A Tribute to Emeritus Professor Denise Bradley AC

Posted: 02/04/2020

by:  Dianne van Eck

As you may have heard, Emeritus Professor Denise Bradley AC passed away peacefully on Friday morning (20 March). When I heard this, it took my breath away. Not because the news was unexpected, as Denise had been ill for some time, but because it had happened. We had lost this colossus of education in Australia. A brilliant, insightful, sharp mind has gone, forever.

Emeritus Professor Bradley was an impressive, strategic and innovative Vice Chancellor at the University of South Australia (UniSA) from 1997-2007 during the time that I (Dianne) worked there. As the Vice-Chancellor and President of UniSA she had been extensively involved in national education policy groups for over two decades and brought experience to a then young UniSA in her role as Vice Chancellor.

She was a fierce advocate for equity in education and ensured equity was never forgotten at the University. Together with Professor Eleanor Ramsay (dec) and others, the University stood at the forefront of equity in Australian Higher Education during that time.

During the hundreds of DVE workshops and forums I have facilitated over the past 12 years at over 30 universities, I have spoken passionately to teams about how Denise drove a culture of positive change, innovation and continuous improvement during her decade as UniSA Vice Chancellor.

Before spending five years as a part-time ‘first in family’ student at UniSA, my background was in micro business. After graduating in 1997, I immediately started work on a 3-month review. It was a whole new world to me.  Denise showed how the consideration of people, process, structure and technology was essential when undergoing organisational change.

In 1997, the university was struggling financially. Denise took the helm and turned it around. It was not easy, but she provided the leadership and foresight that enabled teams across faculties and central units to establish university wide projects on slim budgets. “We must be fleet of foot”, she would always say.

Denise 2After restructuring from nine faculties to four divisions (a model still in operation until April this year), Denise allowed those teams to innovate through collaborative, university-wide engagement that I believe, is still a leading model today. That is why we actively promote this way of working at DVE.

I was on the working group to set up the first student customer service centre in the then Division (Faculty) of Business in 1999. ‘Students as customers’ was a relatively new term at the time, and one not discussed openly for fear of dreadful arguments. Denise knew we had to change our focus to attract more students to grow and be successful as a university. The Division and University had to find more efficient ways to source students, so we set up the first linkage of professional staff faculty teams with the central teams.

We did this initially with the Marketing Unit, by establishing the first ‘Marketing and Alumni’ positions in faculties. I, along with Pam Ronan, were the first ‘test dummies’.

Pam and I showed the central marketing team how much the faculties could work collaboratively with the central teams. Alan Brideson, as then Director of Marketing, concerned that we would go ‘rogue’, found our working relationship one of mutual benefit. Yes, it could be done!

So, more examples were rolled out over the years – Information Technology, Human Resources, Finance and Transnational operations. Matrix style, Hubs and Spokes models, call it what you like – it could work if the leadership enabled it.

In 1999 the first Campus Centrals were set up across each campus. The impetus were the lines of students snaking around campus in 40-degree heat at enrolment time. Modern, easy to access ‘one-stop-shops’ were set up for students to have all of their enquiries responded to at one contact point, with ‘warm handover’ to the Schools for Tier 3 enquiries.

Led by Lucy Schulz and supported by the four new Division Managers, Campus Centrals were the first customer service counters for students in any university in Australia. You can read more about this fabulous project in Lucy Schulz’s and Dr Judy Szekeres’s paper:  Schulz, L. & Szekeres, J, (2008) Service Provision to Students: Where the gown best fits, Journal of Higher Education Policy & Management, Vol 30, p261-271.

During this time, major technology system implementations were undertaken as well. People Soft Oracle (code named Medici) was implemented to be the new student management system. During this project, Denise demonstrated her ability to change direction when things were not going well and to never throw good money after bad. Her approach to that project, when some other universities floundered implementing these large systems, meant it was a successful implementation at UniSA. Her insistence to use resources that understood the university and its processes and people was at the heart of that success.

Next on the list, the online Student Hub with seamless integration between all systems, which students needed to complete their studies. We created the UniSA Student Portal in 2004 – the one stop online point for all student enquiries.

Incorporating single sign-on, this provided a student with a seamless view of their learning and administrative requirements. The web was updated to be a corporate web and all student information was available via the portal. I worked extensively on that project and conducted evaluations with students. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Some universities are still trying to set up these portals today. UniSA was the leader at that time.

Moodle was developed as the Learning Management System and there were other system implementations over that period. Again, this was in the mid-2000s where most universities were still working with pen and paper, old word docs and some form of excel.

Denise 1I had the good luck to work on joint projects between the Flexible Learning Centre and the IT department. We had assessments online, teaching materials online, and other innovative teaching solutions in place by 2007. Work commenced on the Staff Portal, online Program and Course Management system and others.

It was an exciting time for staff and the university. Almost anyone I come across who worked for or with Denise, says similar things. She provided strong leadership, innovative and thoughtful ideas and encouraged and supported teams across the university to work together – to collaborate and engage with each other for united outcomes.

Denise did not suffer fools well. She could shut you down with one look, one word. It was truly frightening! After nine months on secondment as her Executive Officer (thanks to Tara Schuurmans – now Chief of Staff, VU) I had a front row view of her ability to innovate and improve, to lead and drive change, always thinking about the taxpayer’s funds, always asking “Why?” and never spending recklessly. I watched her encourage her Deans and Heads of Schools to create amazing things out of nothing. Denise was a true ‘Lean Thinking’ champion well before it was a buzz word.

Yet she never forgot the small, important things. She handwrote thank you notes every time someone gave her something or did something well. She was thoughtful and caring to many.

Over the past few months, I have been thinking about these times more often.  I wanted to share with our community, how great you were Denise. My life changed immeasurably for the better by that decade of working under your leadership with great people. Without these remarkable years, DVE Solutions would not exist today. Thank you UniSA. Thank you, Denise. 

VALE Emeritus Professor Denise Bradley AC.