Professor Michael McDaniel is a distinguished member of Australia’s academic community, known for advancing Indigenous participation in the tertiary sector.
He is passionate about education reform, and with a successful track record spanning over three decades, Professor McDaniel has received NAIDOC’s 2019 Scholar of the Year Award.
Professor McDaniel is part of the Kalari Clan in the Wiradjuri Nation, Central NSW and grew up in the town of Forbes. He recalls spending his childhood playing outdoors and surrounded by family.
However, the 57-year-old describes his early education as being shrouded in shame and competition. He learned early on the necessity of uplifting students in their studies and the consequences when they aren’t supported. His primary school, he says, was competitively structured in a way that failed its pupils, and at age 14, he decided to leave school.
After a spout of odd jobs, Professor McDaniel enlisted in the army at 16, where he stayed until his early 20s. One day, he saw a local paper ad for an Indigenous bridging course and soon after, was enrolled in Western Sydney University.
During his time at uni, he couldn’t wait to attend classes and go on campus. He was offered a part-time position teaching Indigenous studies a mere two years into his degree. Impassioned by academia, he went on to graduate with the University Medal; a moment he describes as the “most positive and reinforcing experience [he’d] had in [his] life”.
Now, decades on, he sits as Pro Vice-Chancellor in Indigenous Leadership and Education at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) where he offers strategic advice to the university’s executive and works on Indigenous initiatives. Professor McDaniel has also served as Dean of Indigenous Studies at WSU and Director of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University.
After returning to UTS in 2010, Professor McDaniel proposed a specialised approach focused on Indigenous autonomy and governance. He applauds the university’s successes in entrenching Indigenous culture and identity into its organisation, especially seen in their latest strategy, where Indigenous education is heralded as a core characteristic at UTS.
In the last eight years at the university, Indigenous student enrollments have increased by over 500 per cent, Indigenous graduates have a 100 per cent employment rate within three months and both Indigenous professional staff and academic positions are projected to increase to nearly 70 members this year.
His studies have also connected him with his hereditary language, which he learnt in recent years. He now speaks Wiradjuri with his family, and to colleagues and in his formal openings at conferences whenever he can. On the importance of orality to preserving culture and history, he says that “our languages are our treasures passed down from mouth to ear for 2000 generations. Imagine if we had lost that.”
He is a prominent representative and inspirational figure across Australia. On top of being the Director of the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research and Chairman of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AITSIS), he is heavily involved in national arts and culture scenes. Professor McDaniel is Chairman of Bangarra Dance Company and Chair of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Indigenous Advisory Group. He also makes badhang wilay (possum cloaks) in order to continue the practice of his ancestors.
His last goal before retirement is to action his cutting edge proposal to build Australia’s first Indigenous Residential College at his university. If successful, it would be the largest Indigenous college in the world in both the architectural size and range of programs and support on offer.
“It’s a privilege to live at this time,” he says. “All of those privileges are built on the backs of all of the people who have gone before us to make that possible and it's nice to know that you and I are just a link in someone else’s future.”
Professor McDaniel’s work is seen across his vast successes across a range of universities and fields. His innovation and vision has paved the way for generations of Indigenous students and academics to come.
The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July).
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