Distinguished educator retires

29 June 2018
Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson (right) with her whānau at her retirement party.
Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson (right) with her whānau.

A University of Auckland academic who changed the way educators around the world view school leadership, improving outcomes for school students across the globe, is retiring after 42 years of outstanding scholarship and teaching.

Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson was instrumental in bringing attention to the importance of student-centred educational leadership. Through research initially undertaken for the Ministry of Education’s Best Evidence Synthesis series, Viviane identified five key leadership dimensions that affect students, and highlighted the knowledge and skills school leaders need to carry out these roles.

Since then she has played a leading role internationally in scholarship, teaching and practice in the fields of school improvement, leadership and the relationship between research and improving educational practice. This was recognised in 2012 with her appointment as Distinguished Professor at the Faculty of Education and Social Work. She has also been the Academic Director of the University of Auckland’s Centre for Educational Leadership for the past eight years, and Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education University College, London since 2015.

Known for the rigour of her thinking, Viviane’s impact goes well beyond her five books, 88 peer-reviewed journal papers and 37 chapters in books. According to colleagues, very few scholars globally would have had a greater impact on educational leadership scholarship, policy and practice than Viviane. She has shifted educational thinking, contributed enormously to school improvement, and, in so doing, changed lives and enhanced communities.

“In her work and in her person she is the true embodiment of the integration of research and practice that is the hallmark of our field’s most outstanding scholars,” says Professor Graeme Aitken, the former Dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work.

With the Dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work, Associate Professor Mark Barrow.
With Dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work Mark Barrow.

“She is the strongest conceptual thinker I know: logical, rational and deeply insightful. But even more importantly she has turned this intelligence to some of the most difficult problems of educational practice and leadership. She has been courageous in challenging many of the assumptions that have held back educational improvement. And she has always done this from the point of view of the least advantaged.”

Her two most recent books (Student-Centred Leadership, 2011; Reduce Change to Increase Improvement, 2018) have been translated into three languages and are widely used by policymakers to develop leadership programmes. She has consulted on leadership development and research to government agencies and organisations in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, Singapore, Chile, Canada and Australia, as well as New Zealand.

“Her national and international contribution to the understanding of what is really involved in leading any educational organisation to better deliver for its learners is profound, and unparalleled in my view,” says Michael Absolum, Director of Evaluation Associates, and whose thesis was supervised by Viviane in the 1980s.

”What really sets her apart from her peers is her ability to workshop and coach fellow learners to uncover, understand and change their own barriers to effective leadership,” says Michael Absolum.

Those who have worked with her praise Viviane’s commitment to connecting theory and practice, combined with her ability to make complex and challenging ideas accessible to practitioners. In 2002 she developed, with David Eddy, New Zealand’s national induction programme for newly appointed school principals – a programme which ran for 14 years.

With colleagues at the University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership Viviane has designed and commercialised a suite of leadership development resources called Open to Learning™ Leadership, which teach leaders how to become more effective in improving the excellence and equity of educational outcomes. These resources are being used by specially trained facilitators in New Zealand, Australia and Scandinavia. In 2013 Viviane was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Commercialisation Medal for this work – a rare achievement for someone in the social sciences.

She was a key member of a team that developed the indicators of school leadership effectiveness used by the Education Review Office to evaluate every New Zealand school. The New Zealand Council for Educational Research used her research to inform the design of surveys to establish the effectiveness of leadership practices in schools.

Her impact on education and academic scholarship has been recognised in an impressive list of awards. Last year she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2016 was awarded the Royal Society’s Mason Durie Medal for “a pre-eminent social scientist whose research has made an international impact”. In 2014 she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to education. In 2017 she was elected a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association.

Many fellow educators and academics acknowledge Viviane as a huge influence on their work. Professor Judy Parr comments: “Her problem-based notions of analysing problems of practice had a significant influence on my work. I am always impressed by her thinking. She epitomises a researcher who lives her research, particularly in relation to process; so teaching and particularly supervising with Viviane is a ‘learning’ experience!”

Associate Professor Claire Sinnema notes: “I will miss the rigour of her thinking. She brings such a depth and breadth of knowledge and wisdom – not just about education and educational leadership, but also about a whole host of fields including psychology, organisational psychology, philosophy, methodology and ethics. Quite special.”

For the thousands of students who have benefited from her teaching or supervision, Viviane’s rigorous and challenging thinking stands out. Students would walk into her office with trepidation. Her questioning ‘Why do you think that?’ made many people nervous. But it brought out the best in the people. “She operates as a teacher in all interactions,” as colleague says. “Everyone comes out learning.”

Michael Absolum also attests to her excellence as a supervisor. “She was superb in listening to what I was attempting to do and engaging fully in taking my thinking further. She gave me hours and hours of her time.”

Linda Bendikson, former PhD student and now colleague of the Director of the Centre for Educational Leadership, initially went for a meeting to “test the water” and discuss a possible topic for a PhD. “The next thing Viviane had organised a meeting with John Hattie who became my second supervisor and I was underway. She was always reliable, thorough and followed up on any commitments she had made. She expertly guided me through the PhD process.”

Colleagues pay tribute to Viviane’s energy and pace of work. She does nothing half-heartedly, they say. Travelling with her after a full day’s work she would then suggest a meeting after dinner. “She has energy to burn. She wouldn’t let you complain about anything. She’d say: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ” Viviane’s energy also translates into a passion for active adventure holidays organising trekking or canoeing to places such as Antarctica or Tierra del Fuego.

As well as her intellectual prowess and achievements in her career, Viviane’s personal qualities are also remarkable. “Viviane is eminently practical,” Professor Judy Parr comments. “As a conference traveling companion, she can repurpose a Sheraton bar fridge to fill with survival necessities, can negotiate readily driving on the right and always knows what would be the ideal post conference trek.”

Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson with her husband.
Viviane looks forward to spending more time with her husband, family and friends.

Viviane’s sense of humour is noted by Dr Deidre Le Fevre. Viviane is described as having a great sense of fun - sometimes naughty and mischievous. Yet at the same time she engages with important and challenging issues and is not afraid to tackle the tough problems.

Television producer from Media Productions, Richard Smith, has worked with Viviane since she joined the University of Auckland back “last century… The first thing that strikes one is how little she has changed over the years. Her distinctive voice still has that same unique ‘do not mess with me’ quality that I still remember upon meeting her for the first time in 1979. Whenever she is asked a question or for an opinion, Viviane always pauses and then delivers an expert opinion, backed up by the latest empirical evidence, personal experience and delivered with authority in a ‘do not interrupt until I have finished’ sort of way.”

Richard declares that Viviane will be sorely missed for her unique blend of expert knowledge, leadership, humanity, humour, ease of communication and warmth. He joins a huge host of colleagues who wish her well in this new chapter of her life.

Although Viviane is retiring from her formal positions, her expertise will not be lost to the world of education. She has already started on her next book in which she hopes to integrate leadership virtues into her writing about the capabilities that are central to the leadership of educational improvement. ”It’s a good time to be giving more attention to leadership character,” she says. “It’s more than knowledge and skills – it’s also about such things as courage, respect, open mindedness and truth seeking.” Viviane also intends to continue her work as leadership facilitator and consultant in New Zealand and overseas. Spending more time with her husband, family and friends, walking, growing and cooking vegetables and reading long-neglected books are also part of her more flexible and relaxed plans.