State of the University - Australian National University Vice-Chancellor address

The Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt AC has given the 2019 State of the University address. The below has errors and edits omitted. Please check against delivery. 

Tuesday 12 February 2019, Llewellyn Hall, ANU

Chancellor, Aunty Matilda, colleagues and friends of the University.

Thank you, Matilda for your warm Welcome to Country. I also acknowledge and celebrate the Traditional Owners on whose lands we meet, whose cultures are among the oldest continuing in human history, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

It is now 73 years since The Australian National University was founded to bring to the national capital a national university. A university that could bring credit to Australia, advance the cause of research and learning, and take its rightful place amongst the great universities of the world.

Our founders imagined that we would become an intellectual powerhouse for the nation; grappling with the challenges confronting our country and the region in which we live, looking for policy, technical and scientific solutions to the wicked problems of each generation.

This ambition is still core to our existence, but our job has become much more complex as we witness a shift from the post-WWII order into which this university was born, and in which we have lived our lives.

The pace of technological change we are living with is staggering; we are accompanied by a rising social and political uncertainty, experiencing new geopolitical currents and witnessing accelerating change in the environment that sustains all of us.

But we are also lucky enough to live in a time of hope and progress. Global human longevity was 48 years when ANU was founded. It is 72 years today. The number of people living in extreme poverty is rapidly decreasing and every human is more connected than any other generation, digitally, by mass transit and by trade.

In a rapidly changing world, universities are critical institutions for finding the pathways to a prosperous and sustainable future. Our research and our education underpin the capacity of humans to solve the challenges we confront, and find the solutions to our most pressing problems.

As the national university for Australia, ANU has a particularly important leadership role to play.

First ------ to know the nature of things.  (pause)

It is good to pause and reflect for a moment on those words. They are our motto, and remind us that the search for knowledge and for understanding is at the heart of all we do.

We are the national university. And being the national university comes with both unique privilege and unique responsibility.

We have a responsibility to be intellectual leaders, nurturing talented thinkers, giving voice to new ideas, and challenging orthodoxy.

We have a responsibility to transform lives. The ANU experience must be extraordinary, whether you are a student, an academic or member of professional staff, one of our alumni, a beneficiary of our research, or simply engaging with ANU ideas. We have a responsibility to ensure that this place matters for all.

In all that we do, we must always be true to our values. To be original, inclusive, open and respectful. To act with integrity, to be collegiate. To be committed to the service of our nation and better outcomes for our community, the environment and the world. We must be prepared to take risks in our pursuit of knowledge, and stand firm on the principles of academic freedom, autonomy, and integrity.

We have a responsibility to engage with the wider Australian community, to share our story and our ambition with them, to be open to them, to be a place that is open to all.

Living up to our responsibilities is a collective effort. Each one of us has a role to play.

The effort to make our university open, engaged and understood by all Australians is an effort that I’m going to be asking you to join me in this year.

To transform lives, we must aim to lead the nation in gender equity and reconciliation, and be willing to convene some of the difficult and uncomfortable conversations Australia needs to have if we are to move forward. 

To transform lives, we must solve the inequities that confront our students, and particularly the inequities that confront those for whom ANU is out of reach.  

However, we should also pause and celebrate where our work has transformed lives, and where our values have led us to be better.

Today, I want to share my vision for meeting our responsibilities.

And, most of all, I want to thank each of you for the dedication you bring to this place. It is that dedication that makes our university one of the great universities of the world.

We have committed to play a leadership role in the reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The importance of that commitment was brought home for many of us yesterday at the opening of Kambri, where we were reminded that Indigenous Australians have called this very place, our university, home for 25,000 years.

In 2018, when we launched our Reconciliation Action Plan we set a roadmap for what we want to achieve.

We can be proud of some achievements. We have the highest retention of Indigenous students in the country. But, we want to see many more Indigenous students realise their full potential at ANU, to feel this is their place. We can only achieve this if we are more open and inclusive of Indigenous people, their traditions and perspectives, and through respect of Indigenous knowledge and wisdom.

Last year, we held the First Nations Governance Forum, bringing together Indigenous leaders, academics and politicians to restart the national conversation of reconciliation. Our conversation had impact, with the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition meeting as part of the Forum, and its final report endorsing the cornerstone of the Statement from the Heart: that Australian constitutional reform should include a First Nations’ Voice.

ANU must play our part in ensuring this voice brings greater reconciliation.  And we each must play our part in achieving in our Reconciliation Action Plan.

We will actively engage more Indigenous academics across campus, to give voice to their expertise and perspectives. This includes people like Dr Virginia Marshall, our inaugural Indigenous Australian Postdoctoral Fellow, who is examining whether Australia’s frameworks, laws and policies are robust enough to ensure Aboriginal communities can exercise cultural and economic control of their waterways.

Language is one of the most profound ways to understand another’s perspective.  2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, languages that are being lost from Australia. ANU will contribute to ensuring languages survive and thrive.

Cathy Bow, a PhD candidate from the College of Arts & Social Sciences, has developed a digital archive of Indigenous languages, and in collaboration with Charles Darwin University and the Bininj Kunwok people, is launching an online course this semester for our students.

Learning an Indigenous language is part of understanding the culture and identity of Australia’s first peoples – and it is through this knowledge that we will be able to work towards reconciliation, based on shared values and understanding.

ANU is a great university. But is also a university of great privilege. Many of us have had advantages in life not afforded to others. But for ANU to meet our responsibility as the national university, our responsibility to transform lives, and our ambition to be an institution for all, we must be a community that is inclusive and open to all people who have the talent and passion to succeed, regardless of their background.

This year we are changing the way we admit our students and the way we recruit our professional and academic staff. This is a long-term commitment to making ANU a campus that truly reflects our entire nation.

And when new people join our community, we need to support them. Not just in the classroom or with research, but with an experience that makes them feel valued and part of our community. Support which is flexible and tailored to the individual.

Let’s take Malan Hunter-Xenie who dreamed of studying environmental science to give back to her local community in the Northern Territory. Ten years ago, she came to ANU but had to defer her degree because of the life challenges confronting her. Now, a decade on, she has returned to ANU, and I will be so proud when she walks across this stage later this year as a graduate, and then steps out into society to achieve great things.

As Nelson Mandela – who once stood in this hall - said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

We need to give people with potential the tools they need to change their world. For too long, admission to university has been linked to who your parents are and where you live. Last year, under the energetic leadership of Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, we began reforming our admissions based on the principle that an ANU student is more than an ATAR score.

This is not just new thinking for ANU; it is new thinking for Australia.

We will create a student community that reflects the Australian community, in all of its diversity. ANU will not just be a place only for those lucky enough to afford it. And we will marry a great educational experience with an unparalleled campus experience.

But we need to support these students to get here, many of whom may not have started with the easiest path. Students like Jonah Hansen from Loxton.  Like me, Jonah’s passion for astronomy and mathematics that could not be realised in the small town where he grew up. With potential and ambition, Jonah’s journey to ANU, supported by the Tuckwell Scholarship, has seen him blossom in our community.

We have a responsibility to transform lives. That means that we each have a role to play. It is where the generosity of our community will really make a difference. Many of you in this room have already given your support to our students. And to each of you, I say thank you.

You can each help. By reaching out to students, whether they be Jonah or Malan, or any of our students who call ANU home. By telling our story about wanting to build a community as diverse as our nation. By sharing your story. By supporting our philanthropic efforts. By actively participating in the activities that make up campus life.

Yesterday, we opened Kambri. The new heart of our campus.  Our meeting place. The place that brings together students, staff, alumni, and the wider community to share ideas, music, performance, books … coffee! And of course food.

In Kambri, we have created new learning environments that are better suited to the changing needs of our students and academics. With the help of new technology, we have rethought what classroom teaching looks like. These new spaces will transform teaching and learning, creating flexible spaces, designed to keep students and teachers close, and class sizes small.

I love teaching, but even I have to admit, using these new spaces is daunting. Like many of you, I’m looking forward to learning how they will improve my teaching, and make learning a better experience for our students. And I’m not alone here.

Peter Londey from Classics will teach his first-year ancient history course in the new space. Peter’s students will discuss the writings of Thucydides and Xenophon, and how they can reveal facets of Athenian life and perhaps how the traps of the ancient human civilisations might be realised in the present. It is these discussions that give students the opportunities to explore their own ideas, and challenge the perspectives of their peers.

Rachel Remington is going to look at the ‘Big Questions in Biology’, and her students are going to engage in peer reviews and workshops.

And Sam Bennett from the School of Music wants to use the new interactive screens to integrate practice and production of music.

These new teaching spaces will transform what we do and how we do it. 

We will help and support you in your teaching -we don’t expect you to just figure it out on your own. In the Humboldtian University great teaching is informed by great research. This is the ideal that we can live up to, and through programs like iLeap, you will be able to work with Grady Venville and her colleagues to make your teaching preparation easier, and get better outcomes through innovative and interactive classrooms. You’ll be happier – and your students will learn so much more…

All that we do is built upon our research and intellectual leadership. Excellence in all we do is not just an ambition, it is a responsibility. But as Australia’s national university we cannot just be excellent, we must also be distinctive and different.

We must set the pace in critical research. Our 2018 Grand Challenges winner, the Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia Pacific team, aims to use the world-leading research we do across our campus to create a new industry for Australia. To create a new normal where solar, wind, pumped hydro and battery storage solutions combat climate change, creating low-cost zero-carbon energy. To create a potential new revenue source for Australia that helps the development in our region in a way that is globally sustainable. The urgency of this type of work cannot be understated as we face more fiercely hot summers like this one we have just sweltered through.

Our discoveries are not just about solving wicked problems, but they also about the frontier of knowledge.

We celebrate ANU people like Professor Xuemei Bai who has pushed our understanding of urban sustainable science and policy to new frontiers; or Dr Raihan Ismail who has reshaped the way we understand the Middle East region. And, one of our PhD students, Ilya Bobrovskiy discovered evidence of the earliest animals in the geological record, and his work has been recognised as one of Science magazines top-10 breakthrough science discoveries of 2018. Not bad for your PhD!

We shouldn’t underestimate the value of telling our story, and of reaching out to communities and engaging them in our work. This is how we make ANU welcoming to a diverse community of people, and give Australians a reason to be proud of their national university.

Programs like the National Youth Science Forum attract young science enthusiasts from around Australia to spend summer exploring science at ANU.  It was the NYSF that first brought Lauren Booth, a student from Ipswich who had never thought of ANU, here for the first time. She is now one of our outstanding PhB scholars in Science.

We live in a rapidly changing world. We have a responsibility to constantly test new boundaries in all we do, shaping education and research that both responds to and creates change.

I acknowledge changemakers like our Dean of Engineering and Computer Science, Professor Elanor Huntington, who is leading the complete re-imagination of engineering, creating new areas of research and marrying the power of engineering with other disciplines. The world we live in is shaped by engineers, and ANU in the future will shape engineering.

Our conversation about artificial intelligence is maturing, and through the 3A Institute, led by Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell, ANU is an intellectual leader. Genevieve has worked miracles to go from a standing start to leading the world in this field. Just yesterday, we welcomed the first cohort of Masters’ students to the 3A Institute, some of whom come from the top tech companies in the world, and who will co-create their Masters program.

Our innovation institutes are about being the changemakers and intellectual leaders. Under the leadership of Lesley Seebeck, our Cyber Institute is bringing disciplines together to solve real problems by connecting cyber, computer science, national security, anthropology, sociology and criminology. Professor Mark Kendall, and his team at WearOptimo, are developing wearable medicine technologies, providing access to medical data in real time for fast and accurate diagnosis. And InSpace, led by Professor Anna Moore, is bringing together law, economics, policy, engineering and science to Australia’s emerging space industry.

These are but a few of the thousands of programs of research taking place here. Not every piece of research will be a top-10 breakthrough – but trust me, you will not know you are about to make a discovery, until you make it.

To meet our responsibility to our nation, all of our staff need to be supported and encouraged to take risks, think outside the box and collaborate to do things that simply can’t be done alone. Every piece of research has the potential to revolutionise our understanding. And that revolution of understanding is what makes a university great.

I became Vice Chancellor three years ago, not because I wanted to run the University, but because I believe in this place. I believe in our core values of respect, collegiality, integrity and ethical behaviour. And I want this university, and all of us here, to succeed.

To meet our ambition to be a values-led institution, and to transform the lives of our staff as well as our students, we have to be a great place to work.

The VOICE survey, which we ran last year, told us what you think. More than 66 per cent of you participated, including for the first time, many of our casual and sessional staff members. I cannot emphasise enough how grateful I am for so many of you participating.

There is plenty to be proud of in the results – which a paint a picture that compared to our past and compared to other universities – we like where we are going.  But that does not mean all is perfect.  We as a community are less happy about where we stand on gender equity than in 2016, and we are less satisfied than those at other universities. While I believe we are making progress, we are clearly not meeting expectations in our progress. And that is not good enough. ANU will only be successful when we make the most of all of the talent available in our community; when gender, age, race or background underpin our success, rather than being barriers.

The Executive leadership team and I will be reflecting on lessons learned from the SAGE initiative, as we prepare to finalise our application for a Bronze Award in March. I was encouraged to find that in 2018 the rate of male and female promotions across the University reached parity. I am also very proud that ANU has an above average return to work rate following maternity leave, and we are leading the sector and the nation with our 26-week paternity leave program. On this final measure, I ask of our community that you match your parental leave with your partner. That is true equality.

In 2019, we will be more accountable on gender equity. In the near future, I will be making available a dashboard showing ANU status and progress on gender equality at the school and service division level. We are going to own this together. And we are going to change this together.

Our ambition is to be values-led. Our responsibility is to be values-led. This means we have to confront unsettling and uncomfortable issues. The VOICE survey revealed that bullying remains a real concern in some parts of the University. While it is essential that the University is a place for the robust exchange of ideas, this can be done – and must be done – in a way that is collegial and respectful.

This is a task for all of us. I want your honest and frank feedback about how we can improve. I will be working with Deans, Directors and Heads of School to understand and address these issues, but I need you to stand up and call out inappropriate behaviour if you see it. As David Morrison, ANU alumnus and 2016 Australian of the Year said, “the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept”. I also remind you that we now have a Dean of Staff, who you can privately and informally discuss any issue.

Having those difficult and honest conversations makes us a better place. I acknowledge the partnership between students and staff last year to make our campus safer. Thanks to that effort, we now have a Respectful Relationships Unit. Under the leadership of Sue Webeck, the Unit will be developing accessible and transparent processes, running education campaigns for both staff and students, as well as reviewing ANU policies and procedures to ensure what we do is best practice.

The VOICE survey also showed we can do better on technology at ANU. You will see improvements this year. And ANU has welcomed the very talented Chief Information Security Officer, Suthagar Seevaratnam, who is working with the Cyber Institute and ITS to protect us from cyberthreats in ways that make us more productive, not less.

Last year, we implemented the University Service feedback program, which more than 500 of you have already used. And I know, that some of our policies and systems are confusing and not easy to use. This year, the Budget and Reporting Framework Program will develop and implement the new ANU Resource Management Model, making it easier to respond to the evolving financial and strategic requirements of the University. It will make it easier for us to get things done as a team – rather than as silos across the University.

Although it’s easy to look at ANU from the inside – the day-to-day stresses and strains of process and organisational politics – we need to remember that the world outside Acton sees us very differently. The Australian community makes a substantial investment in us through the Australian Government. We must demonstrate to them the value of that investment, and engage with them in our work.

This is why we need to tell our story, and over the coming year the Global Engagement portfolio will lead a major project to do just that. With your input, we will rediscover what makes our university so special and we will be able to tell that story to the nation and the world.  We’ll be able to make it easier for our community, here and nationally, to engage with us and our work.

I encourage you to get involved with the discussions and share your thoughts on what makes ANU special. I hope that what makes ANU unique will not just be our history, but our future.

The world is changing, and ANU will be at the forefront of meeting the challenge of change.

That spirit of service to the nation, which is built into the DNA of our university, is embodied by one person in particular – that is, our Chancellor, Professor Gareth Evans.

Gareth will have been Chancellor for a decade by the time he steps down at the end of the year.

The incredible energy and intellect he has brought to the Chancellorship is the same he brought to his membership of Parliament for over 21 years, to his 13 years as a Cabinet minister, and to his global role as President of the International Crisis Group. But in December, it will finally be time for him to hang up his gold braided (bumblebee) gown.

I want to say to Gareth – a sincere thank you. You have been a source of great encouragement to me as Vice-Chancellor, you have provided clear guidance and wise counsel. Although it was sometimes colourfully expressed, your passion has always been directed towards what you have seen as the best interests of ANU. You have been a great leader of our Council, shown incredible humility and generosity to our students and alumni, been a passionate advocate for many causes, from academic excellence to Indigenous reconciliation, and a proud champion of our University.

And so while he still has most of the year to go, please join me in thanking the Chancellor for his contribution over the past 9 years … and for the year to come

Finally, as I conclude, I reflect that in this polarised world full of fake news, half-truths, weaponised social-media propaganda – our resolve to our core academic values will be tested again in 2019.

We will need to stand firm to our values which will allow us to speak truth to the issues of the day, and will allow us to educate the leaders of tomorrow, while continuing to undertake the fundamental inquiry – to know the nature of things - which informs all that we do.

Thank you


About The Australian National University

ANU is a world-leading university in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. Our location points to our unique history, ties to the Australian Government and special standing as a resource for the Australian people.

Our focus on research as an asset, and an approach to education, ensures our graduates are in demand the world-over for their abilities to understand, and apply vision and creativity to addressing complex contemporary challenges.

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East Road, Acton
2601 Canberra