When building a culture of inclusivity and acceptance across something as wide as a university, it’s absolutely crucial that one gets communication right. While the content of the messages being transmitted is of extreme importance, it’s just as crucial to get not only the wording right but even the timing. Over-inundating students with a glut of emails at the start of a semester when that information won’t be needed for weeks, for example, is counterproductive as they likely won’t be read, or remembered when needed.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Barbara Miller, Acting Vice-President (VP) of Student Success, and Director of People and Culture at Central Queensland University (CQU), about the delicate art of communication and finding better ways to communicate in order to help build an inclusive university culture.
I’d been at CQU for thirteen years, always in the Director of People and Culture role. We had some senior staff movements, so I put my hand up to backfill for someone who left because I had experience. Then we decided to restructure so we could bring together all parts of the student journey into one portfolio, so I said that I’d be happy to take on the Student Success VP role while we recruited, expecting to finish maybe in June of this year. The person we hired, however, is coming from Scotland, so we had to wait for him to be able to come over here to start. It was an opportunity to expand my experience, and it’s been amazing.
In Australia, there was a Respect Now Always campaign a couple of years ago that focused specifically on sexual harassment and assault. We firmly believe that even one report of either is not acceptable, so we’ve taken that very seriously. We’ve done lots of education campaigns for our staff and students, and we have a zero-tolerance policy, so we deal with it as soon as we’re aware of it. We also try to do preventative so we not only educate about how to look after your personal safety and what behaviour is not acceptable, but we’re the first university in Australia to have a well-being strategy that’s really comprehensive when it comes to psychosocial health and mental health and wellbeing.
We have made programs available for staff and students such as one called The Accidental Counsellor. Sometimes, while having a conversation with a student, they’ll disclose something bad or serious. This can happen anytime or anywhere. So what do you do? This program educates people on how to handle those situations, and who they can refer students to. We’re also very big on mental health first aid, so we’ve put a lot of people through that training, not only staff but students as well. And this year we’ve expanded into indigenous mental health first aid, specific to our First Nations people.
We’re really careful when it comes to our student comms, and we’re getting better. We try not to bombard students with it. We also try to only email things that are really necessary. We have a student portal called MyCQU, so the information they need is all there. There’s no point sending a student at the start of term loads of information they’ll need in five weeks’ time. They’re not going to remember that, so we try hard to target it only when it’s needed. We’ve also won awards for our SPOT Initiative, which stands for Solutions-Focused, Personalised, One University, and Trust. With this, we educate all of our staff in helping students own an issue and working towards a solution. The “One University” aspect means that even if you’re an HR person or are in finance, you still have that student in mind, working with them to get the results that they need.
The trick is knowing that you’re not going to capture everyone all the time, and then having nuanced communication supporting various causes and activities. We have a very strong ally network for our LGBTQIA+ community. Our First Nations are also a primary area we like to look after, as well as international students. This goes back to focusing on our key messages but doing them in a way that talks to the cohort that we’re trying to capture. In Australia, sport is a massive way that we get people engaged and talking. So we support the University Chancellor's Cup and have various sports challenges. We’ve also brought international students and other students together on one campus to get them all talking around sport, as it’s a shared interest that can start a conversation going.
Have confidence in yourself, and if a door opens, step through it. That’s pretty much what I’ve done these past few years. I had no knowledge about anything to do with Student Success but it’s really opened my mind to the challenges the group faces. And it gives me a much better appreciation for the challenges people are facing so when I go back to my regular HR job, I’ll be able to help people better. If we don’t have students, we don’t have a university, so they have to be at the centre of everything we do.
Also: talk to people. Talk to the customer. Talk to students. Don’t assume that you’re going to know what they want. What I wanted as a student back then isn’t necessarily what students today want. Immerse yourself in their issues and the conflicts they’re experiencing, and try to break down those barriers for them.