Social justice student award fails university obstacle course

April 9th, 2017  |  Published in Education

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. A perpetual student award, for academic work related to social justice; to promote interest, and provide a means of passing the baton.

Passing the baton

2020socialjustice award – background

I first thought of the idea when I was launching this 2020socialjustice website and associated Facebook page in late 2012. I felt very excited, remembering an award I received as a second year undergraduate. It was hugely encouraging, even though I don’t remember what the prize was. It didn’t matter. The validation for an “I can’t do it” mature-age student was all that mattered.

Several decades later, my 2020socialjustice student award was able to have money attached to it. I had recently retired, as had my partner, and we could do this, we decided, without risking our financial future.

I wrote a website post about my rationale for the award, scouted various options for hosting it, and eventually settled into discussions with Social Work at RMIT. I had been an academic in the Psychology department at RMIT from the mid-1980s until the early 2000s and had done substantial teaching into Social Work.Intersection psychology and social theory

Since my time, Psychology and Social Work at RMIT have developed a combined degree. This was perfect from my point of view, having spent my academic and professional life working at the intersection of psychological and social theory.

This nexus is where I believe it becomes possible to work with individuals affected by social issues without reducing the effects to personal pathologies, and to approach social change with some understanding of complex human beings.

Academic aspects of the award

The academic aspects of the award were fairly straightforward to organise. In the third year of the combined (five-year) degree, students complete a course on Social Work with Families. This covers a range of relevant areas of social justice including working with Aboriginal families, families with refugee backgrounds, families with same-sex parents, and those experiencing issues related to  mental health, disability, aging, or child protection.

The award would be based on an essay which best encompassed social justice ideas, social critique, ideas about social change, and practice informed by social justice ideas. It would be $500, indexed to inflation.

Details would be included in the course handout. I would meet with students in the early part of semester and talk about the award. At the end of semester, the academic coordinator of the course would send me a short list of high-scoring essays. I would further short list from my perspective, and we would meet to make a final decision.

The academic would notify the winner and put them in contact with me. We could then work together to produce a website post, authored by the award winner and built around their essay.

The award would be presented at the annual Outrage event that marks World Social Work Day in mid-March.

This plan worked well for four years, provided I checked in with the academic at relevant times. There was one change of academic over that time, and that transition also worked well.

Financial and administrative processes

Unfortunately, the financial and administrative aspects of the award at the overall university level were fraught from the outsetobstacle course. There were inexplicably lengthy delays while a Deed of Gift (D.O.G) was prepared. The first two award presentations came and went, funded separately. The process stalled and stuttered.

The financial, administrative, and legal officers seemed to operate in a black hole. They had a bewildering array of titles, usually Senior Something, but nobody had any obvious geographical location, let alone a room number.

The people I dealt with kept changing, and I lost track of how many emails bounced because my contacts no longer worked at the university. Each time, I had difficulty finding who I should contact instead.

This process dragged on and on. When a D.O.G did finally materialise, I was so relieved that I paid over my endowment money without finding out much about ongoing processes. The tentative questions I did raise about how the process would work drew responses that didn’t exactly reassure me, but I hoped for the best.

The real trouble started when it was time to draw money from the endowment for the 2015 award recipient (the third year of the award). My initial inquiries drew a blank. I could not even find anyone in the university administration who knew that my endowment existed. Someone along the line kindly offered to set up an endowment for me. I managed to explain, in a reasonably measured tone (I think), that this had already been done!

Thankfully, I did have a key academic contact who was helpful and supportive. It was she who navigated the administrative areas of her own academic department, plus the relatively impenetrable shifting sands of the administrative arm of the university. Getting the various officers to communicate sufficiently with each other to produce results was, as far as I could tell from the outside, a minor miracle. It took a good part of the summer break to achieve any confidence that a cheque would be available for the event in March 2016 at which the 2015 award was to be presented.

(Un-)sustainability of perpetual award

That experience was a wake-up call. I was already afraid the whole idea would fade into oblivion (along with my money) if I didn’t continue to be proactive in triggering action at key times across the year. And, I realised, this would not be possible to keep doing forever.

The award needed sustainable processes that would be activated independently of existing staff or my active involvement. It needed overall coordination from within the university, to achieve what I had been doing, with difficulty, from outside the university.

From annual award to one-off scholarships

On 23 August, 2016, I requested a joint meeting of key people from the relevant academic and administrative areas. This meeting happened on 26 October, and there were several important realisations and outcomes

  1. There was no provision in either the academic or the university administrative areas for overall coordination of the prize. It seemed doomed to extinction in this seemingly unbridgeable communication gap.
  2. The award in its existing form could therefore not survive, particularly in the long term beyond my active involvement.
  3. I learnt of a scholarship scheme within the university, which grants one-off stipends (Study Support Scholarships) of $2500 each for students experiencing financial and/or educational disadvantage.
  4. I decided to transfer my endowment into this scheme rather than persisting with the idea of a perpetual student award. I could fund almost five scholarships from the existing money, and pay the $500 for the 2016 award, with the university topping up the shortfall.

Lessons learned

Coming to terms with the shift

This list of points fails to convey the sadness, disappointment and frustration I have felt over the journey. The original idea was a great fit for me philosophically, built as it was around promoting passion for social justice.

Working with the students on their website posts has been a joy for me and also seemed to work well for them. Two of the winners volunteered to come with me to speak to students and tell them what the award had meant for them. One mother described the process as a mentoring experience for her daughter.

I value the time I spent with each of the award-winning students.

Nonetheless, I am also happy with the idea of the scholarships, and grateful to Karen Brown (Senior Advisor, Stewardship) for her significant efforts in organising them. Karen was a latecomer to the process as part of the overall university administration, and the story might have ended differently if she had been involved from the outset.

I would also like to thank the academic staff involved over the four years the award survived – Dr Susie Costello, Dr Juliet Watson, and Professor Charlotte Williams. In addition to our direct work on the award, I enjoyed our conversations about psychology, social theory, and their intersection.

Award winners 2013 to 2016 inclusive

For the record, here is a list of 2020socialjustice student award winners:

  • Brett Allen (2013) for his essay on same-sex parenting
  • Katie Webster (2013, highly commended) for her essay on people seeking asylum
  • Miranda Tooth (2014) for her essay on intellectual disability
  • Penny Fowler (2015) for her Q&A with me on power relations
  • Talia Meltzer (2016) for her essay on same-sex parenting (see extension to Brett Allen’s post)

Study Support Scholarship recipients

I have also now been notified (5 April, 2017) of the recipients of the five Study Support Scholarships, and am happy with the choices that have been made on my behalf. I wish these students well for their future studies and work in areas of justice, business, engineering, nursing, and pharmacy. Every area of work (and life) can benefit from a social justice perspective, in my view, and I hope these students, and many others, might bring it to bear in our globally troubled times.



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4 comments on “Social justice student award fails university obstacle course”

  1. Cat Nap says:

    Hi Joan,
    Thanks so much for this information. I have (I thought) set up a scholarship fund in my will to fund an annual grant to university students who attended a public school and who are either refugees or Indigenous Australians and who wish to study any aspect of social justice e.g. human rights law, social work etc. Having read your story, I am now wondering if I am sending my money down an administrative tunnel. Any further suggestions as to how I might go about avoiding this and ensuring deserving students receive the award, would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Cat Nap,
      Thanks for your comment, and my apologies for taking so long to respond. I’ve had a health-related absence from my desk, and have only now got back to it. In trying to answer, I find I am sitting here wondering what I would do if I was starting again or, indeed, whether I would start again.
      I do believe in the idea, and I do believe it can be significant for the recipients. I love your idea, by the way.
      I think I would want to be sitting down with a representative of an office within the university (and I say that rather than a person, because individuals move on and for continuity’s sake, the process needs to be linked to roles or offices, not individuals) and working out a step-by-step process, starting from the advertising of the award through to its presentation.
      It sounds like your criteria are already pretty clear and, also, that this would be a new award, not a pre-existing one (that is, a parallel to my 2020socialjustice student award rather than the Study Support Scholarships that my money ended up going towards). So, I would be sure to put them into a document myself so that aspects do not get lost in translation. In fact, I would be putting the whole walk-through process in a document that my main administrative officer (whoever that turned out to be) could guarantee would work and that someone in authority could sign off on.
      I think the main stumbling block for me was that gap between overall university administration and academic department. It sounds as if your idea, though, could be dealt with completely by administrative offices, and that might simplify things considerably.
      I hope you do proceed and that it works out well. I believe it could be a great springboard, and can think of some young refugees I have worked with for whom it would not only have been inspirational but also a most welcome contribution to the coffers (however large or small).
      If there is any way I can be of use please also feel free to contact me by email at
      Best with it all…Joan Beckwith.

  2. stellab says:

    Hi there Joan –

    Quite a story you have there. Kudos for your philanthropic spirit.

    I can also testify that academic red tape can be a mess. I’m also a retired academic and for several years before retirement, funded a small award in honor of my parents. The last year or two, instead of me paying into the foundation, (so the recipient could receive a check from THE COLLEGE (which I thought would have more cachet), they insisted I write the recipient a personal one — ‘you might want to declare this on your taxes’ was their line. I have no idea if the award is still being given since my retirement.

    Well, keep on lighting candles, anyway!

    • Thanks for your comments, stellab, and sorry to hear of your own less than great experience.
      When I set off down the track of creating an award, my thoughts were focused on getting an optimal fit philosophically. It didn’t occur to me that the bureaucratic aspects would be the downfall. I expected the university to have routine procedures already in place.
      As I said in the post, I’m not unhappy with the final outcome of one-off Study Support Scholarships, but they don’t carry quite the same sense of ‘passing the baton’ as the original idea did. A perpetual award, based on an essay related to social justice, which my children and their children would eventually be involved with, felt just right to me. Never mind. As you say, keep on lighting cancdles!

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