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ANU Council Valedictory

Extracts from Remarks to Council End of Year Dinner, University House, ANU, 5 December 2019

I’m more than a little overwhelmed by all the words of praise I have received tonight and over the last couple of weeks. I think it’s more than I received over the total course of more than 20 years in politics – not to mention 50 years of marriage!

My heartfelt thanks, not only to Brian Schmidt as Vice-Chancellor and Naomi Flutter as Pro-Chancellor for your very touching and hugely appreciated obituaries, but to all my fellow members of this great University Council of ours. I am totally persuaded, not least from listening to the grumbles of my fellow Chancellors around the country, that in terms of commitment, collegiality, professionalism and representativeness this is by far the best university governing body in the country, and I could not have asked for a finer or more supportive group of colleagues.

This ten-year journey as Chancellor of not only Australia’s, but one of the world’s, finest university national university for the last decade, has meant a great deal to me.

It has meant, for a start, me travelling to Canberra and back some 220 times (thank God Angus Taylor hasn’t yet tipped off the Murdoch press about my carbon footprint), chairing over 60 Council and scores of other Committee meetings, delivering around the Campus over 80 major speeches and umpteen minor unprepared ones, and presiding over 80 graduation ceremonies where I shook over 28,000 hands – of which, mercifully, only around one in a hundred (but that’s still nearly 300 overall) were clammy.

When I am asked, not unreasonably, what I might have actually achieved with all that rushing about over all that time, the answer is – by myself not very much at all, but working with wonderful Council, staff and student colleagues here, perhaps five things of which I’m particularly proud.

One was to bed down a slightly more balanced relationship between the Chancellor and Council, and Vice-Chancellor and Executive. Chubby, VC when I arrived, was and remains on any view, including mine, a brilliantly successful leader of this university, but I hope he will forgive me for describing him as taking the view that governance was for wimps – that while Chancellors and Councils had their place, it just hadn’t been dug yet (and who in their right mind needed a separate Academic Board?). We do things a little bit differently now, and I hope Brian will agree that the sky hasn’t fallen in on him.

Second, I think that together we have been able to develop some real shape and coherence in our long-term planning – with the publication of successive Strategic Plans, with multiple sub-plans, which have really started to mean something in practice, not least in our crucial recent decision to set a 20,000 student cap on the size of the Campus; and now with the new Acton Campus Master Plan which we all hope, and I think believe, will prove transformative over the next few decades.

Third, I think we have given new content, and a more centrally visible role – through the initiation of the Crawford Leadership Forum and multiple other initiatives – to ANU’s traditionally very strong role as a contributor to national, and in some cases global, public policy debate.

Fourth, I am very proud of the way we worked together to articulate and defend our absolute commitment to the values of university autonomy, academic freedom and campus free speech – in our response to the Ramsay saga, despite the very big bucks which that stance led us to forego; in the work of the Academic Board in producing statements on Academic Freedom and now Freedom of Expression; and in Council’s embrace in principle of the French Model Code.

And fifth, I am really pleased with the way we have put serious resources and leadership effort into a philanthropy and alumni relations effort which was simply not an ANU priority a decade ago, but which we have come to appreciate is an absolute necessity if we to become and remain the kind of university we want to be, in particular one that is able to support, through access and equity scholarships, the very best and brightest and most socially committed students, including Indigenous students, from all around Australia being able to come to ANU whatever their family circumstances.

In a complex institution like this, with an army of extraordinarily intellectually able individuals all with views of their own, and often with interests and fiefdoms they feel the need to protect, getting stuff done is not always easy. And I have to acknowledge, aided by the multiple free character assessments which I’ve been offered throughout my public career – and reminded of ever-so-gently this evening – I have been known, on very rare occasions, to get just a teensy bit cantankerous when faced with manifestly wrong-headed opposition, or when things don’t get done in the way I think they should.

All I can plead in mitigation is what I said in my valedictory speech in Parliament 20 years ago, ‘I am obliged to concede that, on a scale ranging from Buddhist tranquility at one end to advanced mania at the other, I am slightly tilted towards the driven end of the spectrum. But I generally have taken the view that it has been better all these to years to allow my natural exuberance a certain free rein, because if you do not do that sort of thing, you come out in boils’.

While of course we face multiple challenges in the future of which we are all aware, some common to the sector as a whole and some very specific to us at ANU, I won’t leave this role agonizing about what we might have done better and what remains to be done.

I will leave it rather with an enormous sense of pride and pleasure that I have had the fantastic honour and privilege of being able to serve for the last decade as Chancellor of this great national university, which is already – let’s remind ourselves – so distinctively excellent in so many ways.

We’re different:

  • Because we are Australia’s only national university, located in national capital with national research and policy contribution responsibilities acknowledged from the outset;
  • Because ANU researchers and alumni have won more Nobel Prizes than those from any other Australian university;
  • Because we remain Australia’s acknowledged leader in public policy research and advocacy, with the Crawford Leadership Forum the acknowledged leading annual public policy conference;
  • Because, consistently with our national policy role and responsibilities, we have taken from the outset a leadership role in Indigenous research, education and policy advocacy;
  • Because we seek to recruit our students nationwide, through a new selection process that focuses on attracting not only the best and brightest but the most committed of the new generation;
  • Because our law students have led the nation, and so far as I know the world, in crafting a pledge of professional responsibility – the legal equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath – which is now recited by all graduating students;
  • Because we are the most residential major university campus in Australia, with all the distinctive sense of community that involves;
  • Because we have one of the most beautiful campus settings in this country, and now have a comprehensive new Master Plan which will, as it is progressively implemented, dramatically further enhance its quality;
  • Because we have decided to limit our overall student numbers to 20,000 and not sacrifice the sense of genuine community that scale involves by chasing ever larger numbers of fee-paying international students;
  • Because, reflecting our academic standing and reputation as one of Australia’s and the world’s great universities, we were able to attract a gift in support of new student scholarships and halls of residence building – from Graeme and Louise Tuckwell – which changed the face of academic philanthropy in this country;
  • Because we demonstrated during the Ramsay Centre debate, that whatever the financial costs incurred our commitment to the principles of academic autonomy and freedom was absolute;
  • Because we have not just the only Nobel Prize winner among the nation’s Vice-Chancellors, but also the most selfless in terms of the remuneration he has been prepared to accept; and
  • Because we have what is generally acknowledged to be the highest quality and most collegiate University Council in the country.

Thank you for all the embarrassingly kind things you have said about me, which I promise I will do my best not to let go to my head. That is perhaps a bit easier in the case of Brian’s remarks, which I can’t help noticing have been getting ever more exuberant in their generosity the closer we get to the end of this month when I will be no longer around to get in his hair.

Let my very last word be just this. It has been a huge pleasure, as well as privilege, to work with you all. I have had a long and fulfilling public life in multiple roles, but I can honestly say that in a great many ways my years, as ANU Chancellor have been the most unequivocally satisfying of them all.

Thank you all for making that so.