Adrian Miller | Insights from Industry Leaders
Deputy Vice-President of Indigenous Engagement at Central Queensland University
Adrian Miller has strong leadership experience and a passion for achieving positive collaborative outcomes for Indigenous communities, including his own Jirrbal people in north Queensland. He is an established Public Health scholar and is known internationally for his research and leadership in Indigenous and environmental health, infectious diseases, higher education and immunology.
He recently sat down with Ccentric consultant, Pam Lubrainschik to discuss leading aboriginal engagement in academia and his thoughts on telehealth.
What made you gravitate towards academia?
It was almost by chance that I stumbled across a position. It was sort of semi-government, semi-university, and was a program that was funded from the government to support indigenous students in higher education, but it was not operating very well under a government administration. The government knew that there was a gap in the kind of way that it was administered, and that it required someone to have an insight into undergraduate programs at higher education. So, I just stumbled across it really, someone asked me if I was looking for work and at the time I had just finished my degree and said absolutely it sounds interesting, I’ll have a go.
It was a really interesting experience because it was a way in which governments were outsourcing a lot of indigenous programs at the time, it was a way in which universities could take an opportunity to administer government programs. After a little while, I managed to identify some huge challenges. Someone really needed to be on the government side administering it, or someone on the higher education side administering it, but ultimately the governments thought they could save money by outsourcing it to the university. It was the first test university in Australia to do it, I, fortunately, fell into that role and did it for a brief period of time. I wrote quite a large document outlining the benefits of transitioning the program to the university and it was successful. I ran that for a little while and then another academic role came up, teaching so I decided to go for it. I was successful with that and it was this small doorway that opened to a larger doorway, and I managed to get into an academic role of teaching. I enjoyed teaching, although I don’t think I was very good at it at the beginning. I admit that I did seek some mentorship and reflected on my own lecturers on how they were delivered. I thought back what that people were particularly boring, so I wouldn’t try to repeat that. It was almost like a reflective practice approach until I got my own style.
I stuck with teaching for many years, and it was almost my Achilles heel towards the end of my teaching career, I really wanted to advance in my position and I couldn’t do that without doing research, so I stayed within teaching for as long as I could. It’s hard work teaching, and I ended up with quite large classes. When I stopped teaching large classes, my biggest class was around that four hundred mark and that was with limited resources. I had to be quite innovative with a kind of style of teaching that I needed to do. So I gravitated towards online learning and teaching and embraced all that technology. I did podcasts like this and video-podcasts as well as all sorts of things in the mid-2000s. That was really a good thing for me, because I did some evaluation around that and thought it was working quite well. But the challenge of staying in academia is that you need to do research. So I really needed to pull myself away from the teaching role and learn to embrace a new form of being an academic.
I wasn’t a balanced academics at the time, I was 80 percent teaching and just dabbling a bit in research, and that wasn’t going to help me progress as an academic. So I approached my Director and Head of School at the time and said ‘I’ve got some big challenges here and I’m interested in the work that you do, which is infectious diseases, Is there a role for me?’. He said absolutely and took me under his wing immediately and from there on it was just an exponential kind of road of success and research. I don’t know how it happened, but I just seemed to have just been very, very fortunate in that space.
Infectious disease interests me because I was always surrounded by public health and infectious disease experts. I was rubbing shoulders with people who had normal, corridor conversations about things like this type of worm, that kind of parasite, and this kind of virus. I found it absolutely fascinating because my background isn’t clinical, it’s actually public policy and planning, it’s the boring stuff that students complain about. But I really wanted to get into the exciting stuff, which really was what my colleagues were doing.
The other reason why I also was fascinated is that I saw the direct impact of their work. I saw my colleagues doing amazing research and they had an impact on saving lives, and I thought that’s pretty amazing. So applied public health research really attracted me. Infectious diseases was something that I made it my own, I wasn’t an epidemiologist and I’m still not an epidemiologist, but I investigated the reasons and the gaps behind why people are still remaining sick despite the treatments available.
I think you can keep looking at the same problem over and over again at different angles and that’s quite often what public health people do to look for new ways to analyse the same disease. But at the end of the day, if no one is being cured by that, recovering or getting a level of quality of life, then you have to start to wonder if there is something else besides treatment going on. People have access to the treatment, so there’s something else. There are things around systematic racism, that emerged in my research as well as a bunch of other things that qualitative research actually highlights it.
What are the rewards and challenges for leading Indigenous engagement within a University?
The rewards are simply being able to do what I do in my role now, being able to think of something and doing it. That’s been a challenge for me in other roles because quite often I’ve been hindered by the level in which I’m at the university. But at a senior level like this, I pitch an idea to my senior colleagues, particularly my Vice-Chancellor, and if it makes sense and doesn’t cost too much or if I can find the money for it, he says go for it. So that’s the kind of reward.
I’m able to explore some of the things that I’ve been thinking about for the last 20 years and now able to apply them. It’s taken me a long time. But I now have the opportunity where I can do the things that I’ve been thinking about because I’ve had such a long time to think about it, it feels like they’re working as well.
So, I’ve had a long time to reflect on the mistakes that I’ve made myself, but also I’ve seen the others and knowing that I don’t want to repeat that. I’m doing things a little bit differently and maybe challenging some orthodoxies as well, which I’d like to do, but not in a way that whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t make sense to me to stop doing it. It’s more like you’ve got a really interesting way of doing it. We’ve done it that before, but it hasn’t proven to be very successful, so I’m going to do it this way. And that’s the kind of conversations I have not only externally, but internally in my head as well.
When you are recruiting for a senior executive to join your team, what are the key attributes you look for in the person, apart from technical skills and experience?
I’m looking for indications in my colleagues that they are willing to listen. Listening is the most important thing and I know that sounds really quite simplistic. But at the end of the day if I’ve got something to say, it’s based on experience, based on my research, or based on other people’s research. I present that argument in a logical and meaningful manner, and if I notice that people listen to that, then I’m really quick to engage. I’m also willing to compromise if someone says, at this university we’ve had these challenges, so you might have to change your ways in this bit. If someone shows less interest in it, that’s totally fine. I’ve got other things to do and it’s not offensive to me, it’s certainly not something I’m going getting angry or concerned about. It will be a case of where our synergies and interests intersect at another point, rather than trying to say, this is my way and please listen to me. At the end of the day, I think that working in academia, we’re working with really, really smart people. You would expect a smart way to communicate in the way you share your interest or disinterest without being offensive.
Do you think the rollout of telehealth will help provide better healthcare to the rural community and the indigenous communities?
I think it’s totally necessary. We’re on the cusp of something really new and innovative. I think we’re also on the cusp of seeing things that might be a sustainable model of healthcare. Quite often we’ve seen programs roll out in remote areas that are time-limited because of funding.
With telehealth, there’s probably only one barrier and that’s connectivity. Time-limited by resources. Now your cardiologist in Brisbane can Zoom or Skype you at your leisure. And people have done this quite a lot while already, but it’s not resource-dependent. The IT infrastructure is actually being rolled out quite nicely, and I see that in some of the big telcos are doing it free of charge in remote communities. The irony is that some of those communities have asked for that connectivity for quite a while, and now a pandemic makes it more essential. It almost seems like a human right now to have high-quality connectivity. It’s interesting how the pandemic has accelerated things that seemed years away, and it’s been possible to rollout in weeks. That’s the extraordinary thing about it, the pressure of a pandemic. There have been some silver linings in this catastrophes.
Over the years, I’ve heard of some incredibly good and successful health programs around eye care, ear, nose and throat care, all the things that affect Aboriginal children in particular. Some of them have been defunded because for whatever reasons, now we don’t have that kind of excuse anymore. I think the endocrinologist, the specialists around the country can be at the end of a very long recess.
We recently conducted a survey of all board chairs across healthcare, universities and research institutes, the majority of whom said there was little indigenous representation on their boards. Do you think there is a way we can start to improve this easily?
I feel the effects of this quite often. I sometimes sit on many boards and I’m the only indigenous person sitting there. The challenges are quite often that most of the board aren’t culturally appropriate, sensitive, or informed. Therefore, when you’re the only board member or committee member that say, do you pick your fights or your challenges or you have confrontations, absolutely. You can’t do it at every whim of it because ultimately you’ve got to progress an agenda that’s hopefully beneficial to people. But at the same time, it is challenging sitting there and being the only one there.
Building the capacity around governance training for example is absolutely crucial, but also building the capacity of boards to be culturally informed is also really important. It’s just not about having, for example, a quite senior board saying, I think we need indigenous representative, it’s not just tapping someone on the shoulder. But I think the board needs to be prepared for the difficult conversations that board members might rise or the challenging conversations that can’t be dismissed. There’s an equal balance of capacity building that needs to happen. It’s not just about burdening one or two individuals on a board, to say you represent the indigenous perspective tell us all about it, rather than the whole board needs to come up with an intellectual position on how to do that.
I think there’s definitely an appetite for that. I think there’s a lack of good quality consultants that can do that. And there’s a business opportunity for someone to do that kind of training. But I think they need to be quite a talented person to do it.
It’s not an easy role to do both. But at the same time, I think there’s an opportunity. I know that I’ve engaged with some consultants who are absolutely amazing about punching through some of those verbal challenges at the beginning and some of the intellectual challenges to build the capacity of non-indigenous force. I’ve seen that happen very successfully with some talented people, and think they’re completely overworked because they’re so good.
So there is an opportunity, but there’s also a gap of talent to do that kind of thing. Hopefully someone maybe even listening to this might have the thought to do that kind of work, but it’s certainly needed. I don’t think it’s just for First Nations people, It’s what I think could build the capacity of boards to understand. A multitude of cultural perspectives, because we don’t just live within a monoculture in Australia, multiple languages, multiple cultures that all contribute to Australian communities.
Who or what has inspired you the most in your career?
I’ve been asked this question before and there’s no one individual I could say that has done it. Because at the beginning of my career I had been influenced by an almost militant view of politics, and so I was influenced by that. But as you mature, and as you read more and engage with people, you begin to see, well, that’s almost what you expect as a young academic. I almost think that this is kind of a rite of passage. I’ve seen it over the years where young academics come with quite strong idealism. I was influenced by a few people in my early career around that, and over time I started to think that a particular kind of ideology wasn’t actually very productive. It wasn’t kicking the goals, it wasn’t actually making a difference. Not only the lives that I was teaching but also the lives in the communities that I say I work with. So over time, I sought mentorship with all sorts of different people, and I picked up different qualities that I found within those people. I thought that’s a really good thing, and I can really I can feel it that’s aligned with my value system.
But to tell you the truth, the most influential person that’s influenced me academically has been my late professor. He was my head of school and director, Professor Rick Speare. He passed away suddenly and tragically a few years ago, he had a way in which he could think through incredible challenges to turn everything that might have been a challenge and think about it differently. I just admired that quality and I think that’s what you call wisdom. You kind of get that with time, and I get that now. You can’t magically have wisdom soaked up through your skin and into your brain. It’s all about experience, it’s your ability to digest new information, new knowledge and different ways of seeing the world. Rick has been one of my biggest influences.
On a personal level, it’s been my wife, she’s just amazing. She’s my wife, she’s the mother of my children, but she’s also incredibly smart and I respect her enormously. But again, she’s also someone that can see through challenges that I can’t see through. She’s able to articulate to me and say why can’t you see it this way, and that’s a gift I think. For me when I see that in my wife, I often say wow, I never thought of it that way. So they’re the two most influential people I’ve had in my life.
Earlier we were talking about the Black Lives Matter movement that’s taken place globally. What positive impact do you think it is having or can have?
Firstly, it’s about raising awareness. From what I’ve seen and the many people I’ve talked to, or if not seen on the media, they just said we just didn’t know this happened in Australia. They were simply naive to the thought that this level of discrimination or racism happens in our backyard in Australia. I think that’s the most positive thing that’s actually come out since then. When you see the protests, you see a significant amount of non-indigenous people marching. That tells me this is a change happening in our communities, that we didn’t have that kind of support in the 1970s. We definitely did have in the 1980s, but things have started to change over the last 20 years in a positive way. I think in more recent times, in the last 10 years, there’s been a significant shift. I’m not really sure how or why that’s changed.
But I think with access to information, people want to know stuff now. There’s an absolutely enormous amount of information that people can access online to inform yourself and engage with other people who have had similar ideas or experiences and feel collectively concerned about the treatment of Aboriginal people in this country. I don’t know how this may impact future elections, but I hope people look at public policy proposals from each side of parliament and say, ok we’ve got a budget, we’ve got education, we’ve got health, what’s happening with First Nations people in their country. So asking those kinds of questions amongst all the other questions about public policy. I hope that has an impact. I really hope that protests aren’t seen anymore as just disruptive citizens. But really, citizens really want to share the message.
Do you think it has also made universities look at their staffing diversity and how they haven’t represented First Nations people and students. Do you think it’s made them say we need to step up?
I can’t talk about too many of the universities, because I haven’t seen too much reaction. But the senior leadership of indigenous academics that I’m involved with, report to me that there are some really positive things that have come out of that, in terms of even a general statement from the Vice-Chancellor, for example saying the university supports this. My university actually came out before Black Lives Matter and said we supported the statement from the heart and we’ve got that as a public message to anybody.
When Black Lives Matter, I may down the track, also put this to the university council as well and see if we’ve got a university position on this. But clearly, I think the impact of Covid-19 in higher education has impacted staffing levels. I have no doubt it’s impacted indigenous staffing levels within universities as well because it certainly has impacted ours. Maybe it’s an opportunity now to do some reflecting from universities. I think we can do better.
In terms of building their career, what are your top tips for aspiring leaders?
I touched on this before and it really is looking at mentorship. What is it that you see is an inspiring leader in and around your vicinity, and you don’t need to necessarily approach your mentor and say, you’re my mentor today, tell me what to do about this. I found the most effective way to be mentored is by being an observant of behaviour. If you want to alert your mentor that they are your mentor, that’s fine as well. But for me, it’s always been a quiet observance around. How did that person change the way of the outcome of that particular issue in a gentle, intellectual and thoughtful manner that actually is meaningful.
I’m a value-driven person, so that’s easy for me to do. It’s easy for me to look at someone that aligns with my value system. I think everybody has some, but sometimes not everybody reflects on them. You should reflect on your own value systems and they’ll be challenged all the time and that’s ok. Your value system isn’t always the right way in the world, but it gives you some guidance on how to be a good person and how to improve being a good person.
People need to read and not absorb commentary that is not based on any foundation. I’ll give you an example, in this country we’ve celebrated the shock jocks, the Alan Jones of the world, and we continue to celebrate their poor and other disgusting behaviour. It requires us to think and read more widely, than take on board some of the rhetoric that some of these people disperse to us. That helps us do a critique of the information that we get thrown at us and every kind of direction from social media to television, to everything else.
Reading is incredibly important, and reading about your discipline is incredibly important. But reading broader than your discipline and looking at the other perspectives as well you might not be an expert in another discipline, but certainly, for example, the Rio Tinto matter. No one has to be an archaeologist to see that. That was an absolutely appalling treatment of an Aboriginal heritage site.
Go beyond the media and say what really happened here, what was the kind of public policy environment that allowed this to happen. So you’re informed about a whole bunch of things, rather than the mining company doing the most awful things to our environment and heritage sites. Being informed is incredibly important. Donald Trump’s former advisor recently commented that the president doesn’t read anything. If you want to have a prime example of someone who doesn’t read, you have it is ok if I say know more.
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