2018 ANU State of the University: Vice-Chancellor's speech

31 January 2018

On Wednesday 31 January 2018 ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt AC delivered his third State of the University Address to staff at Llewellyn Hall.

Below is a transcript of his speech.


Thank you Chancellor and welcome colleagues,

What does it mean to be Australia's national university in 2018? We are a university for the nation and place that responsibility at the heart of everything we do. We are a community of people who are brave, who are bold, and who are fearless when it comes to speaking out about issues that matter. We nurture hope and new ideas, we solve challenges that are national and global, we embark on discovery and seek new knowledge and we share that knowledge through debate and dialogue to advance society.

  • We are the national university - it is our role to contribute to the advancement of Australia's Indigenous Peoples.
  • We are the national university - it is our role to provide opportunities to students from a range of backgrounds as diverse as the Australian population.
  • We are the national university - it is our role to be a counterweight to alternative truth, fake news and decision-making without evidence.
  • We are the national university - it is our role to innovate in research, to help Australia understand its place in the world, to find solutions to the most pressing problems facing the nation and the world - whether they are current emerging or in the future.

That is our responsibility and this is our mandate.

And so today I start by acknowledging and celebrating the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

Aboriginal people have been meeting on this land for tens of thousands of years and have a close spiritual and continuing connection to the lands and creeks and natural environment around this campus.

And so I thank you Matilda, Wally and Tina for welcoming us to your country today. We are deeply honoured to work with the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are gathered.

In 2017 more than a thousand Indigenous people across the nation came together for the Uluru Convention. The results were historic and ended with a unanimous call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was a significant step for so many. And now we need a plan for where we go from where we find ourselves today.

Our ambition is to positively contribute to the discussion of national Indigenous policy reform and reignite that conversation.

In July this year, in partnership with our federal Indigenous parliamentarians Ken Wyatt, Linda Burney, Patrick Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy, ANU will host a major forum on national Indigenous governance, taking in the lessons from First Nations around the world.

Our forum will include participation from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from around Australia as well as experts and representatives from around the world.

As Australia's national university, we have a responsibility to convene the debate and we have the capacity, the expertise and the people who bring objectivity and academic rigour to these challenging issues.

Today also we take our commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians one step further with the launch of the ANU Reconciliation Action Plan. This is not a timid document. I want to see ANU become the destination of choice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander intellectual leaders to undertake research and to contribute to policy making.

But an area we urgently need to address is the number of our staff and students who come from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background. This number needs to rise to match the 3% of Australia's population that they represent.

I am delighted that we have appointed our first scholar under the ANU Indigenous Australian Postdoctoral Fellowships Program - Dr Virginia Marshall. Virginia is a practicing lawyer and legal scholar. She is working as a multidisciplinary scholar in Regnet and the Fenner School.

If we carry out what we propose under the Plan we can genuinely achieve a meaningful difference. The ANU Reconciliation Action Plan is something for all of us to work on - each of us has a role.

I believe in a fair and equal Australia where citizens have the same chance to develop their natural abilities, regardless of their backgrounds. Why should any child or student in this country have less opportunity to succeed because of where they come from? It is simply wrong.

We know that socio-economic disadvantage has the single greatest impact on educational opportunity. And the effects of socio-economic disadvantage persist well beyond school and into adulthood, and into subsequent generations.  This downward spiral is a threat to our democracy.

As the national university we cannot stand by and let disadvantage play a role in any child's future opportunity.

As a nation, we have a responsibility to provide educational opportunities to any student who has the courage and capacity to succeed.

I am pleased that we are making significant progress on a new model for helping students access ANU that embeds our role in Australian society as the national university, providing opportunities for students from a range of backgrounds.

By providing the top students from every high school in Australia with the opportunity to see themselves as an ANU graduate, we will ensure access to an ANU education is based on a student's capacity to succeed, rather than their background and circumstances.

This was a key pillar of our strategic plan and I am pleased that since launching the plan we have achieved much - and in a very short time. We should be proud.

To remain successful in 2018 we're going to have to dig deep, persevere and remain focused on excellence. We are going to need to work as a team.

There are some big challenges ahead of us.

Globally, we are seeing a major change in the geopolitics of the world especially within the Asia Pacific region. Last year once again showed us the fragility of peace around the globe.

The phenomenon of fake news and alternative facts continues to grow and around the world there is a genuine devaluation of evidence informed by research and what it brings.

As Australia's National University, it's up to us to help find a way forward, for Australia, for our region, and for the world.

In the face of eroding and unprecedented marginalisation of academic expertise, we have to work harder than ever before to bring the world outside of academia with us.

And we are.

Decades of research have provided us with a model of the climate system. The evidence tells us that humans are disproportionately responsible for changes in climate.

This year, Dr Sophie Lewis and her team made climate change very real, warning us to prepare for 50-degree summer days - and in light of record temperatures across Australia this summer, it's clear that these days aren't all that far away.

This is but one issue where evidence needs to inform policy - there are so many more.

We are home to some of the best minds in the world and we have a unique opportunity and responsibility to shape and influence the world.

We are the scientists, the historians, the philosophers. We are the artists, the immunologists, the demographers. We are the economists, the engineers, the computer scientists - we are all here.

We have an obligation to help ensure that expertise pays a key role in shaping public policy and in helping to solve some of the big problems facing our world.

So this year we are establishing our new Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub to harness the research breadth of ANU and to help you offer solutions to some of the nation's most complex policy issues.

And this year our Industry Advisory Board will help us to build bridges between ourselves and the outside world. Relationships between universities and industry are no longer just 'nice to have' - they are essential.

As part of our program, joining Professor Genevieve Bell as our first Entrepreneurial Fellow, I am pleased to announce that Mark Kendall, inventor of the nano-patch for delivering vaccines without a needle - and one of the world's leading innovators in finding technology solutions to the world's healthcare challenges, will join ANU as our second Vice-Chancellor's Entrepreneurial Fellow. The work that Mark will be doing will be part of the broader work the University is conducting in personalised medicine.

Inequality in healthcare is one of the major challenges of our time and this year we will see the winners of the inaugural ANU Grand Challenges Scheme - the Future of Personalised medical technologies, help bridge social, geographic and economic divides, to ensure that healthcare can be provided equitably and universally.

This year we'll also see the nation's first interdisciplinary Cyber Institute conduct the research that will help shape the nation's future in the increasingly vital field of cybersecurity.

This year as part of that program we are going to embark on the largest investment in an academic area since the establishment of the ANU Medical School in 2002. Led by Professor Elanor Huntington, the College of Engineering and Computer Science will commence a substantial expansion and re-imagination of the traditional disciplines of engineering and computer science. This is going to help us understand and design solutions to the emerging challenges of modern society in a 21st-century set of engineering disciplines.

As part of that I have already mentioned Genevieve Bell and if you have not had a chance to listen to her Boyer Lectures listen to them. They are about the future of these disciplines of how technology intersects with humanity. We have a chance to lead the world, but once again it is not just a few people in engineering, it is all of us. The challenges we face today and tomorrow demand clever and innovative research solutions.

Here at the University we must also continue to innovate - to find better ways to manage and operate our university.

To improve, we need to know what's not working for you, we want to know what suggestions you have and how we can make things easier for you. And so we have established a new web-based process that lets you quickly and easily submit your feedback on any University service, at any point in time. If you have an idea or something isn't working - with one simple click you can have your views heard and get a timely and considered response.

You - all of you - us - are what make ANU great. And we need to make sure we are looking after you. Our campus must be safe and healthy. In the past two years, we have reduced the number of active workers compensation claims by 40 per cent - but we can still do better. And that's why this year we will take on responsibility for our workers' compensation.

Building a better university means owning the problems as well as the successes.

We must do better at addressing sexual assault and harassment on our campus. We had a huge wake-up call last year. We are improving our policies and responses to incidents, and working with expert outside help to make sure that our community and our campus is safe, respectful and inclusive.

You expect us to live as we preach. And this means making our campus more sustainable. Our new campus Master Plan is in development. The plan will make sure we make the most out of our beautiful campus and help us develop a reliable and sustainable energy supply that is in accord with the needs of the environment.

As the national university we are endowed with the National Institute Grant. This special funding enables ANU to be one of the world's great universities. This year, the Executive and I will be spending a week talking strategically to all of the areas who receive the grant. We need to make sure we are getting the most out of these funds and delivering on our mission as Australia's national university. It might seem scary, but it is actually an opportunity to think big.

Next year we will open our new precinct at the heart of the campus. Simply put it is the largest and most profound change our campus has seen since its establishment. We undertake this project with the consent of the traditional custodians. This is their country. Country that for many thousands of years their ancestors came together to share stories, to teach, to learn, to create, to live. I can't think of a better place for a national university to be located, and we are deeply honoured to carry on a tradition of learning and respect. I would like to invite Matilda to once again address the University community.

Members of the Representative Aboriginal Organisations present Kambri as the new name of Union Court.

Indigenous juniors perform a short ceremonial dance.

On behalf of the University I warmly thank you for this extraordinary gift. As a university we have received gifts before, but this gift is remarkable and unprecedented.

The significance of your gift is not lost on me, and as a university we will cherish your gift by making Kambri a place that makes you proud.  Kambri will be something far more significant than the buildings, shared spaces and new accommodation.

We are building a place for people to come together and share stories. A place for people to learn and make lifelong connections. A place where everyone is welcome, breaking down barriers between the University and the Canberra community where we live.

A meeting place, just as it has been for thousands of years.

When designing Kambri, we listened to representatives from the four Aboriginal organisations who have cultural links to the land on which we stand. Matilda House, Wally Bell and Tina Brown and their young families from these groups are here with us today. And I thank you for coming and sharing your stories.

During these consultations, the University learnt about creative and meaningful ways that we could acknowledge you and your families. Many of these ideas will be built into the framework of Kambri. This includes inscribing local family welcomes into the site and building a ceremonial fire pit down by the creek.

Consultation with local Aboriginal people will not stop after Kambri is open. We will continue to work with, and learn from traditional custodians. Providing opportunities for younger generations to work for the University and be involved.

I look forward to local Aboriginal people to sharing their family stories along the rejuvenated Sullivans Creek and showcasing local bush foods in a new garden.  As Australia's national university, it is also important that Kambri is a place to share the stories of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Nothing could be more significant.

To do this we will collaborate on a calendar of events, providing an opportunity for everyone to learn about contemporary Indigenous culture and Indigenous heritage. These are just some of things we will do, but it is only a beginning, and with continued collaboration I expect we will do much more.

In leading the design of Kambri to make it a truly unique place - a place that is more about people and less about buildings, a place that reflects our diverse community - I would like to thank Dave Johnston, work with  Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington. Their insight and leadership have been extraordinary.

But none of this could have been achieved without the patience, generosity and leadership of local Aboriginal people and Indigenous leaders within our University and our alumni.

For this, I also say thank you.

We are deeply honoured. 

Thank you.


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Comment by Libby Robin
10.30am 14 Feb 2018

I am excited by the possibilities that Kambri offers the ANU in terms of partnering with National Museum of Australia and AIATSIS on Acton Peninsula. Matilda House has a long association with both these places, and our common concern to promote reconciliation and recognition of our first peoples in our common place - our sharing of Kambri is an opportunity not to be missed. I spoke with Aunty Matilda after the State of the University address and she was keen on this idea too. This would be a much more meaningful association with our Action Peninsula partners than has been hitherto attempted.