Hold on to your values, even as the world around you changes, says Professor Geoff Crisp – perhaps, especially as it changes.
The University of Canberra’s outgoing Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic (DVCA) is reflecting on the nature of leadership to effect positive change – but his words have added reverb in today’s turbulent global acoustics.
“That way, if and when you have to start again in life, or take a different path, you take your values and the lessons you've learned from previous experiences with you,” he says. “It’s key that other people can see the values you live by.
“It’s also very important to have a compelling vision that you can articulate, and to then be inclusive around bringing people on that journey with you. It’s not about what you want, it’s about what is compelling for everyone, what is good for all – that’s the difference between true leadership and just being a leader.”
When Geoff retires at the end of October, he will leave an ongoing legacy of positive change, anchored in the values he shows up with every day – compassion, respect, openness and balance, to name a few.
In his nearly five years at UC, he has wrought myriad changes in its academic programs, as a committed advocate for student experiences and outcomes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of learning and teaching, he led the transition to online learning and marshalled extensive student support – and has continued to progress the University’s online learning offerings, beyond just a response to the immediate pandemic.
Geoff has played an instrumental role in the development of UC’s Connected strategy, and championed ETaG (Education Transformation and Growth), the University’s load growth program.
And perhaps less tangible – but just as valuable – he will leave staff and students who will greatly miss his calm, measured and immeasurably kind approach.
“I WENT TO UNIVERSITY … AND JUST NEVER LEFT”
Growing up, Geoff was a bit of a global citizen. His father was in the Navy, and was posted to a different location every few years.
“I don’t think I ever spent more than two years in any one school,” Geoff says. “Although I didn’t realise it until I was much older, moving around so much taught me a lot about resilience and the importance of knowing and sticking by your own values.”
Geoff is a first in family graduate himself, attaining a Bachelor of Science (Honours, First Class) at the University of Queensland in 1977, and later, a PhD in Chemistry in 1981, from the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University (ANU).
“My mum and dad didn’t finish secondary school, they left when they were 15 or 16 – nonetheless, they always valued education,” he says.
“Essentially, I went to university and just never left – that’s the short version! The truth is that I just fell in love with universities and wanted to spend all my time in them.”
It was a love affair ignited by Geoff’s passion for chemistry, his original discipline – he was at home in a lab and a university is always a great place to find one. But what kept his passion for higher education burning was his recognition of universities as crucibles for change.
“I find that most universities are dedicated to making a difference, to improving people’s lives, and I thought that was rather what I wanted to do, and to do it in an environment surrounded by other people who wanted to as well,” he says.
SCALING UP FOR CHANGE
Stints in Germany and the United States followed his PhD – a Humboldt Fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Mulheim an der Ruhr and a postdoctoral position at Colorado State University – before Geoff returned to Australia as a postdoc at the ANU, and then joined the Chemistry Department at the University of Melbourne in 1985.
In 1988, he moved to the University of Adelaide’s Chemistry Department.
“I was starting to think about how I might be able to affect more change, to influence the direction of the university, improve student experience, learning and outcomes – and the answer was to get into university leadership, so I became an Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Science,” Geoff says.
It was also at this time that he became interested in online education in particular and, subsequently, became the Director of the Online Learning and Teaching Unit.
“As an academic, I have always loved research, but I love teaching as well,” Geoff says. “While this was before online education really took off, I could see the potential to improve student learning by using online technologies.”
Geoff then became the Director of the Centre for Learning and Professional Development, before moving in 2012 to RMIT University in Melbourne as Dean, Learning and Teaching.
“You could see a pattern in how I was moving, from smaller universities to bigger ones, those which had pathways between vocational and higher education aspects, and international campuses – I was interested in being able to influence the whole of an institution,” he says.
“I was exploring how to best design educational experiences and outcomes for students and I wanted to do that at scale. This had to take into account all aspects of education, whether it was pathways between vocational education and higher education, or whether the cohort was domestic, international or offshore students.”
Throughout his career, Geoff has received several awards in recognition of his work, including the University of Adelaide’s Stephen Cole the Elder Prize (Excellence in Teaching) in 1999; the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Stranks Medal for Chemical Education in 2003 and Australian Learning and Teaching Council Fellowships in 2006 and 2009. He is also a Higher Education Research and Development Society (HERDSA) Fellow and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA).
In 2016, he became the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education) at the University of New South Wales, before coming to join UC as the DVCA in early 2019.
“Just prior to joining UC, when I thought of my next steps, I wanted to join a university that was small – and therefore agile – but one that had big ambitions and yet wanted to stay true to its values,” he says.
He found a great fit in UC, with its “identity of being a place-based university here in Canberra, and one that values individual students and their student journeys.”
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE PEOPLE
If you ask Geoff about the highlights of his time at UC, there’s no pause before his answer – “The people,” he says. “The most special thing about UC is its people.
“Of course, you have good people at every institution – but the people I work with at UC truly believe in it not only as an educational institution, but as something that is making a positive impact in the community.”
Geoff reckons there isn’t a single part of the University that he hasn’t worked with, in the role of DVCA. “That in itself has been a highlight, being able to work across a whole institution,” he says.
“And I have been able to work especially closely with the Faculty of Science and Technology and the Faculty of Business, Government and Law as interim Executive Dean at different times.”
The other thing that struck a chord with Geoff was how the UC community responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it was really good to see the way people pulled together – both academic and professional staff – in particular to make sure that our students could continue their studies, because there could have potentially been massive disruptions to students being able to complete their studies,” he says.
“We tried very hard to facilitate their continued studies so they could graduate and go out and get a job they want, and it was amazing to see everyone working together towards that.”
THANK YOU … NEXT
So what comes next, as Geoff moves into retirement?
“Grandchildren! I am very much looking forward to spending more time with them and being more of a part of their lives,” he says. “As well as spending time with my wife and children, of course. For the last 13 years, I have commuted, because my family lives in Adelaide.”
Geoff’s wife, six children – most of whom work in teaching, learning and research themselves – and eight grandchildren are the most important part of his retirement plan.
He will also have more time for the astronomy and photography – birds, scenery and astrophotography – that he enjoys, and be able to take longer bushwalking and camping trips.
“Canberra is surrounded by beautiful mountains, so I spent a fair amount of time bushwalking and hiking when I moved here, particularly in Namadgi National Park,” he says.
The natural beauty appeals to Geoff, of course, but so does the planning. In the same way that he has spent his career strategising how to scale up the positive effects of his influence, Geoff likes planning how he’ll get to the summit.
With that mindset, retirement won’t be a complete break from the higher education sector he loves.
“I’m open to short-term strategic and advisory work. I still believe very much in contributing and making a difference where I can – retirement won’t change that,” Geoff says.
If you ask Geoff what his career highlights at UC have been, what he is proudest of, or notable projects of significance to him – he answers only in terms of people. Whether they are the colleagues he has worked with in his DVCA role or the students whose experiences he has sought to transform, his go-to move is to deflect accolades onto others. Watch this video to hear them what his people have to say about Geoff.
Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photos by Tyler Cherry, video by John Masiello.