ANU Spaces – Professor Mike Calford

9 March 2018

Professor Mike Calford is the University's new Provost and will lead the delivery of key initiatives including the ANU Strategic Plan. He started at ANU 1 March 2018.

Welcome back to ANU. You were here for four and a half years from 1996 to 2000. Tell us a little about your connection to campus and what you love about ANU.

That's going to be a little bit difficult because I love a number of universities and their different missions. I very much enjoyed my time at the University of Queensland. It was going through a fascinating transformation from a sleepy professions-oriented suburban university to a major research university. Significant appointments were commonplace and its vibrancy was palpable.

Similarly, I enjoyed my 12 years at the University of Newcastle. Newcastle had a tremendous reputation in medicine which drew me as I sought to work more closely with clinical colleagues. And, most recently, Tasmania was a wonderful experience of engaging with the broader community - recognizing that much of the social and economic future of the State depends upon its sole university.

ANU is a special place: a true world-class university at a critical stage of its development, and of national importance.

What have some of the highlights been so far?

I really enjoyed my first meeting of the University Council last month. The way the executive presented and the way the council members think of the University is as a national university, taking on national issues, national challenges, putting Australia into an international environment at the highest level and holding that responsibility. Everyone's very proud of the increase in the international rankings, and so they should be, but I'm attracted to places by their mission and in this case we have a very important mission for the country.

What's it like returning to your old stomping ground, Canberra?

Canberra's completely different now. It's a very different place to the '90s - it's a young person's town now. Just look at the New Acton and Kingston developments and Civic going through its changes. I worry about an economy that is over-dependent upon real-estate development and turnover, but we have all the elements in place to diversity and to develop into a great city which will remain far more liveable than the larger State capitals.

What are you hoping to achieve here?

I want ANU to prosper. This requires our academic and professional staff to be able to carry out the roles and tasks that they are entrusted with. Everyone, when employed, or promoted, at this University won their position against strong competition - they showed great promise. If things are not working out well for them, generally that is a fault of the University, its structures and its systems, not necessarily the individual. So, my emphasis will be on assuring that expectations are clear and that barriers to success are identified and removed. That is the essential role of the Provost as the chief academic officer of the University. What I see is a university that is very distributed in its decision-making and I support that - I think the best decisions at universities are made close to the coal face. So I'm fully supportive of that model. Nevertheless, the responsibilities of oversight, goal-setting and reporting have to be there too.

In addition, I have some personal goals (but I am not alone with these) of achieving greater equity in employment and opportunities by supporting policies and systems to ensure that we lead, nationally, in removing background, gender and orientation discrimination.

What are some of the strengths of ANU?

The real strength of ANU is the people and the fact that there's enough very high-quality people to engender an expectation of world-class achievement - that's what everybody should be aiming for. And that is actually very different to any other university in our system.

That also provides a focus for international involvement so if you're in the rest of the world looking at Australia for collaboration, you have to collaborate with ANU because there's all these great things happening here. I'm very keen, the VC is very keen and the executive are very keen to position ANU into those thoughts at places of excellence in business, research and teaching around the globe.

What would you like to see improved?

I would like there to be no barriers for our highly-performing staff to be interacting with the world's best and to be seen in all the same forums. That already happens in some areas but in others, people would struggle to have the funds or time to do that. So that's a personal interest of mine. If you're doing research and you figure you're in the top 5 to 10 in the world then you need to be seen interacting with those top 5 or 10 in the world and we've got to make sure we have the avenues for that to happen. Principally though, it's better if those 5 or 10 in the world come here and ANU does have that capacity.

What do you get up to in your downtime?

I've had to put my most enjoyable hobby on hold for quite a few years because it's one that takes too much time - I love sailing and in the past I have had a few boats. At the moment I don't. Both in my previous job as Provost at University of Tasmania and here I've had to put sailing aside because to look after a boat properly, or to organise a crew to sail with you, is a big time commitment and something I don't have. So sailing is something I'm projecting out to a post-retirement plan!

  • Have you ever competed?

    I don't actually like mixing competition with pleasure. When I've been involved with competitive sport it feels too much like going to work! I go to work to get things done. Sailing has to be totally different - so, no, I don't like competitive sailing at all. I like the work of fixing-up an old boat and motors and those sorts of things, but I'm not doing that at the moment.

I also like fly fishing and I do intend to get a bit more of that done, particularly in rivers which is good around the Snowy Mountains. And I do play golf. Time will tell with how serious I will get over golf here in Canberra. I've been serious at certain times in my life but it depends on the circumstances, the people you play with and the like.

What is your favourite space on campus?

At the moment my favourite space on campus is the Pop-Up Village - without doubt. I love the vibrancy of it. I love seeing lots of young people interacting and enjoying themselves. It's a great spot. There's a look and feel there, and an excitement around it, that we have to be careful not to lose. I don't know how ambitious the thinking was around the Pop-Up Village, but it's turned out to be very clever. So we have to maintain that as we go forward into Kambri.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

After more than 40 years at universities as a student and staff member, I'm extremely proud that the peak of my career is to be Provost of ANU. I don't see it as a reward but I see it as an opportunity to do something significant with my colleagues over next period.