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Chancellor’s Welcome to State of University

Welcome address by the Chancellor, Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA, ANU, 31 January 2018

It is my great pleasure, as Chancellor, to welcome you all to this 2018 Vice-Chancellor’s State of the University Address.

I begin by acknowledging the First Australian on whose traditional lands we meet, and paying my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present, and any other elders here present.

And in that spirit, I invite Matilda House, Wally Bell and Tina Brown to open our proceedings by delivering a joint Welcome to Country.

The Vice-Chancellor’s State of the University Address, a new tradition inaugurated by Brian Schmidt last year, is an occasion for both looking back at the year past and forward to that ahead, reminding ourselves of what a great university we are, identifying the major challenges we face if we are to stay that way, and inspiring us to meet them.

Looking back on 2017, while we shouldn’t overdo the self-congratulation, I think we are entitled to be at least a little bit pleased with ourselves. Let me count the ways:

First, we have had a second year of outstanding leadership from Brian as our new Vice-Chancellor. ANU has been blessed in past to have VCs who were charismatic, and VCs committed to good governance, and VCs who have been willing to get down in the weeds to get things done. We now have one who unequivocally all three of these things. We couldn’t be in better shape with our leadership, as I don’t think you’ll need to be reminded again after Brian addresses us this morning.

Second, we have had in 2017 a year of refinement and development of all the strategies needed to implement the Strategic Plan, launched here a year ago as the joint product of the University Council, which I chair, and the Vice-Chancellor and his excellent senior executive team. So we now have in place not only the parent document spelling out its five big themes of:

  • Building on a culture of academic excellence
  • Delivering on our unique national responsibilities
  • Achieving equity – Within ANU and in society
  • Building a culture of collegiality and engagement – across and beyond ANU, and
  • Creating an unrivalled campus environment

We also now have in place, after an exhaustive process of consultation, six detailed thematic supporting plans and a series of even more granular ground-level plans underneath them. It all adds up to a formidably challenging blueprint. It’s a blueprint that won’t be pain-free in its delivery, but one on which, if we are to retain ANU’s place in the firmament, we can and must and I believe, under the present university leadership, will deliver.

Third, in terms of giving some substance to the commitments in Strategic Plan to consolidate a culture of excellence at ANU in research, teaching, and meeting our national responsibilities, 2017 has already seen a lot of very good things happening, about which Brian will no doubt want to say some more:

  • including the launch of the University’s new Distinguished Educators and Grand Challenges schemes, the creation of the Industry Advisory Board, the consolidation of the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum as the premier national event of its kind, and laying the groundwork for the new Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub

Fourth, thanks to some outstanding management by the executive finance team, ANU is financially in as good as shape as we have ever been – although, I hasten to add, without being in such extravagantly good shape as to tempt the government to cut back on our National Institutes grant pipeline, or to tempt us to reduce our efforts to get the best possible bang for the buck that we do spend, not least on our own administration! That solid financial position is going to enable us to continue, as we must, the major refurbishment and new building program, including in particular new student residential accommodation, that 2017 saw getting well under-way.

Fifth, in terms of creating a more comprehensively enjoyable campus experience:

  • 2017 saw the commencement of the massive Union Court redevelopment project which really will transform and bring alive on a scale we’ve never seen before the physical heart of the university
  • We established a new top-level Campus Planning Committee – something, extraordinarily, we haven’t had before – to oversee the complete re-articulation of the Master Plan to get right once and for all the relationship between our built environment and unique natural environment, and ensure I hope along the way that over the years ahead we no longer succumb to the ad hocery – lime-green mouse-houses here, some polychromatic bit of starchitecture there – which has characterized so much of our past campus development.
  • We have recognised that a comprehensively enjoyable campus environment is one where no-one feels physically unsafe, or emotionally humiliated, by responding strongly and I hope effectively to the Australian Human Rights Commission Report on sexual assault and harassment in Australian universities.

And sixth and finally, in this look back at the last year from the University Council’s perspective, all of these developments have worked together to enhance ANU’s reputation as a world class university at close to the top of its game:

  • Our comparative standing had its finest expression in the QS World University Rankings placing ANU at number 1 in Australia again, and 20th in the world.
  • At the same time the Global Employability University Ranking again placed ANU graduates as Australia's most employable graduates and amongst the most sought after by employers worldwide, ranking us 21 in the world in this respect.
  • And at an individual level we had Professor Graham Farquhar AO from the ANU Research School of Biology winning the 2017 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences – the most prestigious international award for fields not traditionally honoured with a Nobel Prize – for his life's work in plant biophysics and photosynthesis.

While we had a little bit of our complacency challenged by a significant drop this year in one particular ranking – the AWRU – which was partly a function of methodology changes but also the retirement of some of our earlier generation most-highly cited researchers, this showed us again the wisdom the Vice-Chancellor’s determination to do whatever it takes to really bring again the world’s best and brightest younger-generation researchers to the ANU.

While we can afford, with all this under our belt, to be reasonably pleased with ourselves, I think we all know that we cannot for a second afford to be complacent. The higher education scene both nationally and internationally is becoming ever more relentlessly competitive, and with major Asian universities now attacking the charts in the way they are, it is going to become ever harder to hold our global rankings at their present level, let alone improve upon them. And we are absolutely not immune from all the multiple challenges that are confronting the Australian university system as a whole:

  • maintaining financial sustainability in a one-size-fits-all system, including over-reliance on one particular cohort of international students
  • meeting the needs of financially and socially disadvantaged students who are hardly any higher a proportion of student numbers than they were decades ago
  • maintaining the perceived relevance of a university education, if we can’t adapt our teaching methods to new demands and expectations
  • and – although this not as big a problem as it is becoming in the US and elsewhere - maintaining totally intact, with no qualifications whatever, the traditional idea of the university not just as another contributor to the national economy, but as the home of free speech, of the clash of ideas, of unconstrained argument and debate.

While we at ANU have certainly been close to the top of our game in the past year, I don’t think we can claim to have been right at the top of it. And nor can we so claim:

  • until we have achieved a more uniform level of research excellence across our entire academic staff
  • until we have significantly improved the number of courses achieving a high student satisfaction rate with their teaching
  • until we have dramatically improved staff confidence in the quality of our professional service delivery
  • until we have delivered on our aspiration to increase the proportion of undergraduate students from low SES, Indigenous and regional backgrounds to at least the national population share; and
  • until we have got our act together on philanthropic outreach, and achieving more revenue from non-government and non-fee sources – still very much work in progress.

One of the things that I as Chancellor, and the University’s governing body, have enjoyed most about working with Brian Schmidt as Vice-Chancellor is that he doesn’t gloss over or fudge any of these concerns. Brian’s report to me and the Council on his performance against the Key Performance Indicators we set for him in 2017, which we will be considering at our big annual strategy meeting in Melbourne this week, is a model of its kind in this respect: clearly documenting the successes and partial successes, but equally clearly and frankly acknowledging the failures and shortfalls, and identifying where and how he – and we all – need to do better.

In introducing him to address us today, I am happy to keep saying what you’ve heard me say already many times, including at this event last year, about our new Vice–Chancellor. When we on the Council appointed him, we saw Brian as being a brilliant, inspirational communicator, whose vision, vitality, and visible global stature as a Nobel Laureate we hoped and expected would take ANU to places it has never been before. We haven’t been disappointed. We have now in Brian someone who is not only liked and respected all over the campus for his willingness to engage in a truly genuine and collegial manner, but – just as critically – liked and respected by all the external stakeholders who matter, from government and parliament to industry to the global and national academic community to the philanthropic community. He has already given a dynamic new dimension to ANU’s profile locally, nationally and internationally.

In the hope and expectation that he will continue that record today as he delivers the 2018 ANU State of the University Address, I invite to the lectern Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.