It has been said that 2020 was an unprecedented year for the whole world - and ANU was no exception.
In January, we were delighted to welcome the Hon Julie Bishop to our University's most senior office: the first woman appointed Chancellor of ANU. Julie's exceptional leadership, unique perspectives and range of experiences have been invaluable during her first year in office.
It was a year that started with the promise and expectation of renewal, but was immediately disrupted by the bushfires that ravaged much of the east coast of Australia. Our campus closed for days, with staff and students unable to work through the choking impact of the smoke and heat. And as the fires began to die away, our campus was severely damaged by a hailstorm that wreaked havoc, devastating our glasshouses and the research projects within them, totalling scores of cars and causing damage to buildings new and old that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to remediate. The impact on the morale of many colleagues was incalculable.
During this time, our community demonstrated the compassion and care that makes ANU a wonderful place to work and study. But, an even greater test awaited: a global pandemic and the closure of the Australian borders, which prevented thousands of our students from across Australia and beyond from joining us on campus.
As February and March unfolded, changes to everyday lives became an almost daily occurrence. Staff and students worked heroically to adapt and respond. By the end of March, Australia went into the first lockdown our nation had experienced for a century, with state borders closing. Our campus became a ghost town as all but a handful of staff began working entirely remotely. The resilience of our community was inspirational. Our teaching staff, with just a single week's teaching pause, moved more than 700 courses online to ensure our students, regardless of their location, could continue their education. Researchers and professional staff continued their work with imagination and dedication, ensuring minimal breaks in service.
We supported our staff by introducing a reduced work week for those balancing family and work responsibilities, recognising that many in our community had, overnight, also taken on new teaching and caring responsibilities in their own homes. I was very proud to see the creativity of our staff in supporting not just their colleagues, but their students. Our teaching staff in Physics created more than 100 packs for students to complete lab work at home - this was lateral thinking at its best.
But with the smoke, hailstorm and the global pandemic disrupting our campus, it became clear that our financial position would deteriorate significantly through 2020 and beyond, and that painful change would be unavoidable. In May, I digitally hosted the largest staff meeting in the University's history to explain that we had to reduce the operating costs of our institution due to the impact of the pandemic. We borrowed where this was prudent, and deferred capital works. Senior managers took voluntary pay cuts, and in July our staff voted generously to defer a scheduled pay rise to save the jobs of 90 colleagues.
Inevitably, we had to reduce our largest expenditure: our salary bill. Our ANU Recovery Plan saw areas across campus revisit their work plans and staffing profiles, and the University provided a generous voluntary separation program. As a result, we farewelled many valued colleagues.
Amid the turmoil, ANU has held true to its mission of serving Australia. We led the university sector in offering a flexible admissions approach to new undergraduates, making offers of places based on their year 11 academic results in recognition of the disruption to year 12. Our experts have advised governments on responding to a global pandemic at scale: from vaccine development, to rebuilding the economy and detecting COVID-19 through sewage, they have helped guide and shape the Australian response to the most widespread public health emergency in living memory. That takes the experience and expertise of a lifetime spent studying and researching, and validated the investment our society makes in nurturing a world-class academic community at ANU.
Our academics have continued to develop research that impacts society in other ways. From supporting the rehabilitation and release of koalas following the bushfires, to launching a new centre for bushfire detection and prevention and uncovering hard truths - including evidence that around three-quarters of Australians hold implicit or unconscious biases against First Nations people. The ANU mandate to create a more just and equitable society and use our space to broker conversations about the most enduring challenges we face has rarely seemed more important.
We continued to showcase our university and nourish the intellectual needs of our community by hosting COVID-safe events in either hybrid or entirely digital formats, allowing our community to engage with their campus from afar. The flexibility enabled by these new ways of working, studying and living will continue in some form post-pandemic, one of the few happy legacies of our adaptation to a more distanced society. 2020 has taught us many things, but importantly, it has shown us that our community is the heart and soul of our campus; and I thank our staff for their outstanding support and resilience during a year of such uncertainty and change.
Throughout this most turbulent of years, our role as the national university has sharpened. We have proudly and willingly shared our academic resources with a nation coping with immense, unplanned change. We have analysed, advised, explained, and demystified - and in doing so we have helped chart a course through the unknown. Every member of ANU should be as proud as I am of the role our university has played in helping navigate Australia through this extraordinary year.
Professor Brian P. Schmidt AC FAA FRS
Vice-Chancellor and President