“The great university should find its heroes in the present, its hope in the future; it should look ever forward; for it the past should be but a preparation for the greater days to be”.

Driven by a pursuit of knowledge, a hunger for education and a fascination with research, this was former Prime Minister John Curtin’s mantra, one which was adopted by the university which came to bear his name.

Established as the The Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) in 1967, the university began with just over 2000 students on a burnt-out pine plantation site dotted with concrete buildings in suburban Perth.

Renamed Curtin University of Technology in 1987 and armed with its forward-looking philosophy, the institution has since grown from strength to strength.

Underpinned by an annual revenue base of approximately $1 billion, it hosts some 56,000 students worldwide.

With campuses in Perth, Kalgoorlie, Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai and Mauritius, the institution is globally renowned for its standards in minerals and energy, defence, data analytics and emerging technologies, health sciences, astronomy, sustainable development and agriculture.

Fascinated by human behaviour, the thrill of research, the challenge of articulating and designing studies and the opportunity to teach, collaborate and grow, Curtin University of Technology Vice Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry AO FAIM has forged a legacy of forward thinking since she took up her post in 2014.

Professor Terry is an alumna of the Australian National University, graduating with a PhD in psychology in 1989. She then joined the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland, first as postdoctoral research fellow in 1990 and then as a lecturer in 1991, eventually becoming Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor.

Previously chairing the Australian Council of Learned Academies and Australian Research Council College of Experts in the social, behavioural and economic sciences, Professor Terry also sits on the board of Universities Australia as Deputy Chair and on the boards of the Committee for Perth and Australia’s Academic and Research Network.

Add her stint as an immediate past president of the Academy of Social Science in Australia, and Professor Terry’s leadership capabilities seem self-evident.

Professor Terry said her take on leadership was all about relishing the opportunity to help create environments for students and staff to be successful.

“The fact remains that leadership in universities is all about influence and setting direction, rather than power and authority," she said. "You need to be able to communicate a clear vision, identify core priorities, assess and articulate progress and empower leaders at all levels to be accountable for delivering on strategy,” she said.

“It means reinforcing the fundamentals of our mission to educate, to research and to enrich the communities in which we are embedded. Strengthening our common purpose requires remaining true to our DNA.”

Upon her arrival at Curtin, Professor Terry's mission was clear – to build, nurture and establish a strong organisation and culture where themes of openness and transparency played key roles.

To turn this vision into reality, Professor Terry undertook an institution-wide culture survey. On the positive side, the survey indicated the staff were strongly committed to the university and its mission. They also identified strongly with its values, but there was a clear view that these were not always aligned with the lived experience of working at Curtin.

“It’s been about understanding that as an institution we won’t be successful unless we have an honest and robust conversation about our culture,” Professor Terry said.

“My view was Curtin needed to reclaim its soul, and to do that we needed to focus on strengthening our culture.

“It doesn’t matter how compelling and well thought through our strategic plans are, our key performance indicators and vision statements won’t be successful unless we get that underlying culture right.

“It’s about being consultative, it’s about using data and evidence to help drive ambition and develop a shared vision.

"We need to use the language of shared values and we need to, as leaders, be able to justify our decisions, plans and priorities in terms of these values. In our organisational culture, moral courage must be as strong a guiding principle as the other dimensions of courage that are so often highlighted – ambition, agility and determination.”

The proof has certainly been in the pudding. Over Professor Terry’s tenure as Vice Chancellor, Curtin has rapidly risen up international rankings. The university ranked in the 401-500 band in the 2017 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, moving up to the 351-400 band in 2018 and the 301 – 350 band for 2019. In the Times Higher Young University Rankings, it placed at number 68 in 2018, up from 84 in 2017 and 92 in 2016.

Professor Terry said digital disruption had infiltrated and changed the fabric of life and learning at Curtin.

Taking a proactive rather than defensive and reactive approach, the university has re-configured its teaching spaces and invested significant amounts of funding in its digital platforms.

“Being true to our DNA, we need to be aware of the present and tell the story of our future, identifying our gaps, setting targets and tracking performance,” she said.

Driving innovation forward in a rapidly changing educational sector, the Curtin University-led WA Data Science Innovation Hub was launched in September 2018 at its Perth and Bentley campuses.

Created to place Western Australia at the forefront of digital and internet technologies, the hub, supported by the State Government, sees start-ups and businesses collaborate with all four public universities to supplement the emerging start-up ecosystem of 8000 Western Australians who are already working in internet and digital technology companies.

When considering Curtin’s growth and innovations, it has obviously aligned itself with John Curtin’s original mantra – a passionate approach fastened to a culture of impacting tomorrow, today.

Believing complacency and focusing on past glories can pose threats to leaders looking to progress any organisation, Professor Terry said her approach was all about looking forward.

Recently extending her term as Vice Chancellor for a further five years, Professor Terry's influence has fed a culture of success at the university, which recently secured final approval for the establishment of the Curtin Medical School at Midland, expanded its Perth CBD presence and progressed with the Curtin Development, a concept designed to revolutionise the Bentley campus into a vibrant precinct and thriving innovation hub.

Education, Professor Terry said, was society’s “most powerful weapon” against the shackles of intergenerational disadvantage.

“You look around our cities, around our state, around our remote communities and you see evidence of intergeneration disadvantage. Education is the most powerful way to change that.”

Sandra Argese is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.