The Interview Australia
RMIT University
Executive Director Students

Dene Cicci

In a world of information overload, providing support to thousands of students that’s both relevant and timely is a challenge that many universities are working on, particularly with safety and inclusion being key themes across the sector. In an exclusive conversation, Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Dene Cicci, Executive Director Students at RMIT University, to discuss the multifaceted approach he takes to support students and engage staff.

Dene's Journey

Luke: Could we start with an introduction to yourself and your current institution?

Sure, I’m Dene, Executive Director of Student at RMIT University here in Melbourne, Australia. RMIT has 90,000 students globally, in both Australia and Asia. We’re a dual-sector university, which in the Australian context means we provide both vocational education and higher education. My role leads the Students Group — with responsibility for student services, student equity and inclusion, student life, sport and recreation, study abroad, and careers and employability.

Luke: What was it that drew you to working in the Higher Education space and the role you’re in today?

Throughout my career, I’ve always been attracted to roles with purpose and the scope to be transformational. I came to RMIT as a Change Manager to support a major IT implementation, and in doing that, I was really attracted to what the organisation did, the opportunity to work with colleagues, and the scope for impact on students.

Luke: With 90,000 students from a variety of backgrounds, what are the key things to get right to embed a sense of inclusion and belonging?

We’ve recently developed and launched the IDEA framework — IDEA stands for inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Previously, we had action plans focussed on different personal characteristics and cohorts, but what we realised was that they didn’t recognise the intersectionality of the human experience — that people may identify in various groups. By moving to this new framework, we’re able to be inclusive by design, and respectful of intersectionality in everything we do, whilst still leaning into particular needs or issues to help further the equity agenda. Belonging isn’t about people feeling that they have to fit in; it’s about ensuring people feel that they matter, they’re seen, and they’re celebrated.

Luke: Given how busy today’s students are, what do you find effective to engage students on these topics?

We’re really mindful of the cognitive load on our students — there’s so much information that we want them to absorb. We’ve got a Chief Student Storyteller role in our Communications Team, with whom we’ve worked on a programme of communications to follow the student lifecycle with a just-in-time approach to messaging students. Alongside this, we’re story-led with our communication — using the student's voice helps raise engagement and relevance, such as in our TikTok and Instagram content. With inclusion and diversity, having students speak directly in our comms and content creates a peer-to-peer, authentic voice.

Luke: Student safety and the prevention of harassment is a big topic in the sector. What’s your and RMIT’s approach here that others could learn from?

In terms of our focus on gender-based harm, you’ve got two elements: prevention and education, and response to disclosures and allegations. Our prevention focus is about trying to normalise gender diversity and equality, creating a safe space for open conversations, and about addressing toxic masculinity. In recent times, we’ve launched and promoted improved channels for anonymous disclosures, as well as bringing in special expertise to investigate allegations and incidences.

Luke: When students first join the institution, how do you cut through the noise and convey these key messages?

As part of the orientation and onboarding experience, we have three online modules that students are required to complete. One is called ‘How to RMIT’, which is basic orientation, the second is around consent and respectful behaviours, and the third is around academic integrity. This enables us to induct new students with our values and ethos front and centre. Beyond the orientation experience, we’re quite targeted with how we proactively outreach to students who may be affected by a development here at RMIT or indeed in the wider world.

Luke: How do you encourage people to be open to new ideas, particularly where it might conflict with their current point of view?

Because of my background in business transformation and change — in particular, AGILE methodology and human-centred design — we’ve done a lot of work around journey mapping, ideation, co-design; really engaging our staff and students in the process of change. We celebrate both the successes and the failures, to encourage an open mind and proactivity with how we can improve things. For example, our main channel for student communication today is web chat — this came out of student requests, which we trialled and then scaled up once the effectiveness became clear.

Luke: How do you keep your team bought into initiatives and work, beyond the initial excitement?

In my group of around 200 staff, we do a lot of work around staff engagement — being really clear on our purpose. We designed a value proposition a few years back around what the Students Group does, concluding that we drive connection, inclusion, and growth beyond the classroom experience. Every year, we come up with four major themes or projects, to drive each of these three areas plus our staff experience. This helps keep everyone energised and focussed for each year as it comes, and continuing to work collaboratively across teams.

Luke: To round off, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

A couple of things. One is about being curious and open. When a situation arises, often you’re given one source of data; here, try to seek other sources of data and input — don’t make assumptions based on what you’re initially presented with. The other is to be selective with where to lean in, and where not. ‘Nose in, fingers out’ — from a leadership point of view, I need to be across lots of things, but not always deep in the details.

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