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Curtin’s head teacher strives to make a difference

29/11/2022. By Carmelle Wilkinson.

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Curtin Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne.

If it weren’t for the generosity of a stranger, Curtin’s Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne would never have discovered the transformational power of a higher education.

Nor would she have embarked on such a remarkable academic journey which has led her across the Pacific Ocean and over the Nullarbor to Curtin University.

The developmental psychologist said she believed a tertiary education had always been her destiny.

“Even though no one in my family had gone to university, there was never a time in my life when I thought university wasn’t in my future,’’ she said.

“While my parents were very supportive of me, they couldn’t afford to send me to uni.”

Extraordinarily, on the night of her graduation Harlene received a phone call that would change the trajectory of her life.

Chosen for an academic scholarship by an anonymous donor, she was overwhelmed with gratitude.

“I felt incredibly privileged. The fact that I’m sitting here today is all due to the kindness of that stranger,’’ she said.

Originally poised to study Spanish, this quickly changed when Harlene accidentally walked into a psychology class in her first year at university.

“Psychology combined the two things I loved most – science and human behaviour. But more than that, it really captured my imagination,’’ she said.

Born in Oklahoma and raised in Colorado, Harlene has a BA from Colorado College and a MS and PhD from Rutgers University.

In 1992, after four years as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University, Harlene and her husband made the long journey to New Zealand with their seven-month-old daughter Marea to accept teaching positions at the University of Otago.

Otago University, New Zealand. Photo: University of Otago.

Over her 30 years at the university, Harlene went from lecturer to head of the psychology department, becoming Otago’s first female Vice-Chancellor in 2011.

After 10 years in the role, Harlene said she was considering retirement, when Curtin called.

“I often say a mix of good timing and serendipity has followed me throughout my career, and Curtin was no exception,’’ she said.

“When the recruiter called about the VC position at Curtin I was in lockdown in New Zealand, running a university from my home office,’’ she said.

“I had spoken to this recruiter a few times and I’d always tell them my previous role was a labour of love and I’d never love another university, but I’d be happy to recommend others.

“However, this time around we got talking and she asked how I was doing, and I told her that I was going incredibly well and that Covid had rejuvenated my interest in leadership and that I was thriving in the midst of immense chaos.

“She then very skilfully said ‘so tell me more, or better yet, would you mind telling that to the Chancellor at Curtin because I’m sure he’d love to hear that’.”

Harlene said it was while sharing her story with Curtin’s Chancellor Andrew Crane, that she realised she may have one more big job in her.

In April 2021, Harlene set foot on Curtin’s Bentley Campus for the first time after accepting the position.

Harlene arrived at Curtin in April 2021.

“It was obviously a huge leap of faith for me to move and take on this role, but it was also a huge leap of faith for the university, who hired me on the basis of a large number of zoom calls,’’ she said.

Twenty months in as Curtin’s Vice-Chancellor, Harlene has a confession to make.

“I honestly never thought I could love another university as much as I loved Otago, and now I know that is a lie,’’ she laughed.

“I can wholeheartedly say that I love Curtin. From the moment I arrived on campus and saw the beautiful sprawling grounds I thought to myself have I died and gone to heaven?

“I love our incredibly deep values-based approach to everything. I love that we are nimble. I love that Curtin is global and outward facing. I love that it is industry engaged and connected, and I love that it’s young and not bogged down by some imagined past.”

With a strong focus on research that makes a difference and student experience, well-being and safety, Harlene is committed to ensuring students are at the centre of everything Curtin does.

Talking about a third-year psychology class she taught earlier this year, Harlene’s eyes light up and you can hear the enthusiasm in her voice.

“I’m a born teacher. It’s inherently in my DNA,’’ she said.

“I remember I had my youngest daughter Sara on a Friday and on the Monday, I was back lecturing with her in a baby sling.”

Harlene is also still an active researcher and recently the 31st PhD student she supervised submitted their Doctorate.

Speaking to her academic expertise in memory, Harlene shared, that when we reflect on our own autobiographies, events that took place between the ages of 15-25 are those that we remember best.

“Referred to as the reminiscence bump, this is a period in our lives when a huge repository of really rich autobiographical memories are made.

“Given university typically hits right in the middle of that reminiscence bump, we know we are going to feature heavily in the autobiographies of our students, the question is how do we want to feature? And how do we want to be remembered?”

Harlene at a graduation ceremony in Malaysia.

Passionate about Curtin’s future and the mark we leave on the world, Harlene said she was particularly proud of the university’s new strategic plan, which at its core, is about making a difference.

“I think it’s a strategic plan that even John Curtin would approve of, and that makes me really happy,’’ she said.

“As a young university, we’ve been given this great gift of our name. It’s wonderful to warmly embrace our name and stand on the shoulders of a giant.

“To this day, John Curtin is Australia’s most popular, well respected and honoured prime minister. He believed in equality and giving everyone a fair go, and so do we.”

Harlene is passionate about Curtin’s future and the mark we leave on the world.

A social justice warrior herself, Harlene recently received word that a case she had been working on for 15 years in the New Zealand Supreme Court as an expert witness had been overturned.

In a legal first, the NZ Supreme Court quashed the convictions of creche worker Peter Ellis who served seven years imprisonment for child sexual abuse.

“Sadly, Peter passed away during the appeal process, but it was a beautiful feeling to see the practical benefits of 30 years of research lead to overturning a wrongful conviction,’’ she said.

“It was also wonderful to work alongside former students I had trained and see them grow into these amazing and powerful women who are now changing history, it was the highlight of my career.”

Ranked in the top one per cent of universities globally in 2022, with international campuses in Mauritius, Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore, Harlene said Curtin’s 59,000 students and 3700 staff were in a privileged position to make a difference.

Students at Curtin’s Bentley Campus.

“My greatest hope is that we as employees and students at this great institution, come to Curtin thinking how we can use our time, talent and energy in the service of others,’’ Harlene said.

In the words of former South African president Nelson Mandela, Harlene said education really was the greatest weapon that we have to change the world.

“I am a living and breathing example of what a higher education can do,’’ she said.

“Like John Curtin, I want every person who has the desire and drive to come here to have the opportunity to do so.”

Curtin is proud and privileged to nurture our next generation of leaders and industry professionals.

As one of Australia’s most global universities, Harlene said we had the great opportunity and huge responsibility to educate our next generation of doctors, accountants, engineers and teachers — but most importantly, we have the responsibility to nurture the next generation of leaders.

Curtin attracts students from all walks of life and backgrounds.

“We not only teach students from around the world we are also located around the world,’’ she said.

“I was recently at our campus in Dubai and it’s like a little United Nations with students from 60-70 different countries. I look at their student community and think how come the rest of the world can’t get along like this? It really is remarkable.

“When you think about our great Curtin values, wouldn’t it be fantastic if all world leaders had the same values?

“Now wouldn’t that be great?”

___

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