Welcoming Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt
Introduction by the Chancellor, Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FIIA at ANU Staff Welcome, Llewellyn Hall, 4 February 2016
Ever since the appointment was announced of Professor Brian Schmidt as ANU’s 12th Vice-Chancellor, I’ve had a steady trickle of people – mainly, it has to be said, from outside the ANU, but not entirely – coming up to me in airport lounges and elsewhere and saying “Courageous decision, Chancellor”.
Of course it raised an eyebrow or two, and we knew it would, to appoint to run this billion-dollar enterprise of ours (and, although we’re not by a long way one of the country’s biggest universities, that is the order of magnitude of ANU’s annual budget) someone who manifestly has had minimal experience in high level academic administration. Someone who has manifestly not done his or her time working his way up through the ranks from Director to Dean to Chairman of the Academic Board to PVC or DVC or whatever, in that until now almost universally time-honoured path for putative VCs.
But we on the University Council don’t think we made a “courageous” decision at all. We took the perhaps rather idiosyncratic view that the person we needed as the leader of Australia’s national university – and we think, with good cause, our finest university – was not necessarily someone who fitted the conventional experience mould, but someone who ticked the boxes that really mattered for us.
We took the view that running a university, even one with all of ANU’s traditions and aspirations to greatness, was not rocket science – or even astrophysics! Nor did it require long apprenticeship in the dark and sorcerous arts of academic administration.
What it did require, we thought, was policy nous, vision, energy and communication and advocacy skills – a stellar IQ, a stellar EQ, an absolute willingness to get down into the weeds to get things done, and a real capacity to bring everyone that matters along for the ride: the whole university community of academic and professional staff, students and alumni; the government policymaking community; the Canberra community; and all the other stakeholders in the business, professional, philanthropic and international communities on whom our future depends.
I believe – and I hope and expect that you will believe, if you don’t already, when you get to know him – that in Brian Schmidt we have a Vice-Chancellor who ticks in abundance every one of those boxes.
First, when it comes to intellectual and academic standing, among his rather demanding – and rightly demanding – peers, who could possibly have more eminence, not just at a local and national but at a global level, than our Nobel Laureate in Physics?
ANU academics are a proud lot, and rightly so, but we don’t have anything to less than totally proud of with Brian as our academic leader. You know the basics of his CV: born in Montana, and raised in Alaska, but now very much an Australian citizen; Bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Arizona, then a Masters and PhD in Astronomy from Harvard; brought to Canberra, to our everlasting gratitude, by his wife Jenny Gordon (as you’ll know, an outstanding economist in her own right) where among many other things they together make one of Australia’s best Pinot Noirs; joining the Mount Stromlo Observatory in 1995; and from there leading the research team which established that the Universe’s expansion rate is now accelerating – a hugely significant breakthrough which won him a number of major international prizes, culminating in his sharing of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.
We’ve had some pretty outstanding intellectual achievers among our past ANU Vice-Chancellors, but academically it doesn’t get better than that.
Second, Brian has got it when it comes to understanding the highly competitive universe in which Australian universities are now operating, both nationally and internationally, and the very real challenges that ANU now faces in mixing and matching it in that environment. He has been an active participant in the national higher education and research policy debate for some time now. He knows his way around. And – I can say with complete confidence – he is highly respected at the most senior levels on both sides of national politics. Which – for ANU more than any other Australian university, as I hardly need to remind this audience – really matters.
Brian will spell out for you himself in a moment his own broad vision of the contemporary ANU, and his preliminary views on where we need to be going. But in all that I my colleagues on the ANU Council have seen so far – and in the work that we have been doing with him in shaping a new vision statement and strategic plan for the university, about which we’ll be consulting with you in the months ahead – we could not be more satisfied with his farsightedness and creativity.
ANU is going to need those qualities in spades if in the years ahead we are going to survive and thrive at the level we aspire to. I could not be prouder, as Chancellor, as I know you all are, of everything this University has already achieved – the record, the reputation, the rankings and the respect that we now have. But if any of us think we can afford now to just rest on our laurels, we haven’t been listening to, and haven’t been watching, what’s going on around us both domestically and internationally. Brian has been listening and watching, and I think you’ll find has a pretty clear-eyed idea of what we need to do.
Third, Brian very much has the personal skills – as those of you who already know him or have dealt with him will readily attest – to bring people along with him. His style is very much open, collaborative and consultative, not imperial. He understands the value of teamwork, and he will have a great team around him. He understands the importance of good university governance, and on all the evidence I’ve seen so far, will work harmoniously with and within those governance structures.
Caesars can do great things, and we’ve had at least a couple of those in ANU’s history, but over the long, hard haul I think we know the style of leadership that most of us would prefer.
All that said, I don’t think anyone should make the mistake of thinking that Brian will be a soft touch. He knows, as the Council knows, and I think you all know, that sustaining the highest standards of excellence – and we all know pretty instinctively what excellence is, and when it’s missing – is going to require from time to time some tough decisions to be made. But I don’t think there is anything about his style that you will find either arbitrary or unfeeling.
The remaining big box that Brian ticks – and I think that even those of you who don’t yet know him well will sense the reality of this – is that he has the personal charisma and dynamism to really deliver on our aspirations to greatness. The best leaders, of universities just as of countries, are those who not only win respect because of their capacity, but who can ignite sparks because of their enthusiasm.
As I said on the day we announced his appointment, and let me say it again in introducing him to you: Brian Schmidt is superbly placed to deliver on the ambition of ANU’s founders: to permanently secure our position among the great universities of the world, and as a crucial contributor to the nation. We had a stellar field of international and Australian candidates from which to choose, and we have chosen an inspirational leader. Brian's vision, vitality, global stature and communication skills are going to take this great National University of ours to places it has never been before.
Colleagues, please welcome our new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt.