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State of the University 2019

Welcome address at the 2019 State of the University, ANU, Canberra, 12 February 2019

It is my great pleasure, as Chancellor of this great Australian National University of ours, to welcome you all to this 2019 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 Dr Matilda House - on whom we were proud and delighted in 2017 to confer the degree of Doctor of the University, honoris causa, in recognition of her marvellous ongoing contribution to the Indigenous life of this campus community, and in particular her support of Indigenous students – to open our proceedings by delivering a Welcome to Country.

The Vice-Chancellor’s State of the University Address, a new tradition inaugurated by Brian Schmidt two years ago, 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 2018 from the perspective of the University Council which I chair, while we shouldn’t overdo the self-congratulation, I think there are a number of achievements of which we can be proud, all of them consistent with the five-year Strategic Plan – the product of intensive campus-wide consultation – we announced two years ago, and which is now fully operational at the nuts-and-bolts level, under the full-time oversight of our new Provost Mike Calford.

First, in terms of academic excellence – consolidating and building further on our long and proud culture of teaching and research quality:

  • We have made the big decision – crucial for all our forward planning, and in consolidating our identity – to not grow beyond the size we now are, around 20,000 students, keeping us comparable to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and most of the other great world universities.
  • We have maintained our top tier reputation and ranking, nationally and globally with the QS survey in particular again placing us number 1 in Australia and within the top 25 in world.
  • We have unveiled our path-breaking new student admissions model, unprecedented elsewhere, designed to ensure that as Australia's national university, we admit the best and brightest students from all around the country – offering an integrated package of admission, guaranteed accommodation and appropriate scholarship support; taking into account not just ATAR scores but recognising achievements like volunteering and student leadership.
  • We have set in train the huge new CECS Re-imagining project, which is going to bring ANU back to the front of the pack in engineering and computer science education and research.
  • And we are renewing and expanding our stock of human research capital in multiple other ways, as the Vice-Chancellor will outline in more detail in his address, particularly focusing – as is appropriate for the national university – on the big new challenges facing our nation, and our age.

Second, in terms of delivering further on our unique national responsibilities:

  • We have been not just contributing to but leading the national policy debate in a number of key issue areas, not least those related to the geopolitics and economics of the Asia Pacific region.
  • We hosted the fifth annual ANU Crawford Leadership Forum, bringing together, as it does each year, by invitation fifty leaders from each of the public sector, business community and academic and think tank world, together with a dozen high-profile international guests, to debate the great political, economic and social policy issues of the day, and consolidating the Forum’s reputation as ‘Australia’s Davos’.
  • In hosting the First Nations Governance Forum, we brought together Australia's First Peoples and international guests to progress another major national conversation, on securing appropriate recognition at long last for Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.
  • In an innovation which deserves to be better recognized than it has been, and to be emulated nation-wide and perhaps ultimately world-wide, we had – at the initiative of our law students themselves – graduating Law students in December pledge themselves to a newly drafted legal equivalent of medicine’s Hippocratic Oath, promising in uncompromising terms to observe the highest standards of honesty, justice and respect for human rights in their professional conduct as lawyers. (Maybe we should now think of doing the same for aspiring bankers and financiers…)

Third, in terms of our strategic commitment to create an unrivalled campus environment:

  • We have just opened Kambri - the biggest development in the seven decades since our founding – which will transform and bring vitally alive on a scale we’ve never seen before the physical heart of the university.
  • We have taken some giant steps forward in our commitment to providing a campus residential experience for our students on a scale way beyond that on offer from any of Australia’s other major universities, with the opening last week of the magnificent new Bruce and Wright Halls, the opening this week of the new Fenner Hall at Kambri, and the finalization late last year of planning for a major new residential complex on the Sullivan’s Creek-‘Beyond Burgmann’ site.
  • The new Campus Master Plan, on which we have been working all last year, is just about complete and will be unveiled in the next few months. This will guide us over the next two decades or so in transforming the whole physical fabric of ANU - concentrating new development around five clearly defined hubs (of which Kambri will be just one), creating distinctive new gateways to the university (fousing particularly on University Avenue), bringing greater harmony and elegance to our future architecture, transforming the circulation system by pushing out cars to the perimeter and giving primacy in the centre to pedestrians and bikes, and making far more than we ever have before of ANU’s greatest physical asset, our fabulous natural bush setting.
  • Recognising as we do that that a comprehensively enjoyable campus environment is not just a physically attractive one, but one where no-one feels physically unsafe, or emotionally humiliated, the University Council and administration has continued to focus strongly on student and staff well-being, as the Vice-Chancellor will indicate in his address, including through the establishment of the Respectful Relationships Unit.

Fourth, in terms of the quality of university administration:

  • We recognize that while the immense task of service improvement, including making the most effective use of new technology, is still work in progress, as are our internal budgetary processes, it is appropriate to acknowledge that, thanks to some outstanding management by the executive finance team under the leadership of Chief Operating Office Chris Grange, ANU overall is financially in as good as shape as we have ever been – although, I hasten to add as I did on this occasion last year, 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 is now well under way across the campus.
  • It is also appropriate to acknowledge that in the last year we have really started, at long last, to get our act together on advancement, with the appointment of a new and enormously experienced head of our alumni relations and philanthropy operation in Barbara Miles, the reshaping of the ANU Foundation structure, and planning well under way for a major future fundraising campaign. It might be optimistic to hope that there are more potential donors in the wings as far-sighted and fantastically generous as Graham and Louise Tuckwell have been, but we live in hope!

Finally, I want to emphasize the way in which ANU has, over the last year, stood firm on our core values:

  • Above all, as acute as our financial needs continue to be, not least in funding congenitally underfunded areas like teaching and research in the humanities, and as much as we would love to have been able to take advantage of the $60 million potentially on offer in that area from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, when we appreciated last year just how incompatible were the terms of the proposed donation with the fundamental principles of academic autonomy by which this university has always lived, then – painful though the financial consequences have been, and notwithstanding the intense public criticism from some quarters that we had to weather – we took the principled decision, of which I believe we should all remain proud, to break off further negotiations.
  • I am also proud of the leadership role that ANU has played, in the wake not only of the Ramsay controversy, but in the light of a growing wider concern – often exaggerated but not entirely unreal – about possible threats to the traditional idea of universities not just as contributors to the national economy, but as genuinely autonomous homes for free speech, for the clash of ideas, for unconstrained argument and debate. In hosting as we did in December the national Summit on Academic Freedom and Autonomy, I believe we made a major contribution to clarifying the content of the three related but distinct values of academic autonomy, academic freedom and campus free speech, and to commencing a national debate on how best to ensure their protection.

I think it is fair to claim, on all the grounds I have described, that we at ANU have certainly been close to the top of our game in the past year. But, repeating what I said on this occasion last 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;
  • until we have fully realised the potential of our now year-old Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub to stimulate, incubate, help develop and promote new public policy ideas and initiatives; and
  • until we have taken a big step further still in our philanthropic outreach, achieving significantly more revenue from non-government and non-fee sources.

The good news is that I think the whole university – and certainly the University Council I chair – strongly believes that under the very dynamic and engaged leadership of our Vice-Chancellor, Brian Schmidt, now entering its fourth year, we are very well placed to meet all these challenges, and the wider challenges facing the whole university sector. Our Nobel Prize-winner’s combination of IQ and EQ, combined with his willingness from day one to get down from the grand stage, roll up his sleeves, and engage in a truly genuine and collegial manner – has been extraordinarily well received right across the ANU community. It has already given a dynamic new dimension to our profile locally, nationally and internationally, and I am sure will continue to do so.

I invite Brian now to the lectern to deliver the 2019 Vice-Chancellor’s State of the University address.