Lawyer joins mentor at teaching's top

Australian - 8th January 2003
Author: Jim Buckell

LARISSA Behrendt is on a roll. Last year she became a professor at just 31. Early next year her second book will be published and last month she was joint winner, with Marcia Langton , of the inaugural Neville Bonner Indigenous University Teacher of the Year award.

For the professor of law at the University of Technology, Sydney, sharing the award with Professor Langton, head of indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, was serendipitous.

``Marcia's been a great role model and mentor for me,'' says Behrendt. ``She is one of the women who've opened doors for other indigenous women.''

An Eualeyai woman from northwest New South Wales, Behrendt grew up in a family that valued education. Her father, Paul Behrendt, helped establish the Aboriginal resource centre at the University of NSW and an uncle, Bob Morgan, set up Jumbunna, the indigenous study centre at UTS that Behrendt now heads.

Role models are important to Behrendt. As well as her family, Aboriginal leaders Mick Dodson and Michael Mansell and black academics such as Langton, Jackie Huggins and Martin Nakata have guided her through years of study and teaching, and have nudged her into a leadership role in indigenous education and legal issues.

It's a path that's taken her from the southern NSW town of Cooma and the suburbs of Sydney, where she grew up, to a law degree at UNSW and a PhD in law at Harvard, where she followed in the footsteps of another mentor, black Australian activist Roberta Sykes.

But she never made a choice between the academic world and community activism: for Behrendt, the two are inseparable.

``I always wanted to keep a foot in academe and a foot in [legal] practice, and although I've had non-indigenous academics saying to me that I needed to choose one or the other, I always feel that my activism in the community is enhanced by the academic rigour that I try to work with,'' she says.

``What I bring to teaching is enriched by the fact that I can tell students about how the legal issues we talk about in the classroom relate to real life.''

At Jumbunna she directs a three-pronged program of support, teaching and research involving the 350 indigenous students at UTS. In each of these areas she strives for an approach that acknowledges community priorities, especially in research topics.

``One of the focuses is to show how we can use the research capabilities of the university to produce really good outcomes for the indigenous community in terms of the choices we have on the different issues that are important to us.''

Behrendt shares the concern of many Aboriginal educators about the Howard Government's cuts to Abstudy that have led to a drop in enrolments over the past two years.

One fear is that a corresponding increase in indigenous enrolments at TAFE will mean fewer indigenous people will gain top-level higher education qualifications.

However, she notes the national trend away from undergraduate degrees has not been evident at UTS, where indigenous enrolments have remained at similar levels since the Abstudy cuts took effect in 2000. This may be because of the support and mentoring work of Jumbunna.

``One of things we find at Jumbunna is that students tend to be attracted to the university not because of how we advertise but because they know people who've been there,'' says Behrendt.

``It shows how role modelling is important. I find that people who meet me then see how it's possible to go to Harvard. I guess they think: `Well, if she can do it, so can I'.

``There's a responsibility for those of us who've had those opportunities to understand this phenomenon and mentor people in turn.''

Universities can make a big difference to indigenous education by how they structure institutional support. At UTS, Behrendt reports directly to a deputy vice-chancellor, which means she can avoid the political and administrative minefields in the faculties. She also has a position on the academic board.

``This allows you to be far more active within the university in curriculum development, allocation of resources and services to students,'' she says.

Active? It's a permanent state of mind for a woman who has no plans to slow down.

This is the first of a series of profiles of award winners in December's Australian University Teaching Awards. The awards are sponsored by The Australian.