Business boss takes her final bows

Professor Phyllis Tharenou, Vice-President and Executive Dean of the College of Business, Government and Law, took her final bows at a celebration gathering in the Flinders Tavern to mark her retirement on January 31.

Her decorated career has seen Professor Tharenou excel in all areas of academic and administrative leadership at Flinders, having risen to be the inaugural Vice-President and Executive Dean of the College of Business, Government and Law in July 2017.

Her prowess in business stems from her proficiency in both academic and corporate roles, succeeding at the highest levels.

She came to Flinders University in February in 2010 from being the Executive Director of Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences at the Australian Research Council. She had previously been chair and member of the SBE College of Experts and Dean Research at UniSA, following her earlier appointments at Monash, Queensland and Griffith Universities and Queensland University of Technology. She has also been a member of the Board of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities from 2012-2016 and the Don Dunstan Foundation management committee.

She leaves Flinders University after an especially hectic past two years, during which she chaired about 30 College of Business, Government and Law selection committees, hiring many new academic staff and readying the College for the journey ahead.

Reflecting on her time in crucial University leadership roles, Professor Tharenou offers this advice for anyone considering an academic leadership career. “Take up opportunities, accept unexpected invitations and offers from others, and try experimenting by doing various bits of the academic role or a professional career, which will all contribute to progressing and varying your career,” she says. “I am fortunate to have had so many opportunities.”

After completing her BA Honours (First Class) and Master of Psychology at the University of Queensland, Professor Tharenou started her academic journey as a lecturer at the Queensland Institute of Technology in 1979 while doing a PhD part-time. After obtaining her doctorate, she became a lecturer and consultant/executive trainer at the University of Queensland from 1987, which then led to an invitation by a former boss to take a government job as an Executive Director of HRM in the Queensland public service. However, in 1995 she moved to Monash University, taking a balanced role of teaching, research, and as a professor undertaking school administration and leadership.

“At the age of 43, I realised I needed to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up – and so I left that job and returned to academia,” says Professor Tharenou. “I gave up consulting and executive education and replaced it with research.”

Professor Tharenou reflects on the period from 1992 to 2008 as the most successful years of her research career in terms of winning ARC grants, publishing quality journal articles and supervising PhDs to completion.

However, her career took an unexpected turn in 2004, after another former boss convinced her to move to UniSA as the Dean of Research in the Business School. “I gained my first experience of fulltime faculty-level research leadership and strategy, and tackling administration at university level. This led to me being sought by the Australian Research Council for various tasks, including membership of and chairing the Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences (SBE) College of Experts.”

In 2008, she was asked to take on the fulltime Executive Director role in Canberra at the ARC for SBE, which gave her experience of academic leadership and strategy at a national level.

In 2010, Professor Tharenou moved to Flinders as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, then from 2014 was acting Dean of Flinders Business School, until taking her current job as VP&ED of BGL in 2017. Through this journey, she describes herself as an “all-rounder” who has performed all parts of the academic role at almost all levels and resulting in 11 years as Exec Dean/VP&ED.

These all-round skills have been instrumental in steering an evolution of business studies, which had led to Flinders being recognised as a world Top 2 per cent tertiary institution, according to the Times Higher Education rankings.

Professor Tharenou’s goal through this transformation was to create options: new courses, new specialisations in innovation and enterprise, combined degrees and an updated curriculum – which swiftly transformed the financial performance of a sector that had been in deficit. The changes she steered lifted total teaching revenue by 43 per cent within three years. The business students also benefitted greatly from the changes, with most enjoying industry placements and live industry projects through the Flinders New Venture Institute.

“The changes could give students the opportunity to work with industry, government and the community in placements or live industry projects. We put the MBA online and there were lots of chances: degrees that we needed to delete, new ones we needed to add, and courses that we needed to fix. We also needed to earn more researching income and we’ve done that.”

Professor Tharenou’s vast knowledge and experience has also been instrumental in fostering and developing the important 25-year relationship between Flinders University and Nankai University in China. Two Masters degrees delivered to Nankai by the College of Business, Government and Law – the Master of Arts (International Relations in Economy and Trade) and Master of Hospital Administration – are among the six largest at Flinders University, and delivering these courses offshore for such a sustained period of time is a remarkable achievement, doing much to bolster Flinders’ reputation on a global scale.

Professor Mike Nicolls, Professor Mike Kyrios and Professor Tracey Wade at Professor Tharenou’s farewell.

She retires from academic life while recognised as a research author of great significance. Professor Tharenou was ranked in the top 2% of researchers in the world in the field of Business and Management during 2020. Stanford University compiled a comprehensive ranking list of academics across disciplines, assessed on six measures of citations formed into a composite measure. They rated the world’s top 100,000 scientists across 176 academic fields, and Professor Tharenou was ranked 529 of the targeted 36,319 Business and Management researchers worldwide. This updated science-wide author database of standardized citation indicators was published by PLoS Biology in October 2020.

The most recent of her successful papers – ‘Skilled Migrants Employed in Developed, Mature Economies: From Newcomers to Organizational Insiders’, published in the Journal of Management, May 2020 – sits in the Top 25% of all research outputs by Altmetric.

She now reflects on her time at the helm of the College of Business, Government and Law with a great degree of satisfaction, noting the College’s reputation for excellence in teaching (shown in the Good Universities Guide, including top national rankings), improvements in research, and the development of strong research centres in Criminology, the Jeff Bleich Centre and Australian Industrial Transformation Institute.

Among other highlights identified through Professor Tharenou’s 11 years at Flinders, she points to being involved in the new design of the University before its implementation in 2016, and the inclusion of the six Colleges through the new roles of VP&EDs into the Senior Executive Team, the highest decision-making body of the University.

She also applauds recent innovations in curriculum and courses across the areas of Law, Government, Business and Criminology, the seamless integration of new areas (Health Care Management, Innovation and Enterprise) and the dedicated assistance and teamwork from the portfolios in assisting new initiatives, which includes Flinders International, Domestic Recruitment and the Quality Education group.

In recognising all these milestones, Professor Tharenou reserves special thanks for the faculty general managers, HR managers, executive officers and executive assistants she has worked with at Flinders – including Rhonda Domin, George Szewczyk, Chris Bishop, Tricia White, Emma Beames, Julie Dover, Amy Jones and many others.

  • Professor Michael Gilding has been announced as the incoming Vice-President and Executive Dean of the College of Business, Government and Law, and will commence in this role on February 15.
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