Attending university today is about more than academic attainment — it’s about broadening your perspectives, tolerance, and character for the future. Yet building a sense of inclusion and collaboration amongst a diverse range of students and staff is a challenge that many university leaders are working on.
Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Professor Peter Sherlock, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Divinity, to discuss his journey into university leadership and the learnings from leading Divinity as the Foundation Vice-Chancellor since 2012.
My name’s Professor Peter Sherlock, I’m the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Divinity, and my academic background is in history. I studied at the University of Melbourne, then did a Doctorate in 16th and 17th century history at Oxford and then, after a postdoctoral stint back at the University of Melbourne, I joined the world of theology and religious studies — somewhat unexpectedly! — and served as academic Dean of one of our Colleges. I was recruited in 2011 as the inaugural Vice-Chancellor at the University of Divinity and I’ll be concluding my service in this role in March 2024. As an organisation, we’re 113 years old, we achieved university status 12 years ago, and we have around 1,700 students per year.
We were founded in 1910 in Melbourne, to provide Australian degrees for the Australian Christian churches who wanted to train ministers. We were set up through an Act of the Parliament of the State of Victoria. Over the next 100 years, it became a much broader institution, involving people from the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran churches and more — a whole range of different faith groups coming together. So a big part of what we do is about collaboration.
The second thing that’s happened in the last ten years is that we’re increasingly working with people from a range of faiths, or even no faith at all, all of whom are looking to take ancient wisdom into different parts of their lives and careers. This has brought a wonderful diversity of experiences and perspectives to the organisation and to our students.
It’s been a hard conversation in Australia, where surveys show a high level of sexual assault and sexual harassment at universities. For us, we’re unusual due to the nature of our student body: our students are mostly mature age, for example, and we train groups such as seminarians preparing to become Catholic priests who lead celibate lives. So we don’t have some of the same issues that other universities do, but we still need to tend to the need of every student we have on campus.
In Australia we had a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, and over half of the cases in that area were to do with churches and their failure to protect children and vulnerable adults from harm. So I’ve spent quite a bit of the last ten years working with our church partners to change our training programmes so that people going into leadership roles embody best practices in terms of safeguarding for children and vulnerable people. This has been challenging, but also full of hope as we journey towards a healthier future for our whole community.
We deliberately wrote into our code of conduct a requirement that students and staff have to be willing to speak up if they see something wrong — helping ensure people are active bystanders, rather than just turning a blind eye. We also include basic training regarding safety and behaviours when students first enrol, and make it about respect for yourself and others — to move past just compliance.
We also ensure that anyone in a professional or leadership role is accountable to someone. One programme is around professional supervision, so that in your role you’ve got someone like a coach but who is also holding you accountable — so you don’t end up working alone or sitting with your own thoughts all the time. This helps people be the best they can be.
We regularly get the top student satisfaction rates among all Australian Universities. A big reason is small class sizes — typically 10-30 students — meaning the lecturer knows every student and students know each other. You’re known by name; you’re not anonymous among hundreds of students. As soon as you have that personal relationship, the learning relationship becomes much richer, helping build a sense of belonging.
Inclusion also comes from the top — thinking carefully about what messaging we’re conveying. For example, when navigating a variety of different religious beliefs, it’s key to focus on the theme of respect, including respecting views that are different from or even diametrically opposed to your own, especially on deeply held matters like religion and religious practices.
That’s a really tough one! I’m very big on rules of engagement, or ‘ground rules’, so if there is a conversation to be had, there is agreement in advance regarding how people are going to behave and how certain situations will be handled. Sometimes that’s red lines in the sand — e.g. ‘don’t use these words’ or ‘don’t speak to someone whilst raising your voice’. One really effective thing is using the ‘devil’s advocate’ approach, as it requires you to restate what your opponent has said first. This tests whether you truly understand the other party’s point of view, for only when you’ve agreed on what the differences are can you move forward.
The honest answer: it’s extremely hard, particularly as students can switch off if confronted with these sorts of activities too often. Making clear what behaviours are expected and encouraged, rather than reiterating what’s not okay, also helps instil a sense of formation for each student as a person — to build their character, beyond their academic course.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is: when you’re thinking about an organisation that you want to work for or volunteer with, don’t look at the roles and responsibilities of the part you’d be joining, look at the overall culture of the organisation. Why? Roles and responsibilities change, but if you fit well with the organisation’s culture then it’s going to be good for both of you.