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New directions

Strong leaders, strong departments

Darvall was faced with a challenge. As the activities of the Faculty became more complex, as Dean, he had to find ways to support this diversification and growth, while ensuring that the essence of the Faculty, its central identity, remained strong. At the very core of the Faculty was a commitment to excellence in engineering teaching and research and a close, tightly knit collegiate atmosphere. Much of this culture grew from the reality that the Faculty was made up of five exceptionally strong departments that were built by a group of dedicated, committed and pioneering individuals.

In the Faculty’s foundation years, the five engineering departments were the focal point of its identity and culture. Students moved through the undergraduate course in year-based groups, choosing their engineering specialty – a sub-specialty offered by one of the departments – in second year. Students then progressed through their undergraduate degree in departmental groups. By fourth year, they had often formed strong relationships with technical staff, lecturers and supervisors within their chosen department.

Research was also strongly department-based, which further contributed to the robust and independent identities that developed. While there was of course a high degree of inter-departmental interaction, it was within each of the departments that the identity of staff and students was fostered and built.

The foundation professors, including Foundation Dean Ken Hunt, were each highly motivated and strongly opinionated. Each was responsible for his own department and had very clear ideas about its direction and focus as well as that of the Faculty. The foundation professors and the Dean comprised the decision-making focus of the Faculty and were in many ways responsible for the atmosphere and culture that pervaded. The departmental grouping of students, strong research culture within each of the departments and the leadership and direction provided by the foundation professors all contributed to a strong departmental identity within the Faculty. In fact, it has been commented that the foundation professors were, at this time were like feudal overlords defending their territory.

As student numbers grew, course structures and offerings diversified, and research activity expanded, the Faculty and its departments became more complex. Additionally, the foundation professors began to step away from their positions of leadership and authority as they retired or handed over to new Heads of Department. With its operations expanding and its culture changing, Engineering could no longer be a collection of strong departments drawn together by a well-respected Dean. Engineering as a Faculty needed to develop a stronger presence and a more complex decision-making structure to reflect the diversity of its activities. It needed a more structured approach to leadership to draw together and coordinate these activities and, ultimately, to unite the Faculty.

Darvall’s leadership was pivotal in this respect as he began to make subtle alterations to the Faculty’s committee and decision-making structures so that a stronger Faculty presence began to emerge.