The real Riley: USyd’s divisive former law dean

After five years in senior admin, Professor Joellen Riley tells it like it is—on staff strikes, botched exams and whether you should write letters to Honi.

Outgoing University of Sydney law school dean Joellen Riley has a split reputation.

To some, Riley is a management lackey who quit the staff union in an inflammatory Sydney Morning Herald op-ed, and led the University’s enterprise bargaining team as it convinced staff to accept pay rises below projected inflation.

To others, she’s a dedicated teacher and progressive labour lawyer, who collaborated with the Transport Workers Union on protections for gig workers.

The tension seems to have weighed on Riley.

“One of the advantages of stepping down from this job, which I keep telling my husband, is I can be myself again soon,” she says. “I can be the left-wing person with a wicked Irish sense of humour and a good sense of the ridiculous and a little bit of cheek…I don’t have to be the well-behaved, moderate well-balanced dean of the law school anymore”.

But the dean has not always been perfectly even-tempered during her tenure.

In 2013, USyd and the tertiary education union (NTEU) were a year into negotiations—replete with strikes, picket lines and police on campus—over the enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) that governs staff pay and working conditions. That August, Riley, a union member who was not involved in the negotiations, entered the fray seemingly out of nowhere, criticising the union for its “destructive industrial campaign”.

To some staff it came across as an ambitious colleague undermining their campaign for a wage rise.

The reality, Riley says, is that she was angry at the union for ignoring her repeated requests for an explanation of its decision to give $1 million to the Greens’ 2013 federal election campaign and concerned its leadership were locking out moderating voices. In her view, the money should have gone to union members on strike, or what was then a very vulnerable Labor government. “I’ve got nothing against the Greens, but I was a very big Julia Gillard supporter,” she tells me. Either way, she was the lack of contact as inexcusable.

NTEU National President Jeannie Rea, told Fairfax at the time that the union was supporting the Greens because the Gillard government had announced it would divert funds from tertiary to secondary education. Riley regrets any membership loss stemming from her critique, but otherwise stands by it.

Counterintuitively, she suspects the inflammatory op-ed may have helped secure her role as a conciliator during the next round of EBA negotiations in 2017. It showed she had distance from the union and, as a labour lawyer who professionally supported penalty rates and public holidays, she had credibility with staff.

The 2017 process was more constructive: there was only one strike and Riley and NTEU campus president Kurt Iveson have expressed mutual respect for one another. (Riley has fewer flattering things to say about the more militant faction of the NTEU, led by Nick Riemer). More importantly, the University decided not to pursue the same strategy as Murdoch University in WA, which terminated its enterprise agreement last year, leaving staff facing drastically worse pay and conditions.

“I think that was a stupid solution for Murdoch,” Riley says, which “trashed” its reputation. “It might have gotten rid of the enterprise bargain and helped them drag down conditions for staff, but how do you attract good staff?”

Through the negotiations Riley gained a better appreciation of the challenges facing the University’s casual staff.

“I can see how it happens. You grow a unit, you need people, you need them urgently, you think: ‘let’s just get some casuals in’. Then that sort of solves the problem, so you fail to address the longer-term solution of…[finding] properly trained, committed people.”

She notes that the University agreed to give casual staff a path to permanent employment in the EBA, but only if they can demonstrate they are already working on a permanent basis. Overall, Riley characterises the bargain as “reasonable” but not “generous”. It had pay rises in line with the wider economy and additional benefits like casual conversation and 22 weeks of paid parental leave for partners.

Yet Riley and Vice Chancellor Michael Spence had only had a couple of one-on-one meetings before Spence offered her the EBA position, despite Riley’s years as dean. Spence’s lack of contact with Riley smacks of a university more interested in process and projects than engaging with its academics. Whoever succeeds Riley as dean will have even less sway, as the law deanship no longer comes with membership to the University Executive, a powerful committee that makes many of the University’s big decisions. The centralisation of power at USyd is particularly evident in an admissions fiasco that erupted over the summer holidays, resulting in the largest ever crop of law students at Sydney. The University’s central admissions office was concerned that too few students were enrolling in generalist degrees like arts and science, so it decided to approve more transfers into combined LLB degrees from students at other universities.

“They lowered the bar for transfer students, and they lowered it by something like five ATAR points…it’s a lot for law”, Riley says.

The law school was not told until after offers had been sent. Offers were not withdrawn, but some lapsed, leaving the cohort smaller than feared. It was a one-off, Riley stresses, and adds that she strongly supports offering transfers to deserving students. Nonetheless, the episode shows the limits of the dean’s power.

Art by Harriet Cronley

Some challenges lie squarely within the faculty though, none more notorious than the 2013 corporations law exam, when a fire alarm interrupted the 100 per cent closed book test. Students were forced to wait outside, and despite allegations some had used the opportunity to cheat, Riley refused to schedule a replacement.

The decision was very reasonable: to most students, sitting another exam over summer would’ve meant an unpleasant disruption at best and costly flights at worst. Riley’s communications were another matter. In a letter to Honi, she compared students to “anxious and competitive” primary school children. The Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph in London picked up the story, painting her as condescending and out of touch.

Of course, the dean was right. Law students are anxious and competitive, but it’s hard not to be invested in one’s marks when employers won’t hire below certain thresholds. Riley ought to understand. She was a prizewinning law student herself, in the 1990s, and vice president of SULS in 1994.

Despite the mild hypocrisy, it is hard to criticise the dean’s letter after speaking with her. To engage students with frankness and humour is vanishingly rare across the managerial ranks of Australian higher education. No dean has written to Honi since Riley.

What did she learn from the episode?

“When you’re dealing with situations and people you can’t make any assumptions at all that people will see the funny side like you do… The best thing to do, I’ve learned, is nothing. Do nothing.”

She is exaggerating, and is open about the disadvantages of staying silent, but her reaction helps explain why the University now largely communicates through anodyne releases from its PR team.

When Riley first came to the University, it was not as a law student. She studied English literature. She says she wasn’t a “connected” student, and hasn’t stayed in touch with friends from that period. It was only after a decade as a journalist that Riley came to law, hoping for a career that would be more flexible as she raised her daughters.

Had the dean not sent her letters to Honi or the SMH, she would not have had to grapple with a poor reputation in some quarters. Had she not returned to Sydney to study, she would likely have maintained the relative anonymity of a personal finance writer. It seems like Riley would like to go back to a lower profile. That would be a shame. She can be an angular communicator, but she has good principles, and if the University’s much-maligned “Unlearn” campaign taught us anything, it is that the institution desperately needs a better sense of the ridiculous.