2023 State of the University: Vice-Chancellor's Address

02 Feb 2023

On Tuesday 2 February 2023, Chancellor the Hon Julie Bishop and Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian P. Schmidt shared their vision for the year ahead in the 2023 State of the University address.



Chancellor, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends -

In this year of significance for Australia's journey towards justice for - and reconciliation with - First Nations peoples, I am particularly grateful for such a warm Welcome to Country. Thank you Paul. 

To the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples - on behalf of all of us who enjoy the benefits of your thousands of years of stewardship of these lands, and to every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person here, I offer you my respect and gratitude. 

At the beginning of this, my eighth year as Vice-Chancellor, and after three years where the only constant has been disruption, I am pleased to report that the state of our university is stronger than we could have possibly hoped at this time last year.

We begin 2023 knowing more Australian students than ever before wanted to study at their national university. From every state and territory, our nation's brightest minds want to live and learn in our community. 

In a few short weeks, our classrooms and coffee shops will be animated again by a new generation of ANU students - full of hopes, ideas and ambition, and here for what we will help make, the best days of their lives.

They will come to a campus transformed by new facilities and residences. The 731 new rooms at Yukeembruk, our newest hall, welcome their first student residents this month. 

Our new students will learn from an academic community as vibrant and successful as any in the University's history. 

Across the grant rounds last year, ANU enjoyed extraordinary success. 

Our scholars won major national and international prizes, and raised funding for their companies at an unprecedented rate. 

We advised policymakers and society on everything from climate change to gender equity, national security to agricultural capacity, the future of technology to the future of democracy. 

After three years of turbulence and disruption, these are great achievements. The credit belongs to every member of our community. 

I can honestly say that I have never be prouder to be the Vice-Chancellor, than I am now.  

It shows that we, the current custodians of this great university, personify the responsibility, service and integrity that are the lifeblood of ANU. 

Thank you all for showing up and stepping up - day in, and day out. 

This is the eighth time since 2016 I have addressed the University at the start of the year. When I looked back over these speeches, I was struck by three things:

-       How much younger I looked when I started this job.

-       How much my threshold for pain has changed! Back in early 2016, we didn't know it then - but ahead of us lay the rise of populism, Brexit and Trump. Closer to home, our campus would suffer hundreds of millions of dollars of damage from floods, smoke and hail; a once-in a century global pandemic that would change the world; and now a war in Europe exacerbates a global cost-of-living crisis.  

-       But looking back, I was also struck that those principles of responsibility, service and integrity have been at the heart of everything we have tried to do in response to these turbulent times: 

o   always putting our community first at work;

o   helping Australia meet the challenges we face as a nation; 

o   and, cherishing our values. It is in those values, of academic freedom, respect, truth-seeking, transparency, accountability, fairness and justice, that our integrity exists. 

And as we emerge from the turbulence - and I do hope that we have a long stretch of clear air now - it is those principles, our values and our strategy that guide where we want to go as a University. 

It is easy to be cynical about University Strategic plans - they have a commonality that means ChatGPT can create one in a few seconds that is pretty convincing! 

But our plan - the ANU by 2025 Plan is distinctive - because we are distinctive. 

ANU has a unique national mission - one that we collectively agreed to. 

Nowhere was our national role clearer than in August 2022, when we hosted a live address to Australia by President Volodomyr Zelensky. 

In this very hall, our students questioned one of the world's great symbols of courage and resistance, leading a struggle that could define the global balance of power in the coming decades - a struggle of which the whole ANU community took a stand last March based on our values. 20 Australian universities linked in to hear the President, and 88,000 viewers joined us that day. 

This was ANU using its unique set of connections to the world, its integrity, and extending those across Australia - a service we have provided since our foundation. 

ANU serves as a great centre of scholarship in and of our region. This extends to all of our Colleges, but is exemplified by our truly unique College of Asia and the Pacific. 

CAP includes the world's greatest concentration of scholarship on the Asia-Pacific region, and helps Australia successfully navigate the challenges around our region. 

Where CAP's service has led, the rest of the University has joined in: 

-       Helping our Cross-bench parliamentarians as they were inducted into the national political scene after last year's election. We listened to what they needed, provided policy briefings and gave them frank, evidence-based advice - a service that will help Australian democracy. 

-       We have invested in landmark initiatives, like the Below Zero by 2030. Achievement of this objective in a way that is affordable, and which does not compromise our academic mission, is not trivial - and we have lots more work to find our way to this important commitment. 

-       We engage in major national forums like the Jobs and Skills Summit, which set the course for the Government's domestic economic policy agenda. We can only do this by being a trusted partner of all sides of politics. 

-       We use our unique capabilities across physics and security to work closely with the government on AUKUS, our nation's new signature strategic defence policy.

-       We have nurtured the Australian Studies Institute, which is leading the conversation about our past, present and future, and bringing an Australian perspective to global issues. I see the Treasurer has just signed up to discuss his new essay on the future of capitalism, in its Democracy Sausage podcast.

-       We established the School of Cybernetics, which interrogates, on behalf of our nation, a technology-enabled future we are all destined to live with, to make sure it benefits us all.  

-       We incubated the ANU Global Institute for Women's Leadership, 'GIWL'. GIWL has come to life in the past four years. Its research and advocacy have set the national pace and transformed the national mood with concrete, evidenced based, recommendations and actions.

-       And we will keep asking the pointed societal questions. Our Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership, in partnership with the Centre for Social Research and Methods, will lead a project that should allow the next census to include information about people's cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds. It could do nothing less than transform our understanding of our national identity, and hopefully allow us to make Australia a better place for all.  

-       And it's worth saying here: our commitment to service, responsibility and integrity is why our academics are trusted. We are not a think-tank or a consulting firm. ANU makes sure our academics have the freedom to say what their research and expertise shows, without fear or favour.

This kind of national leadership and engagement is a defining part of our identity.  

We are the only University with a formal mandate to contribute to our Commonwealth. 

That mandate is why we receive the National Institutes Grant. Thanks to your efforts, and the work we have done with the government these past seven years, I am now confident that our mandate will remain as Australia's national University. 

But our engagement with government and wider society can and should go deeper, and our impact must transcend the academic world.

To help do that, and like our peer universities, we have broadened what it means to be an academic at ANU. More leaders, experts, and practitioners from outside of academia have joined our ranks, bringing their unique lived experiences to our research, teaching, and translation. 

Most recently, and perhaps most fittingly, I was honoured to appoint Aunty Anne Martin as Professor in the Practice. She is someone who has used her vast life experience to transform the education of our First Nation's students to be an exemplar for the world. 

Students have been at the heart of my vision for the university from the very start. That's why I was so delighted to learn our student satisfaction rates for last year have surged back to above 80%. As Grady Venville delightfully told me earlier this week - we've got a High Distinction!

Over the last seven years, ANU has attracted some of most capable students across Australia at scale. 

This brings a great responsibility for us to make their time here as empowering as possible. ANU has made a decision to not massify our academic experience - we remain the compact size of the world's great Universities, with excellence expected across all we research and teach.  

That density of excellence creates opportunities every graduate needs, that just don't exist at huge institutions - to explore the full spectrum of new ideas, and create connections. The same human-scale environment that allows an unfragmented and collegiate university community.

But a great learning and research environment needs to evolve with the times, and here we have some work still to do. Our answer is the Digital Master Plan (and the associated Student First program) which will make our digital and physical environments more seamless. It builds on good progress, like our new and easier class timetabling tool - the first of many new systems that will make life better for staff and students.

These improvements matter even more when your students live in campus. 

ANU is the only research and residential intensive university in Australia, and since 2016 Wamburun, Bruce, Wright, Fenner, and now Yukeembruk have joined our other residences to provide some 7000 places on our campus. This helps raise the social capital of all our students to a common-level and create a cohesive community.

But this doesn't yet mean we have met our goal of being accessible to every Australian with the talent to succeed at ANU.  

My view is clear no Australian should feel they don't have the money, the cache, the connections or the right school tie to be an ANU student. 

We have made a start, with a more streamlined application and admissions process, our innovation in making offers to year 11 students, and supporting students to find the right scholarships and right accommodation several months (rather than days) before they have to move here. 

But we can't stop there. We need more scholarships to eliminate financial barriers to studying at ANU. This is one of the challenges I have set our Advancement team under the new Vice President Alex Furman. 

And we need to work with our existing students and alumni to de-mystify ANU to prospective students in their home communities.  

Breaking down barriers - perceived and real - is key to attracting a wider range of outstanding students to ANU. And, of course, we will continue to support every student in a way that our size uniquely allows, to ensure they succeed once they are here. 

We will continue to draw in the finest students from around the world too. Their cultures, ideas and perspectives contribute so much to our university. Our community is theirs. 

Part of our service to Australia is to be the home-away-from-home for the next generation of leaders and innovators around the world. The long-term soft power of our international student group that is welcomed, respected and engaged here on our campus is significant.

In total, our outstanding student experience starts with a diverse and highly engaged student community, an outstanding and flexible curriculum, excellent research-led teaching, a large range of extra-curricular activities, and the intangible feeling of our students being 'at home' on our campus. 

Let's never forget that our campus is a home for most of our students, where we are the immensely proud hosts to a diverse and wonderful community. 

Earlier I spoke of the incredible density of great minds on our campus. They - we - are all part of the legacy of the founding generation of 20th century scholars who answered Australia's post-war call to service to help the nation find its place in the world.  

But many outside our campus want to know - why? For what purpose are our scholars gathered here at the public expense?  

For me, the answer is clear. To create and curate knowledge, and use that knowledge to advance humanity, and educate its future leaders.  

Universities are key to driving societal transformation. Many of Australia's radical ideas and disruptive innovations emerged from our campus, either directly or through our students. 

But the reality is: We have been working in a financially constrained environment. The Australian government has slowly shrunk its support of foundational research. 

It has never been harder for a researcher to win a competitive grant. And when they do we face the dilemma of how to cover the gap in funding between the dollars in the grant and the true cost of the project.

Australia's future is in peril unless it ramps up its investment in research. I have and will continue to advocate on this front. I hope Government will listen, and help engage business and philanthropy in the cause. 

Research is like the nation's superannuation - if you save money now by not investing, you have a much poorer future. We have run a major deficit last year, and will again this year, but we are on a path to recovery - this is not the time to turn away from excellence down the blind alley of mediocrity. 

But even in these constrained times, we have had notable successes. 

In addition to the illustrious awards and global recognition of individual academics, ANU research and the entrepreneurial spirit of some of our colleagues has created new companies. 

Samsara raised $54 million last year for its incredible technology that breaks down plastic to its core molecules so it can be recycled infinitely - this using Colin Jackson's team's foundational work in Chemistry. 

VAI photonics, a spinout of ANU staff member Lyle Roberts and graduate student James Spollard's work on Gravitational Wave instrumentation, was acquired for $40M, for its amazing technology that can tell you precisely where you are, without a GPS. 

In total we had 8 spinouts last year - a new record, and proof that we are delivering on our goal of increasing research translation.  

Awards and spinouts catch the attention of the public, but I think each of us should be proactive in explaining what we do. The Engaged ANU program, led by Professor Lyndall Strazdins, is piloting new ways to ensure the Australian community sees our work, and why it is valuable. This project is a trial to see how we can better communicate beyond our campus. 

Because, while I hope we are re-emerging from the anti-intellectualism of recent years, we should never stop having a conversation with the public - all of the public.

Why? Because the breakthroughs we reported last year in understanding malaria's resistance to drugs, or the genes that cause lupus; in understanding the issues on Australian voters' minds during a hotly contested federal election and researching the economics of poverty - all deserve to be shared. 

The work we do here matters. 

We mustn't stop. We are building our pipeline of scholars, and our new ANU PhD is taking shape under the leadership of Professor Ann Evans. 

I was proud that last year our Senior Management team collectively and unanimously agreed to uplift the HDR stipend by over $5,000 last year, despite our financial constraints and in place of the government support that should exist. But it was much needed, and long overdue. 

It was the latest in a series of significant new investments in our researchers. Over the past seven years, we have awarded ANU Futures funding to many of our new early-career researchers. 

Right from the start we were clear: at least half of the appointments, and half of the dollars, have to go to women researchers as part of our commitment to being a standard-bearer for gender equity. 

I am delighted to say, we have met that goal, and a young generation of new scholars will ensure that the research we do will continue to be at the global leading edge.

Being a standard bearer for equity and diversity means confronting a challenging legacy - where for too long, far more men than women gained continuing positions, were promoted to professors, or were able to take on senior leadership roles. 

We continue to see fewer people from diverse backgrounds reach the highest levels academically or professionally. 

But we are making progress. 

We achieved SAGE Athena-SWAN bronze accreditation, and I have followed through on my commitment to make at least 50% of leadership hires across the University women.

Women are now being promoted at an equal rate to their male counterparts, and we have significantly improved the gender balance of our staff. Where pockets of poor gender balance remain, we will insist on plans and the associated actions to address it over the coming years. 

We have our first female Chancellor. Our Council and our leadership group is more diverse than ever.  

For most of the past two years we have benefitted from two First Nations leaders on the University Executive, and two on our Council. 

One of them, Professor Peter Yu, leads our First Nations Portfolio - already established as a cornerstone of the national conversation on First Nations issues. 

From the Marramarra Murru First Nations Economic Development Symposium to the First Nations Wealth Forum and the work on the Voice to Parliament, and Treaty: these are the conversations modern Australia must have about our vast and complex history. 

In this year, of all years, the national university's responsibility is to convene, and contribute to, the discussions that will help us move forward. 

But in addition to talking the talk, we have to walk the walk. And our Kambri Scholarships program is helping us nurture a new cohort of First Nations leaders - 53 in total now since we launched the scheme three years ago. 

We have a record number of First Nations students and staff, and we are well on our way to creating a First Nations academic ecosystem that will serve the nation into the future.

In CBE, we have partnered with the Australian Public Service to deliver programs to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public servants build their careers with new management skills, while the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation's Pat Turner Scholarships program continues to offer First Nations APS staff the opportunity to study full-time at ANU. 

Probably the single issue that troubles me most as Vice Chancellor is when the safety and wellbeing of members of our community is compromised. 

I have been profoundly moved and distressed by the stories of people hurt by their colleagues on our campus. And it has generated anger - an anger born of trauma and frustration. 

But when we launched our ANU by 2025 strategic plan, we drew a line in the sand - and I quote: we will have zero tolerance for behaviour that falls below our standards or contravenes our values. 

Zero tolerance doesn't mean summary justice. It means that we will act proportionately whenever we see wrongdoing, and not ignore it or sweep it aside. 

This means identifying bad behaviour when it happens - hopefully before it becomes a formal disciplinary issue. 

It means each of us - staff and students - facing up to our responsibility to call out and crack down on the casual insensitivities as well as the serious wrongdoing. 

The leadership's job is to help set the tone, provide the resources to help us deal with this issue and to act appropriately in every case. 

Your job - everyone's job - is to help create that environment day in, day out that gives meaning to zero tolerance. 

We have taken action. Our Student Safety and Wellbeing Plan launched last March has added an additional $3 million per year of investment. New staff and systems have improved reporting and investigating criminal activity or bad behaviour.  

We continue to work with our students and staff because this is an area where we have to pioneer best practice - it simply does not exist in Australia at this moment. 

By choice, we are doing this in the full spotlight of public scrutiny. We fronted up to the National Student Survey results last March, just as we have done at each opportunity to discuss this difficult issue since the Change the Course report in 2017. 

That transparency and our continual engagement on this complex and traumatic issue reinforces our integrity and responsibility.  But it is, sadly, a very long ways from being solved.

For me, achieving a safe, equitable and inclusive campus is another way of saying: "this university should be the best place to work and study in Australia." 

We should all feel welcome here. We should all find our place. 

Where we agree, it's after critical reflection. Where we disagree, it's with respect. That's the culture that will make ANU the best it can be - for our students, our scholars, and our professional staff. 

In fact, I see our professional staff as the unsung heroes of our campus. 

I regret to say, we haven't prioritised our professional staff group enough in the past. So today I announce that we will create a new, national-first professional staff career path at ANU. 

It will recognise that making a career in a professional role at ANU makes you a specialist. 

A specialist in navigating complexity and uncertainty in what is truly a unique workplace culture. In contributing to a national enterprise. In supporting societal transformation. 

You, our professional staff bear significant responsibility. You serve your colleagues and your community. And you do it with integrity. 

We are thankful that you do, and the new career pathway we will co-create with you will do more to help you achieve your ambitions. 

Those three words, Responsibility. Service. Integrity are powerful. Let's never forget that they sit at the heart of who we are as a national university, and what we offer our country. 

They also guide me personally. They led me into this job. 

I had never considered being a Vice Chancellor, but I decided to put my hand up in 2015 to become VC, because this great university - that did so much for me - looked to be in danger of losing its role as Australia's National University.

I was honoured to take on that responsibility, and do my best for the ANU community. 

A Vice Chancellor's job at ANU is to be its chief evangelist - to help harness the energy and resolve of the community to achieve its mission. It is both the most rewarding, and the hardest job, I have ever undertaken. It is a job that requires unbridled enthusiasm and a continual look to the future, and it is a job therefore that can sit with an individual for a limited amount of time. 

My integrity says the end of that time is approaching for me.

That is why I am announcing today that this year will be my last as Vice-Chancellor, and I have notified the Chancellor and the Council of my intention to step down at the end of December. 

I have already given you a snapshot of why I am so proud to have done this job for 7 years. To lead a community of great people, to meet and learn from so many inspiring staff and students, and to shamelessly take a share of the credit for all of your achievements(!).  

But I am also realistic about a VC's 'shelf-life'. Having arrived as an agent of change, for the University's sake, I want to leave before I become 'the status quo'. And, personally, after 8-years, I will be ready to get back to my research and teaching, and a somewhat more balanced life. 

My love for ANU is undimmed. My zest to see it improved hasn't changed. And I always said that when I stepped down as Vice-Chancellor I wanted to hand on a university I would be happy to continue to work in. 

When I look at my job application from 2015, almost everything I said I wanted to achieve as Vice Chancellor is well on its way. I have confidence in the future.

This does not mean there is not still lots to do, and we won't let the pace slacken this year just because I am finishing up. We are not following my plan - we are following our collective plan.

So, here are the things I ask us all to prioritise over the next 12 months:

1)    The Australian Government is looking to undertake major reforms over the coming year, and we need to focus on being a great partner to bring our knowledge and expertise to bear to ensure that the changes are the best they can be for the future of Australia.

2)    Let's work to make ANU have a truly outstanding culture to work and study in. It's not expensive - but it does mean each of us prioritising collegiality and respect day in and day out in our work and interactions with each other. 

3)    We need to work to connect to the entire Australian public. Each of us have a chance to engage with communities with which we have connection, to tell our stories in a way that makes sure we are accessible to all Australians - a place that can be trusted, a place that makes a positive impact to people's lives, a place for study.   

4)    And something which might seem mundane: Service improvement. Every staff member is both a provider and a consumer of services. Let's focus on improving our services - providing the standard we would hope to receive - so that we can all spend more time adding value rather than slowing each other down. 

For me, I will be working to persuade the Federal Government to invest in the amazing work we do for the betterment of Australia - our students, our researchers - and to see us as an opportunity, rather than an expense. 

Beyond that, I want to finish by saying this: next year, I will be proud to be sitting where you are, in the audience, listening to my successor explain where they plan to lead our university. 

Because, while it has been a great privilege and a huge responsibility to be the 12th Vice-Chancellor of ANU, there is no greater privilege or larger responsibility than simply being a member of this extraordinary university. 

I am profoundly grateful for what you have achieved over these past 7 years, and for giving me the opportunity to be your Vice-Chancellor. I only hope I have served you well.


Professor Brian P. Schmidt AC



Watch the Vice-Chancellor's Address