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Mike Murphy from Tu-Dublin on Transformation with Neil Cooke and Natalie Wint

The SEFI 2023 conference – celebrating 50 years of SEFI – is hosted by Technological University Dublin. To kick off Season 3 of the SEFI podcast, we spoke with one of the key people who had led significant improvements in Ireland’s engineering education sector, former SEFI president (2017-2019) Professor Emeritus Mike Murphy. 

In the last 30 years, the economic landscape of Ireland has changed significantly. During this time, we’ve also experienced significant changes to engineering education, many of which are based on globalization and sustainability challenges. Such transformational changes, including those to curriculum, pedagogies, and assessment, are compounded by changes in the higher education landscape, institutional strategy, as well as the wider economy. This turbulence necessitates strong leadership, and approaches are often informed and supported by communities such as SEFI. 

We talked to Mike about his return to academia and Ireland in 2003 and his role in the successful establishment of TU-Dublin in 2019, the country’s first designated technological university formed through the merger of several colleges. As engineering dean, he helped to build the university’s global reputation in teaching and research. 

Journey to dean of engineering

After obtaining his first degree at what became the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Mike moved to the USA and gained a PhD at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. After a year as an assistant professor, he went into the telecommunications industry, working for Bells Labs and Bellcore, whilst still maintaining relations with academia. It is Mike’s experience in industry and academia, as well as internationally and in the high-tech industry, that enabled him to become Dean of Engineering.

The technological university sector in Ireland

Mike recently retired from TU Dublin following its successful formation. The technological university sector is the result of a strategic plan for higher education at the government policy level within Ireland. Prior to January 2019, there were 7 universities which were essentially mirrored by 14 institutes of technology. Mike explains how the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) straddled the boundary between the two, having many characteristics of the Institute of Technology Sector, for example, higher certificates, apprentice students and undergraduate courses, but having a reduced research output compared to a university. 

Becoming an international leader in engineering education

Mike describes the process that took place once he was appointed to Director of the faculty of Engineering and the way in which he was hired as an outside stimulus for change. He took a problem-solving approach and attempted to create and sell a vision, then made use of practice shared at SEFI as evidence to convince leadership of the need for curriculum and pedagogical change which focused on recruiting from the external talent pool to bring in different perspectives.

Although acknowledged as an excellent teaching institution with strong industry and professional engagement, Mike claims that there were limitations in terms of disciplinary research activity and that engineering education research was nonexistent, something which was attributed to many academics having a high number of contracted teaching hours. Mike created an environment that encouraged people to increase research output, and consequently, many excellent teachers responded by developing their engineering education research interests through attending conferences such as SEFI and ASEE. 

Mike invited Larry Bucciarelli to spend a semester at DIT, something which provided DIT people with a sense of external validation, and which was followed by the college hosting Fulbright scholars to conduct engineering education research. These people were considered as changemakers who created a stimulating environment resulting in projects and publications.  

Key milestones

Mike describes the strategic milestones with corresponding objectives to implement transformation. These included appointing a faculty head of learning development responsible for quality assurance, giving him greater visibility of what was happening at a program level and kick-starting engineering education research. Other objectives involved hosting the Fulbright Scholars and careful recruitment of staff. A key milestone was the creation of a center for engineering education research (CREATE) to bring people together.

External forces

Mike describes many of the external forces as positive and influential, for example, Engineers Ireland, who oversee accreditation, and government incentives to facilitate change in teaching and learning, for example, by founding a national center for the enhancement of teaching and learning, and the Strategic investment funds. Other influences include the influx of high-tech companies to Ireland, giving graduates more opportunities and shaping what it taught.

Bumps in the road

Mike describes some of the obstacles he encountered while driving through transformation. The restructuring of the engineering faculty faced resistance from other institution leaders. The 2008 global financial crisis affected public funding from 2010, resulting in a loss of staff, and a decline in the number of part-time students and apprentices. 

Key lessons in leadership 

  • Education is a people business. In a leadership position you need to trust, talk and listen to, and nurture people at all levels in all roles, as well as students.
  • Recruit and promote the people that exhibit the values and the culture change you desire.
  • Above all, treat people with respect and show values you want to see in others.
  • Engagement in communities like SEFI allows one to recharge the batteries and learn from others going through similar things. They provide an opportunity for those at all levels to collaborate. 

Key lessons in managing change

  • Be open and transparent.
  • Before commencing any initiative have a clear idea of what you want to achieve including when it is going to be done, the resources available, the team that you have and whether you can affect the change yourself, or whether you need external (or internal) support. 
  • Make use of the “rule of thirds”. If you have a clear vision for what you are trying to achieve and can describe it and explain it, you will have about a third of the people with you to begin with. Another third might never be with you, and the final third remain to be convinced.

Background reading and resources used to research this episode

Kotter, John P. “Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail.” (2007): 97-103.

Hazelkorn, Ellen. “Rebooting Irish higher education: policy challenges for challenging times.” Studies in Higher Education 39, no. 8 (2014): 1343-1354.

Walsh, John, and Andrew Loxley. “The Hunt Report and higher education policy in the Republic of Ireland:‘An international solution to an Irish problem?’.” Studies in Higher Education 40, no. 6 (2015): 1128-1145.

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