The philosophy of leadership

The new Dean of Arts & Social Sciences, Professor Susan Dodds, is excited about the opportunity to turn ideas into something that has a direct impact on peoples’ lives.

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Professor Susan Dodds, Dean of UNSW Arts & Social Sciences. Photo: Quentin Jones

In her first academic job at the University of Wollongong, Professor Susan Dodds had a long-running, if tangential, relationship with UNSW.

“For a long time I lived in Paddington and would drive past UNSW and think it would be fantastic if I worked there,” she says.

After 19 years at Wollongong, then seven years as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Tasmania, Dodds has realised her ambition, assuming the role of Dean of the UNSW Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences just after Easter.

“I like the fact that the university’s tagline is Never stand still – that fits my life experience very well,” says Dodds, who boasts three citizenships.

She was born in New Jersey in the US to a Canadian father and an English mother (who was born in Argentina). Later in her childhood, the family moved to Boston before Dodds attended the University of Toronto, in Canada. Then she won a scholarship to study at La Trobe University.

“I thought I was coming to Australia for a one-year Masters degree. That was in 1985,” Dodds says with a laugh.

What attracted Dodds to UNSW is what she calls the institution’s bones. “Here is a large public university that on the one hand is excellent in research and in teaching but also not encrusted with tradition or the sense of entitlement that you might find in some of the older universities,” she says. “It has a very positive feel and offers the capacity to make a difference; the capacity to take ideas and move them into something that has direct impact on peoples’ lives.”

I think the aspiration to have a profile of academic and professional staff that reflects the wider community is vitally important.

Her early impressions of UNSW have been confirmed, she says: “It’s a university that functions at an exceptional level; it has managed to grow substantially over the years and to meet the demands of the modern university while being able to preserve the passion and engagement of academics in what they do best.

“The fact that it can do that is a really important thing. It allows the university’s vision to be one that is developed and shared by students, academic colleagues and professional staff to a high degree rather than feeling as if this is something that has been imposed on them.”

As one of two new female Deans (the other is Helen Lochhead, Dean of Built Environment), Dodds is happy to be a public face of the University’s bid for gender equity as part of its 2025 Strategy.

“I’ve done a lot of work on the question of participation of women in philosophy in Australia and it has been a big challenge,” she says. “People outside the discipline often don’t recognise that in Australia, only 23% of those who are actively employed within philosophy programs in Australia are women, even though more than 60% of undergraduates studying philosophy courses are women.”

Embracing diversity, she says, is vital. “The more perspectives you bring to the table, the more opportunities you have to understand how the institution is working from the perspective of people who engage with it and from the students.

“I think the aspiration to have a profile of academic and professional staff that reflects the wider community is vitally important if we’re going to try to attract students and employees to an organisation where they can feel that their perspective is understood and valued.”

Dodds is Chief Investigator and Ethics, Policy and Public Engagement Theme Leader on the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES). She is President and Chair of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Science and Humanities (DASSH), Chair of the Board of the Australasian Association of Philosophy and has been a member of the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC), a principal committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

I want it to be the case that the faculty is positioned to support the disciplines, support the academics and the professional staff to achieve what motivates them to be at UNSW.

Her research explores the intersections of ethics, political philosophy, moral psychology, feminist theory and bioethics, and her main philosophical interest is “to be able to think about the intended and unintended effects of public policy on substantive ethical and political issues”.

Take, for example, the development of brain implants that may help people who have epilepsy whose seizures can’t be controlled through medicine. “That’d be great but what if some of the recipients of these implants feel alienated after they have the implant, if they feel as if they’re not quite the same person? Should we worry about that,” Dodds asks.

“If we then use similar implants to treat psychiatric disorders or mental illnesses, is there a risk that we could get to a point similar to what we’ve done with pharmacology, where some people have argued that we’re using drugs to treat a malaise that’s actually social. Life might be miserable but maybe we should work on how to make life better rather than view it as a condition.”

She has several ARC grants for research to address human vulnerability, democratic decision-making and health care ethics. 

A recent project investigated dependency and vulnerability and the intersection with social policies. “Some social policies like disability, housing or psychiatric services actually generate new vulnerabilities because of a kind of dependency they create,” she says. “Childcare responsibilities can often create a new dependency or vulnerability because the person who takes the time to look after the child may be less able to engage in employment, may be more vulnerable to loss of housing, more vulnerable to mental illness.”

As for the immediate future, Dodds is keen to get on the front foot with the 2025 Strategy. It helps that it aligns well with what the faculty would want to be doing in any case, such as excellence in research and teaching, outward focus and application of research, social engagement and being a global player.

“I want it to be the case that the faculty is positioned to support the disciplines, support the academics and the professional staff across the faculty to achieve what motivates them to be at UNSW,” she says.