a single institution could go out on their white horse and take on that challenge alone.

There’s strength in numbers. I learned that through many jobs. You’ve got to hang together or you’ll hang separately. There’s strength in the collective, and it’s not just sharing good ideas, it’s the power of many.

NCSEHE: What would you say has been your biggest achievement since joining QUT?

Mary: I set out intentionally to make student poverty a core issue for the University, and I think that’s happened. It’s really embedded everywhere. We have built a permanent, large scholarship program for low-income kids, with a perpetual base of funds, which the whole university is devoted to and which 470 staff gives payroll deductions to every fortnight. Student poverty has a high profile within the university, and I think I’ve had a hand in that.

I’ve tried to do similar things with gender equity and anti-racism, probably to not quite the same depth of embedding but there are still some things there that I think will last. I’m still working on it, to make sure it gets more deeply embedded.

The trick is to build things to last, so that it all doesn’t just stop when certain people move on, and that has been a part of my recent focus.

NCSEHE: In your opinion, how do you think Australian universities are doing with respect to their various student equity initiatives, and what do you see as the future of equity in the sector?

Mary: Universities, probably thanks to the last 20 years or so of government initiatives and their own initiatives, have got social justice on their agenda in quite a strong way. I think the whole Indigenous knowledges area has taken off again in new and more radical and insightful ways than it used to. The student poverty area has had profile for at least ten years and most universities have suites of programs around that. In many ways I think student equity has become a bit of core business in universities – of different depths and different levels of activities depending on which university you go to – but I think the sector as a whole has taken that on as part of its suite of things it has to do. That’s a good thing.

In terms of what the future might be, I think universities are still learning to work with others in some of those quests because whilst they’re masters of what happens inside their universities, they’re not masters of what happens before, and they’re at the end of the educational food chain. What they need to have happen occurs in the ten to fifteen years before university attendance, and so to do anything useful there, they need a community engagement, partnership-based approach. I think they’re still learning how to do that.

Posted 7 May 2014 Posted in General