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A bold appointment - Indigenous research

Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Maggie Walter is determined to increase the University of Tasmania's Aboriginal presence

Professor Maggie Walter
Agenda-setting: Professor Maggie Walter wants
to build an "Aboriginal-scholarly place".

By Peter Cochrane

The University of Tasmania's inaugural Pro Vice-Chancellor (Aboriginal Research and Leadership) doesn't see her new role being confined by state or even national boundaries.

It is a "bold, not brave" move by the University, says Professor Maggie Walter, one that has emboldened her to think big.

"My new position is an indicator that the University has recognised that as Tasmania's university, our deep history and cultural traditions and knowledge are central to that mission. I think the University has taken a huge but very necessary step.

"One of the first things I am going to do is form a working group, of internal and external, indigenous and non-indigenous members, to help me build the University as a vibrant, Aboriginal-scholarly place. It's about scholarship and intellectual engagement, not just an indigenous presence, per se.

"We want to be national and international leaders, to be setting the research agenda. And I think we can do that."

Interviewed at the end of her first week, Professor Walter reels off a to-do list that includes bolstering the numbers of Aboriginal higher-degree students and research staff at the University.

"We want to be national and international leaders."

She also wants to make the Aboriginal presence on our campuses more overt. Her ideas range from having a sash in Aboriginal colours for indigenous graduands to wear on graduation day – "I would also like to present each of our graduates with a maireener shell as a memento of the day" – to placing interpretation boards of country and place on each campus.

Professor Walter is a member of the Briggs/Johnson family, descendants of the Pairrebeenne people from Tebrakunna country in north-eastern Tasmania. She started at the University as a sociology tutor on the Cradle Coast campus in the late 1990s, then went on to complete her PhD before moving to Hobart to take up a tenured position.

If she has her way, a good number of other Aboriginal scholars will follow in her footsteps.

"One of my key tasks is to build up our cohort of indigenous higher-degree students," she explains. "We've got a few wonderful emerging scholars in place now and we want to grow that number and the type of research they do.

"For example, we have Emma Lee in the North West, undertaking her PhD on joint management of Tasmania's natural heritage areas. And just last week we had Antoinette Smith start under a new scholarship that the University has created as part of its commitment to the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network. Antoinette's project is to identify and write the stories of the Aboriginal people who are in the written records but have been left off the established narrative about Aboriginal Tasmania."

There is one more NIRKAN scholarship available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander applicants and Professor Walter would like to allocate that as soon as possible.