Senior Philanthropy Adviser in the University Advancement team and a career spanning more than 50 years at Swinburne

In the late summer of 1965 Bruce McDonald was 21 years old, a newly minted teacher embarking on his first proper job at Swinburne Technical College and just a little nervous. Assigned to teach accounting, law and economics, the normally ebullient Bruce was uncomfortably aware that he was fronting a classroom of students almost his own age — in many cases, older.

Would they show him up? Think he was no good? He sought the advice of his departmental head, Lewis Jenkins. Half a century later, Bruce remembers what the man who would become his mentor said: ‘Don’t worry about it, Bruce. They might be older than you but you know a lot more than them.’

Associate Professor Bruce McDonald

They were words Bruce needed to hear. He’d been thinking academic life might be little more than a pit-stop on the track to his planned career in accounting. He had clinched this appointment at Swinburne after acquiring a degree in commerce at the University of Melbourne because, as was the case for many of his peers, his university funding was contingent on taking a teaching post on completion.

"They might be older than you but you know a lot more than them."

Training placements at secondary schools and at Swinburne the previous year had left him in no doubt that he preferred teaching ‘people who wanted to be there’ to reluctant schoolchildren. But having successfully scored the Swinburne job, he was uncertain about how he’d be received. ‘In that first year there were a lot of part-timers, mature-age students,’ he says. ‘Some of them worked for the tax office. I did wonder how I was going to go with them. Lew told me I’d be fine.’

Mr Jenkins was more right than he could have known. More than 50 years later, Bruce counts some of those early students — and many more who came later — as lifelong friends; they include Swinburne’s former Chancellor, Graham Goldsmith. As for knowledge? Few people of any age, anywhere, know more about Swinburne than Bruce McDonald.

From teaching to philanthropy

He has given his working life to Swinburne — first as an accounting lecturer rising through the ranks to head his department, later as the administrator charged with bringing its first eastern campus into being as a university site. From 1992, he was responsible for the university’s alumni engagement and fundraising; in 2016 he was one of just five Swinburne staff in that year to receive a Vice-Chancellor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

In practice Bruce is a repository of information about Swinburne’s history and evolution and is both architect and builder of one of the university’s great strengths — its international alumni network of former students and staff. Overseeing Swinburne’s philanthropy program has never been, he says, about asking for handouts.

‘It didn’t come to me easily, asking for money — I found it hard at first — but the thing I’ve understood from early on is that it goes two ways. You need to think about the opportunities for both sides.’

Building relationships with industry

Bruce’s ability to identify opportunities on both sides of any relationship or transaction has been a hallmark of his career. As a lecturer in accounting, and later as head of Swinburne’s accounting department, he sought ways for students to connect with and understand the practicalities of the world they aimed to work in.

In the 1970s, developing those links to professional accounting and corporate circles took him to sabbatical positions with Arthur Andersen and resources giant CRA. Both organisations offered him permanent positions; both times, Bruce chose to return to Swinburne. 

"Because I went into teaching straight from the University of Melbourne, it was important to me to get that practical background."

‘Because I went into teaching straight from the University of Melbourne, it was important to me to get that practical background,’ he says. The time outside teaching was illuminating and the job offers tempting but — to quote a Lewis Jenkins saying that remains one of Bruce’s favourites — ‘leopards don’t change their spots’. Bruce’s heart was still with Swinburne and his students, who would continue to benefit from his on-the-ground contacts.

He kept his industry insight current through a series of senior committee positions: on the council of the Australian Society of Accountants (now CPA Australia); as president of the Accounting & Finance Association of Australia & New Zealand; and as a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants’ education committee.

The battle for university status

Bruce’s knack for networking and building bridges beyond Swinburne’s boundaries did not go unnoticed. In the late 1980s, Iain Wallace — then the director of Swinburne Institute of Technology, later to become Foundation Vice-Chancellor — came to him with a proposition.

Swinburne was pursuing university status and had acquired the site of a former school in Mooroolbark, in Melbourne’s outer east. The plan was to turn it into an additional university campus. The problem was that the site had planning approval to operate as a school but not as a tertiary institution. Could Bruce help make it happen?

Bruce regarded Professor Wallace as a visionary and willingly took up the challenge. What followed was a long and often gruelling period of negotiation and battle with planning authorities, all the while courting politicians of every persuasion. As ever, Bruce was able to draw on his impressive array of contacts: he recalls being on site when the then state education minister, Neil Pope (‘he was in an early class of mine before he went to RMIT’), pulled up in a car being driven by a young bloke by the name of Bill Shorten.

"The quality of students coming out of Swinburne was equal to or better than students coming out of any university."

The Eastern campus officially opened in April 1992, with Bruce as its head. In July of that year Swinburne became a university. For Bruce, it was not just a day of celebration but of vindication.

‘It was recognition of something that industry already knew — (accounting) students who finished our diplomas were getting immediate membership of professional bodies — the calibre and quality of students coming out of Swinburne was equal to or better than students coming out of any university,’ he says. Within a matter of months, Bruce was charged with a fresh mission: the running of the university’s newly created Department of Alumni and Development.

Raising funds and maintaining connections

Twenty-five years down the track, the alumni database he initiated contains 170,000 names in more than 140 countries. Raising funds, as well as sustaining relationships and making connections, is a key part of the job. Bruce was responsible for the university’s first Annual Appeal in 1999–2000 and the 2008 Centenary Appeal; his ability to show individual and corporate benefactors how helping Swinburne might also help them has secured many bequest pledges and donations to the tune of six figures. 

"I have no plans to retire. While I’m still upright, I’ll be here."

Students and staff alike have benefited from new scholarships and research grants, or through alumni connections: for example, Malaysian company Emery Oleochemicals, led by a former student with whom Bruce has kept in touch, has made a significant contribution to allow Swinburne to research biodegradable, renewable safflower oil that has the potential to replace fossil fuel oils in lubricants and plastics.

His role has taken Bruce far and wide: to Swinburne’s Sarawak campus in Kuching, Malaysia; to cities throughout Asia; and as far away as London. Wherever he goes, his gift for recalling the details of people’s lives and interests means he is always ready to extend a hand, greet alumni by name and inquire about their work or families, even though it may be years since they’ve met.

What now? After clocking up 50-plus years in Swinburne’s service, when does he plan to retire? Bruce laughs. ‘I have no plans to retire,’ he says. ‘While I’m still upright, I’ll be here.’

Words by Cathy Gowdie.

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