Griffith Archive Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, Bullying disclaimer

The material in this exhibition is general historical information only. This exhibition and personal story contain references to historical sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and bullying. The described cultural attitudes and behaviours do not reflect the current policies and values of Griffith University. Griffith University is committed to providing a workplace free of discrimination, harassment and bullying. More information can be found at Griffith Workplace Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying.

The experiences detailed in this exhibition and personal story are the subject’s own view and are not intended to malign any individual, group or organisation. 

Ortrun Zuber-Skerrit in 1989.



"Griffith University from its earliest days embodied an enlightened, non-traditional vision. This made the university workplace a source of constant challenge, learning, and cooperation as staff pulled together to bring this new university to life" (Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, opening her story of her life at Griffith University).

Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt (then Ortrun Zuber) joined Griffith University in late 1974 as the first female academic. Ortrun was appointed at the lecturer level in the Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT). The Centre and its academic staff worked with academic teams in the new university’s four Schools to design courses. CALT also helped academics evaluate their own standard of teaching and the quality of the course/s they delivered. Ortrun originally worked with staff in our then School of Humanities, before undertaking most of her CALT work with the School of Modern Asian Studies (now a part of the Griffith Business School). This was the beginning of Ortrun's 20-year association with Griffith, as one of its true pioneers.

In this archive exhibition, I provide historical details and other illustrative data from the Griffith Archive with links to Ortrun's CV and her List of selected publications. Also included in the exhibition is Ortrun's own story based on her personal experiences and challenges over 20 years at Griffith and written in her own voice. Within her story I also provide links to visual materials and some of her video productions included in the Appendix to her story.These learning/teaching materials are available free of charge.

My account has also been informed by chapters in two books written by Ortrun’s international and Australian colleagues: (1) Action Learning and Action Research: Songlines through Interviews edited by Ortrun (2009) and (2) a Festschrift edited by Judith Kearney and Maureen Todhunter (2015) entitled Lifelong Action Learning and Action Research: A Tribute to the Life and Pioneering Work of Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt. Both books testify to Ortrun’s international reputation in Higher Education (HE), Management Education, and Organisation and Community Development, especially through an action-oriented approach to collaborative action learning, participatory action research, and democratic, shared action leadership.

In this archive story I first briefly mention Ortrun’s move from Germany to Australia (Brisbane) in 1971 and from the University of Queensland (UQ) to Griffith University in 1974. I follow with discussion first of her development of Action Learning and Action Research at Griffith and elsewhere, and then of the challenges she faced through gender discrimination. I conclude with discussion of Ortrun’s legacy at and for Griffith University.

Lifelong Action Learning and Research - A Tribute to the Life and Pioneering Work of Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt with cover image painted by Dr Wolfram Achenbach - Ortrun’s brother.


Action Learning and Action Research - Songlines through Interviews. Cover image shows Ortrun's favourite beach on Bribie Island (north of Brisbane).


Moving to Australia and Griffith University

“It is difficult today to imagine what it meant, in 1971, for a single working mother to emigrate from Germany to the other side of the world. The courage to leave the security of a tenured teaching job in Germany and the support structure associated with a large and loving (though not always harmonious) family cannot be overstated” (Carsten Zuber in Festschrift 2015, p. vii).

Ortrun had been teaching for around ten years in Germany when a colleague encouraged her to visit Australia – specifically the Gold Coast in Queensland. During this visit, Ortrun fell in love with the warm climate and the freer lifestyle. She decided she wanted to move with her son Carsten (then aged almost 5 1/2 years old) to Australia and so she did. After five months of teaching at Brisbane State High School, Ortrun became frustrated with the 'lower academic standards' expected of high school students in Australia as compared with Germany. Therefore, Ortrun moved to the University of Queensland (UQ) to take up a tutoring position in the German Department. While working at this university, she completed her first of four doctoral theses and launched her academic career.

While working at University of Queensland, Ortrun became aware that Griffith University (GU) planned to open in Brisbane in 1975. GU intended to offer students a different educational experience where ideas such as interdisciplinary study and teaching, along with undertaking research that could help solve 'real problems' faced by society, would be embedded in every course Griffith University offered. Ortrun's postgraduate education and teacher training/practice back in Germany had familiarised her with critical education theory and an interdisciplinary approach.

Carsten Zuber aged 8 when Ortrun began her career at Griffith University in 1974.


Ortrun’s Development of Action Learning/Action Research at Griffith University

With a first-year foundation program developed for each of the four foundation schools guided by the concept of interdisciplinary studies, Griffith University was fertile ground for Ortrun given her personal exposure to multidisciplinary teaching and learning. She began to explore the idea of non-traditional teaching/learning models. She was interested in the work of academics in other universities, including Australian National University in Canberra and Deakin University in Victoria. Ortrun was also interested in the less conventional ways to teach and learn being developed by members of HERDSA (Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia). In particular, the work at Deakin University had applied Action Research (AR) to primary and secondary education, and Ortrun was interested in exploring if and how this approach could be applied to university teaching. The Deakin academics believed it would be possible and Ortrun decided to undertake a PhD thesis (her second) in the field of Action Research in HE. Her doctoral and subsequent research would see her develop this idea into a new approach to learning, teaching, research and professional development.

Much of Ortrun's early work at Griffith, through CALT, was with the School of Modern Asian Studies (MAS). For Ortrun, her work with this School was rewarding on both a professional and personal level. Her appointment to work with MAS staff and the subsequent support she received from academics in that School both enabled and encouraged her to trial, adapt and develop her alternative approaches. Ortrun remembers:

"Eventually, with help I received from these colleagues, some of my initial critics had evolved into critical friends and began to support my endeavours. This was a real surprise and, ironically, a valuable lesson for me in how action research could work for professional development within a university community" (Zuber-Skerritt, 2009, p. 47).

Despite the support Ortrun received from MAS staff, there were those within GU who felt challenged by Ortrun's non-traditional approach. Some Griffith academics at the time did not want to change from traditional teaching approaches. Unfortunately, this negativity towards Ortrun's ideas even resulted in personal attacks against her. However, Ortrun persevered and found as time went on that she was able to convince more and more people of the merits of Action Learning (AL) and Action Research (AR) philosophies and methodologies. She was even able to win over some of her most ardent critics. Eventually, her alternative and progressive ideas on higher education would gain her international attention, support and standing.

Ortrun’s success in having AL/AR globally accepted did not blind her to the fact that her philosophy was not the only educational approach that should be used in university learning and teaching practices. Ortrun's belief in her methods did not mean she was dismissive of traditional teaching, learning and research practices. Rather, she believed her ideas could and should be used when trying to understand and solve complicated issues that had many layers, including consideration of human behaviour. An important personal component of having her ideas widely accepted was to acknowledge that other teaching/learning practices also have merit when used in the right situations.

"I also think that you can't use action research and apply it in all situations and circumstances. It is most appropriate to use when there are people involved, groups of people or whole organizations, and when the research problem and the particular situation are very complex" (Zuber-Skerritt 2009, p. 47).

Program for 'The First World Congress on Action Research & Process Management - Organised by Ortrun and held at Griffith in 1990.


Gender Bias and Challenges Faced

Despite the eventual international acceptance of her approach, Ortrun had faced other barriers and challenges that were in no way related to her non-traditional ideas on university education. As her son observed:

"Mum has always worked hard. Really hard. In those early days in Australia this was a differentiator that helped her to advance her career – even in the face of discriminatory conduct that today would be regarded as unacceptable" (Carsten Zuber in Festschrift 2015, p. viii).

The difficulty of starting a new life in a new country as a young single mother would be challenging for anyone. Ortrun also began working in Australia at a time when gender discrimination (against women in particular) was common in the workplace. And while 'Equal Opportunity' was put on the public agenda (even at United Nations level) in the 1970s, exposure to unfair work conditions and practices for women would not improve much in Australia until the mid-1980s. Even today gender discrimination is an unfortunate aspect of workplace relations. Ortrun would experience discrimination in various forms throughout her academic career with Australian universities. She remembers the early 1970s:

"My German accent was often mocked and imitated. this was not so much a problem in the German Department, but I was told I would never become a lecturer in that department because the Professor and long-standing Head of Department never employed or promoted females at a level higher than tutor. Even after I completed my PhD, I had no chance for promotion and had to apply for a lectureship in another university [Griffith University]" (Zuber-Skerritt 2009, p. 57).

Ortrun began her first stint with Griffith, hoping to leave behind the discrimination and barriers she had faced in her previous workplace. After all, from its earliest days as ‘the new university’ Griffith University espoused its disposition to be 'progressive' and 'inclusive'. But after teaching began in 1975, some elements within the organisation harboured viewpoints that were anything but progressive and inclusive, as Ortrun’s son tells of his mother’s professional experience:

"Even with a solid teaching, research and publication record and a recently completed PhD under her belt, she was denied a promotion that merit-based criteria dictated was not simply deserved but well overdue. Moreover, it was made clear to her that she would not be considered for promotion in the future. Mum’s response – after picking herself up from the canvas – was to complete a second PhD and to continue publishing extensively, until it became impossible ro deny her the promotion. I cite this as one of the many examples of her indefatigable and optimistic spirit" (Carsten Zuber in Festschrift 2015, p. viii).

Nonetheless, Ortrun never allowed this to stand in her way as she became an extremely successful and internationally recognised academic. She was appointed as a professor at Southern Cross University (SCU) and other universities around the world. Ortrun was also the owner of her own consultancy business for about 20 years after her retirement from Griffith University.

Ortrun's Griffith Legacy

After years of determined, highly productive academic work at UQ, Griffith University and SCU, Ortrun ‘ended’ her full-time university career with retirement from our organisation in 1997. This ‘retirement’ from mainstream university life (Ortrun remained an Adjunct Professor with SCU until 2002 and remains to this day an Adjunct Professor with Griffith) saw her embark upon what she considered to be the most enjoyable and rewarding years of her academic life. She began her own consultancy business (called OZI – Ortrun Zuber International) conducting many academic staff development programs and leadership development programs around the world, while still staying involved in some university teaching internationally.

One of Ortrun’s significant achievements in her ‘new career’ was to initiate, design and lead a program entitled Leadership Development of Academic Women through AL and AR. This program was commissioned by the Technikon Northern Gauteng – later called Tshwane University of Technology (TUT in Pretoria, South Africa) – where Ortrun was a Professor Extraordinaire. Ortrun and her colleague at TUT, Dr Ansu Erasmus, successfully applied for a large grant from the Australian Government’s overseas aid agency (AusAID) funded from January 2000 to March 2002. The aim was to develop the leadership ability of academic women in historically disadvantaged HE institutions in their roles as academic staff developers for which they had not been trained. The program involved 22 academic women employed in CALT-like centres in six historically disadvantaged ‘techikons’ (later called universities of technology) in Northern Gauteng (Pretoria). Ortrun had invited 12 senior female academics from four Australian universities (GU, UQ, SCU and QUT) to work as mentors for the South African participants. The program comprised three major one-week residential workshops with facilitators/mentors, and monthly action learning sessions in between, managed collectively by the project teams themselves in Pretoria.

The first one-week event was the Start-up Workshop in Mabalingwe, a Safari Resort near Pretoria, to lay the groundwork for the program. The second was held in Australia (in Coolangatta on the Gold Coast) and included presentations by and discussions with the Australian mentors, followed by participants’ activities in Brisbane over several days. One of these activities was called “A day in the life of a leader”, where the South African women spent one full working day in a university shadowing their senior leader mentor, and one night in their mentor’s family home, to experience first-hand the complex workload with its multiple tasks, discussions, meetings, pressures, unexpected disruptions, joy, satisfaction, disappointment, ways of maximising efficiency, and so forth. The South African participants then also attended a session at Griffith to share and work through their ‘first-hand’ experiences. This session was followed by a ‘poster session’ on their team projects at Griffith and then at the ALARA Conference in Victoria where they presented, discussed with and received feedback from Australian academics and international delegates. The third one-week workshop was held in South Africa again, in a Safari Resort with all Australian mentors present to help finalise each project with two major outcomes: (1) a public presentation on their team project and learning outcomes to their universities’ senior management, colleagues and friends, followed by a celebration dinner with native songs and dance; and (2) written publications in (a) the ALAR Journal 6(2), 2001, and (b) a book edited by Sandra Speedy (2003) Women Using Action Learning and Action Research: The South African Context, published by SCU Press. Both publications testify to the great success of this ambitious project. Since 2002, most of the participants have been awarded higher degrees at the Master and PhD levels and leadership positions in their own or other universities. Some also continued to work with Ortrun and invited her to conduct further workshops and programs with them.

Start-up Workshop in Mabalingwe, South Africa, May 2000.


Midway-workshop in Coolangatta, Australia, September 2000.


To Griffith University, Ortrun is a determined and courageous pioneer. Her trailblazing approach to higher education (through Action Learning/Action Research) remains an internationally recognisable example of the University founders' vision to offer students an alternative, interdisciplinary educational experience. Ortrun's idea of providing a learning opportunity that is interdisciplinary among other things resonates for Griffith University today as much as it did back in the 1970s. Our new Vice Chancellor (Professor Carolyn Evans) is seeking to reignite the University’s original multidisciplinary approach by providing extensive opportunities for students to learn outside their core discipline/study area. Interdisciplinarity will also be the foundation of Griffith University research pursuits, with 'Griffith Beacons' set to also reinvigorate our cornerstone multidisciplinary philosophy. Professor Evans is additionally looking to reinvent an ideal of Griffith University’s founding Vice Chancellor, Professor John Willett, that Griffith be a university ‘focused on tackling the problems faced by society’. So those ‘radical’ ideas that he, Ortrun and other pioneers at our organisation had many years ago for an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, learning and research through problem solving, to serve and benefit society, has truly stood the test of time.

Ortrun's successful career also serves as an outstanding example to the wider Griffith community, in particular to aspiring female academics and students. She is a remarkable example of the rewards that await those who apply courage, hard work, persistence and dedication. Ortrun’s own story of her Griffith experience reveals that she found it positive for her in many ways, while reminding us of the need for vigilance in providing a university that truly makes all feel welcome and safe, at all times. Ortrun has overcome bigotry, bullying, sexism and even sexual harassment to forge an academic career of international standing. In doing so she has changed lives. As her colleague assessed, “How can I but conclude that through her lifelong action learning and research Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt has made truly valuable contributions to knowledge and practice in higher education, organisations, communities of practice and understandings of our shared future” (Todhunter in Festschrift 2015, p. 187).

Griffith University thanks and salutes Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt. She is in every way a Griffith Great.

Ortrun receiving her AO award from His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC, Governor of Queensland in 2018. Photo courtesy of Stu Riley Photography.


Curated by Michael Banks - Griffith University Archive Officer