Balancing the books behind academic pursuit

A self-described ‘invisible but always available’ administrator ensures schools hum efficiently and creatively

Kate Bisshop-Witting

Apart from her often mis-spelled, hyphenated surname, Dr Kate Bisshop-Witting makes all other elements in her working life as smooth and efficient as possible.

She finds working as an administrator of the University’s schools very appealing: “You get to be amongst the intellectual debate and part of the total culture. I love getting to know the quirks and eccentricities of the academics.”

There isn’t an obvious job description that can truly reflect what Kate actually does: “While I have to be always available, there are times when I can best achieve results by being invisible. I have to run all the elements of a school without people being aware and make things happen by finding solutions before anyone else even knows there’s a problem.”

She lists verbs to describe her responsibilities: coordinate, initiate, oversee, merge, decide. But she says “you can only do all that with a great team who are equally determined to solve and improve.”

Kate is originally from Brisbane and completed her first qualifications at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, majoring in harpsichord performance. “I was the first to major in the harpsichord and so also had my first insight into what difficulties you have when you pioneer something in an academic environment.”

She went on to teach piano in Brisbane primary schools before deciding on a move to Melbourne and back to study, embarking on undergraduate studies in psychology. Friends invited Kate to join their newly formed band – they needed a bass player so asked her to buy one and learn to play it. “We were excited musos with dozens of instruments we wanted to incorporate into the band, from the traditional to toy pianos. Our problem was we had no transport so never made any money because we always had to use taxis to get to gigs. You end up with great stories but no cash.”

Kate went on to complete a master’s and PhD in applied linguistics from the University of Melbourne. “I kept studying because I loved it. Some people groan to the end of a drawn out PhD but I was lucky in my choice of topic and my three years came relatively easily. At the end, I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher or researcher but enjoyed the culture of the university environment.”

After finishing her studies, Kate stayed on at the University of Melbourne but moved into the world of administration. She loved its fast pace, high pressure and tremendous people.

“My husband who has encouraged my every step. He appreciates my career and endeavours. We take it in turns to support each other, depending on who is working under the most pressure at any one time – to get a PhD finished or start a new job. He’s a great source of energy and a terrific sounding board.”

Her partner’s promotion to Canberra in 2006 saw Kate, with their new daughter, accept a major mind shift. From an inner city lifestyle and a beautiful art deco apartment, Kate found herself in a “bushy suburban, stay-at-home mum world”. But the family quickly grew to love the change and to feel they belonged.

For five years Kate remained at home with her daughter and then a little son, raising them both bilingually in a German-English speaking household. “When my son turned three I felt I had to go back to work but knew that it wouldn’t be easy – who would want someone who’d been out of the workforce for so long?”

Kate took a deep breath and applied for “everything I could find at the ANU” and was immediately offered three positions – which set up its own dilemma: choice.

“It was a shock to all of us having me go back to full time work. There was a lot of flexibility required. We tend to live in a constant level of controlled chaos.”

Kate thoroughly enjoys the tertiary administration environment: “It works for me, I like dealing with an issue and solving it so I can move on to the next problem or project. You never know what is going to crop up from one hour to the next.”

She is a strong believer in personality and attitude in achieving your aims: “I’m a cheerful, positive person and it pays off as I find people react that way to me. I’m a solution ‘bringer’ rather than a problem ‘bringer’. And that’s appreciated by the powers that be.”

Kate has witnessed how the colleagues who knock on her door with not only their issues but also attempts at the answers, have the right attitude for a busy, dynamic workplace. This is the attitude that Kate promotes in the teams that she leads.

Contacts and networks are also important as “they fast track your access to information, people and solutions”.

The university environment is a strange mix of hierarchy and democracy. Kate knows that to run a School efficiently “you can’t always open everything for discussion. The challenge is to tread very carefully as you make practical decisions to balance the needs of students, staff and the budget.”

Diplomacy is crucial to her success: “There are often requirements to do something out of the ordinary for one person if they feel they require special consideration. But it must be done without offending others.”

Kate is “very grateful for the responsibility I was given to manage the setting up of the new joint Schools of History and Philosophy. It was a struggle to get the processes happening while making everyone feel valued within the new structure. My Heads of School at the time (Professor Angela Woollacott and Professor Daniel Stoljar) were extremely supportive and I owe them a huge debt.”

“I think I’ve proved myself. The word is that we’re amongst the best running schools and it comes down to my excellent team.”

Angela Woollacott, Head of the School of History during the integration period, says that “Kate brings a brilliant mix of efficiency, strategy, diplomacy and humour to her work. She juggles the endless demands on her with foresight, skill and energy, and she has been the backbone of both Schools.”

While sad to be moving on, Kate is confident she’s leaving the Schools on a solid foundation. “By trusting the staff in my team to do a good job, they lift their belief in themselves and put in the extra effort. To see someone blossom under your guidance is very gratifying.”

“My lasting memory will be of the philosophers having their daily ritual afternoon tea on the balcony of the Coombs Building – and the talk that generates some of their best work. The historians are a quieter, reflective breed whose company also gave me so much.”

As the newly appointed manager of the School of Music, Kate believes her own background in music “will help me better understand their needs and make my entree into their world a little easier. I’ll have the stimulation of working with yet another great bunch and, hopefully, get to go to more concerts!”

The School of Music’s well publicised restructuring means it will be “very interesting to go into an area that’s in the news and where people have opinions about what it needs, often quite strong ones.

“It’s a complex school. People perceive it as a community institution and there are high public expectations of what it should give out. They often overlook its rigorous academic pursuits and achievements, and that it has to balance its books like all other schools.”

One of the best opportunities Kate sees as being crucial to career development is being invited to act in higher level positions. “You gain a different view of the organisation and a new perspective on your own [substantive] role.”

“I’ve always had a good relationship with my general managers who have all been very supportive. No one has ever tried to hold me back, or ever stood in my way. I’ve been so lucky.”

“The University took a gamble on me and I like to pass on that belief in others whenever I can. I’d rather appoint someone who is an exceptional candidate but possibly only likely to stay a short time if I think that what they can offer is too good to miss out on. Movement, change and turnover is a positive if, in the end, it raises the skillset of the University, and you benefit from their input.”



Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute