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ANU Staff Valedictory

Response to Vice-Chancellor's Staff Farewell, University House, ANU, 18 December 2019

Thank you Vice-Chancellor for your – and all the other – kind words which have rather swamped me over the last couple of weeks, and again today. It has been hard to make sure it doesn’t all make my head even bigger than I am regularly assured it is already. That cause has been helped, however, by you all reminding me more than a few times that, as I have no choice but to concede myself, my temperament is not exactly of the cloth from which Zen masters are cut.

It is true that on a scale of volatility between Buddhist tranquillity at one end and advanced mania at the other, I amslightly tilted toward the driven end of the spectrum. My only excuse over the years has been that I know that if I don’t give my natural exuberance a certain free rein I run the risk of coming out in boils…

All that said, I suspect one of the main reasons you’re all being so – mostly – nice to me as I wind up my decade as Chancellor of this great national university of ours is that my departure signals the end of that long and unbroken line of pale stale males who have occupied this position for the last seven decades, and now stare down at you from the 4th floor foyer of the Chancelry.

I also can’t help noting that, in the finest tradition of obituaries, the Vice-Chancellor’s remarks have become ever more exuberantly extravagant as my end draws nearer, and with it my capacity to any longer get in his hair.

Whatever the reason, you have all been very kind, and I want to take this occasion to reciprocate that gratitude by expressing the overwhelming thanks I feel for having had the honour, privilege and pleasure of working with this marvellous ANU community of ours.

Thanks, for a start, for the quality of the Vice-Chancellors with whom I have worked. Not least you, Brian – nor just the only Nobel Prize winner to occupy that role in Australia, but in my view the best V-C in Australia with your combination of IQ and EQ, your sense of the values for which great universities must stand, your vision for the future of ANU, your capacity to bring people with you in implementing it and, on top of that, your record as the most selfless V-C in the country in terms of the remuneration you have been prepared to accept – hundreds of thousands of dollars less than the market rate you could command. It has been a pleasure to work with you.

It’s been a pleasure, too, to work with the senior management group, and all the other members of both the senior academic and professional staff – including Chris Reid and his team in the Corporate Governance office, but far too many to begin to try to name now – who have been, along with all their other roles, a wonderful source of direct support and advice over the years to me and the Council. Not least in navigating that very delicate boundary between strategic and long term planning and general oversight issues, which are properly the Chancellor’s and University Council’s business, and management issues which are none of our business at all – except when something goes wrong enough, as it will even the best run institutions from time, for questions of reputational risk to arise.

Thanks in particular to the many staff representatives, both academic and professional, who have served with me over the last ten years on the University Council – what I genuinely believe is the best University governing body in the country in terms of its commitment, professionalism and collegiality. As with the student reps, who have been equally outstanding, the staff reps on Council have never left us in any doubt about what the community is thinking, but have always given absolute primacy to the overall interests of the University.

And thanks finally to all the other members of the university staff community with whom I may not have had much direct contact over the years – except at conferences and commemorations and ceremonies and social functions like this – but who I know are equally passionately committed to this great university, and the values of unequivocal excellence in research, in teaching and learning, and in national policy engagement, for which we distinctively stand.

Whatever it is that I might have been able to achieve during my term as Chancellor has only been possible by working with wonderful colleagues – in the Council, on the executive, and in the University community as a whole. Together I think we have accomplished a number of things of which I am particularly proud over the last decade, perhaps five especially:

  • getting our basic system of academic and executive governance right;
  • developing some real shape and coherence into our long term planning, with successive detailed Strategic Plans, and the new Acton Campus Master Plan which I hope – building on our experience creating Kambri -- will prove transformative over the decades ahead;
  • giving new content and visibility to our traditional role of contributing to the national public policy debate (not least on Indigenous issues);
  • standing up as we have done for the core values of academic autonomy, academic freedom and campus free speech (at the price of foregoing some very big bucks along the way); and
  • giving new and unprecedented priority to our alumni relations and philanthropy effort, not least because we know this is so crucial to meeting our access and equity targets, and thus enabling the best and brightest and most committed of students from all around Australia, including Indigenous students, to come to ANU whatever their means.

There are still lots of challenges ahead, both for the sector as a whole and for ANU in particular, in building on what we have achieved in the past and doing even more to ensure in the future that we hold our place not only as Australia’s finest university, but as one of the world’s greatest.

I won’t any longer be directly engaged in that process: The King is dead; long live the Queen! But I am totally confident, having spent a few hours talking to her this week, that my successor, Julie Bishop, totally gets it – as indeed she showed she did when she was both Education Minister and Foreign Minister – about what it is that makes the ANU distinctively great, and will be a great champion for the cause … as well as being a significantly better dressed Chancellor than me!

I find it difficult to believe that Julie, or anyone else, could possibly enjoy the experience of being ANU Chancellor, or find it even more unequivocally satisfying, than I did. But enjoy it she will, because there’s nothing not to enjoy about this wonderful ANU family of ours, of which I will be delighted now, armed now with that new title of Distinguished Honorary Professor which the V-C has so kindly bestowed upon me, to certainly feel a permanent part.

Thank you all again, have a wonderful Xmas and New Year break, and – for now – goodbye.