Remembering Vice-Chancellor Anthony Low
Remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, at the Memorial Celebration for the late Professor Anthony Low, University House Great Hall, ANU, 31 July 2015
Anthony Low became ANU Vice-Chancellor in May 1975, at the age of 47 the youngest in our history. He came to the job with a stellar reputation after a successful stint in England and an impressive two years as the Director of the ANU Research School of Pacific Studies. And he left it seven years later, in 1982, with that reputation further enhanced by the quality of his personal and professional leadership during some of the most turbulent times in the University’s, and the country’s, history.
He faced, and admirably faced down, three major challenges during his tenure, aided and supported throughout by Sir John Crawford, himself a former Vice-Chancellor, who was appointed Chancellor the following year – supported, but by no means dependent upon: then as now ANU Chancellors know their place…
The first challenge was to cope with the major changes in higher education, when the Federal Labor Government in 1974 assumed full responsibility for the sector. While ANU remained the only university established by an Act of the Federal Parliament, it now had to take its place in a queue of eighteen other universities competing for Commonwealth funding.
This inevitably created an intense budgetary squeeze, made more acute by a growing staff superannuation fund, and the fuel crisis which lasted most of the 70s and more than doubled ANU’s energy expenditure. All this left ANU in a perilous financial state, with its budget declining in real terms some 12 per cent from 1975 to 1981.
Despite these conditions, Anthony remained calm and steady, defusing a lot of the inevitable internal angst by introducing a new budget-making process which gave deans and directors for the first time a genuine say in how central funds were allocated, and only pressing the “alarm button”, as he put it, in 1980, when vital and fundamental research funding was threatened, not least for innovative new projects.
He came up in this context with some new ideas like taxing each research school across ANU 1 per cent of its budget to provide money for completely new research projects. While not universally applauded – what university funding strategy ever is? – this meant that in tough times same major new initiatives still flourished, including the creation in the Research School of Social Sciences of what was to become a renowned new centre for economic policy research.
The second challenge he faced was to recreate a sense of harmony on the campus after a long period student unrest, driven among other things by considerable unhappiness with the ANU administration, with protests in and around the Chancelry a semi-regular occurrence.
Anthony, whose own antennae on these matters were pretty good, brought in Colin Plowman – who he described as having “the best antennae in the business” – from the University of New South Wales to ANU as Assistant Vice-Chancellor, with a brief to look after the students. Owing much to both Anthony’s communication skills and Colin Plowman’s hands-on role, student unrest quickly ceased to be a major problem at the University.
One thing that did stir up passions again, including Anthony’s own, was the Whitlam dismissal in 1975, the fallout from which – including the election of a new Coalition government – created the third major challenge of his tenure.
Relations with the incoming Government did not get off to a promising start when television cameras actually caught him protesting outside Parliament House. And they were not helped a little later by his sturdy and principled defence of Manning Clark who, after dismissing the Fraser Government as, inter alia, “a group of men who had the moral values of a troop of Boy Scouts and economic and social values rapidly disappearing off the face of the earth”,
Was attacked by Ministers as unfit to sit on University appointment committees or examine theses
Things became particularly lively when the Government proposed to amend the ANU Act to abolish all compulsory student fees, which had been used, inter alia, to support the local Students Association and the Australian Union of Students. Anthony went into battle, with the support of John Crawford, and a significantly modified outcome was achieved, whereby a fee would remain compulsory, but students could choose whether or not to join local organizations including the Students Association, and the money could be spent only on organizations approved by the government.
Anthony Low was always up for challenges, and he took on the big challenges right from the beginning. In a graduation ceremony in September 1975, he told the audience that the culture of ANU had to change and the University had to embrace positive and imaginative thinking.
What ensured that he would be taken seriously – treated with both respect and affection, as he was throughout his tenure – was the obvious passion and family-like pride with which he always spoke of the ANU community.
Anthony regularly referred to the university as “the 10,000 of us”, making no distinction between the 6,000 students and 4,000 staff and underscoring the closeness he felt to the entire ANU community.
He was passionate about ANU, its place in a rapidly changing Canberra, and in the nation, and in the wider international community with which he was so personally and professionally familiar. And while the numbers involved have significantly increased over the last quarter-century, that message of an ANU community still resonates today.
Anthony Low was an enormously admired Vice-Chancellor. He was a formidable scholar, an effective administrator, a great communicator, and a thoroughly decent human being. He brought people together in challenging times, and led and represented this University with skill, passion, determination and strength.
ANU is much the better for his time here, and his contribution will very long be remembered.