Chancellor's address at the ANU 2025 Strategic Plan launch

02 Aug 2021

I welcome you to this special event to mark our university's 75th anniversary and to chart our way forward for the next five years through our strategic plan ANU 2025.

I am joining you from Perth, the home of the Wadjinuk people on Noongar land, and we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we each meet today and pay our respects to their elders past and present.

I particularly welcome all our highly talented students and our hard-working academic and administrative staff, alumni and friends.

I pay specific tribute to the leadership of the Vice-Chancellor for he has kept our University focused on its mission during the recent challenges and disruptions - from bushfires to hailstorms and now a global pandemic.

Brian deserves high praise for his unswerving commitment to maintaining excellence in our teaching and research as he has navigated the stormy seas of the past 18 months.

We are proud  that ANU is the only university in the world that has a Nobel laureate as Vice-Chancellor.

And we have a track record in that regard - one of my predecessors, Lord Howard Florey, also a Nobel Laureate, served as Chancellor from 1965 to 1968.

As one should hope from a research intensive university, we have produced a number of laureates - I'll mention a few more shortly.

That the university has been tested during the last couple of years is without question.

For a time we have been robbed of our students on campus and many students are still forced to learn remotely.

While it has not been easy, our ANU community has demonstrated its resilience and resourcefulness.

That undoubtedly comes from our remarkable culture that has been nurtured over many decades since the founding of this University in 1946.

Our story begins somewhat modestly, with some early scepticism.

Media reports around April 1946 quietly noted the introduction of legislation into the Federal Parliament by the Minister for Post-War Reconstruction and Minister in charge of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, John Dedman.

The Australian National University Act of 1946 was to establish the governance structures and the creation Research Schools, including-

The John Curtin School of Medical Research and Schools of Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, and Pacific Studies.

Then on 5 July 1946, there was a lively debate in the House of Representatives  during the Second Reading of the ANU Bill.

Then Leader of the Opposition, Sir Robert Menzies, acknowledged the need for additional universities in post-War Australia, yet he raised concerns about the ability of the proposed National University to attract eminent academics and scientists to the small and isolated town of Canberra[1].

He also argued that it should perhaps be a post-graduate university only and suggested that its title was somewhat pretentious for a fledgling institution yet to establish the necessary "esprit de corps" among its staff and students.

Well, the first MP on his feet to defend the ANU Bill was the young backbench Member for Fremantle, Kim Beazley[2], who went on to serve as Education Minister from 1972 to 1975, and I quote:

"I am very interested indeed in the whole project of the university at Canberra, and I am quite sure that if it is established on the lines recommended, it will add very considerably to the quality of research and education generally in the Commonwealth," he said.

Now, I feel sure Kim Beazley Snr would have been chuffed to know that his eldest son (born in 1948), one Kim Beazley Jnr would not only have a significant political career but would also be appointed in 2009 as Chancellor of the very same university, that he, Kim Snr, supported at its creation.

There were also concerns from existing universities in State capitals that funds for ANU would come out of their grants, which Minister Dedman assured the House would not be the case.

Some things never change - ANU funding continues to be a source of discussion among other universities!

The Act was passed by Parliament on 1 August 1946 and the focus then turned to building our university campus.

The inspired choice for our first Vice-Chancellor was the visionary Sir Douglas Copland.

His work as Australia's Prices Commissioner and economic consultant to the Prime Minister during World War II was described broadly as brilliant.

His later work at ANU and as a diplomat, places him among the giants of his era.

He was responsible for literally laying the infrastructure and academic foundations for what has become Australia's leading university.

To avoid any diplomatic unease, I should acknowledge that he came from a town south of Christchurch in New Zealand.

Born in 1894, he lived through some of the most challenging times in human history - with two World Wars and the Great Depression.

The Copland legacy lives on through ANU and CEDA, that he also helped establish.

Legendary scientist Sir Isaac Newton famously declared that his achievements came from standing on the shoulders of giants, and that is the good fortune of all of us at ANU as we build on the work of Sir Douglas Copland.

The challenge set for ANU was to be an 'intellectual powerhouse' to help rebuild the nation after World War II, with a mandate to solve complex scientific problems, contribute to economic development and social cohesion, and improve Australia's understanding of itself and its region.

So this raises the question today "Has our institution risen to that challenge?"

I say yes, and while there are many measures of success, allow me to highlight a few to demonstrate.

Both Professors Peter Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel spent time at John Curtin School of Medical Research during their outstanding careers, sharing the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work on human immune responses to viruses - a subject of great interest to the medical research and broader community at present[3].

An alumni of the school, Sir John Eccles, was jointly awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize for Medicine for work partly undertaken at ANU into the study of human nerve cells.

ANU also hosted Professor John Harsanyi, who was jointly awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in the complex field of game theory.

One of his collaborators and awardees was the brilliantly flawed Princeton mathematician John Nash, whose life and work was the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind, starring Russel Crowe - ok he's a New Zealander, so I won't claim him.  

Arguably the University's greatest contribution to Australia has been through its graduates, who have gone on to reach positions of leadership in organisations, communities and government throughout Australia and internationally.

ANU officially began as a research university in 1946, although it was not until 1960 that undergraduates were enrolled.

Those first undergraduates are still relatively young, just about to turn 80, and many remain active in their communities and careers.

Specifically, ANU graduates have made a significant contribution to Australia through policy development and implementation as experts within the Australian public service.

For example, many of the outstanding diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are our graduates, and as Foreign Minister I relied on their skills, and wisdom and their insights.

There is little doubt that ANU has provided an environment for personal and intellectual growth that has been of great benefit to its students and staff.

However, one of its greatest achievements has been the early and ongoing development of its "esprit de corps" - its character - and that comes from the students experience and ourpeople.

Thinking back to the times of our founding, it actually was an audacious idea to establish a new university on a greenfield site in the relatively isolated and small community of Canberra.

Australia had a small population of 7.5 million and technology was only just starting to overcome the "tyranny of distance"[4].

Women had only just been elected to serve in Federal Parliament - and that number was just two - in 1943.

However, we can place the University's founding in the context of the optimism that prevailed in many parts of the world, that better times lay ahead after the horrors of World War II.

The United States had emerged as the preeminent international power, leading the development of the United Nations and other organisations in an effort to bring greater stability to the world.

There was a collective will to develop a rules-based international order to prevent conflict between nations.

In 1946, the first ever United Nations Security Council elections were held and Australia was elected as a member and as the first president of the security council.

Australia was a more confident and independent nation, after establishing our first diplomatic post outside London, with an embassy in Washington in 1946.

It was a time of inspiration and innovation for our national leaders, who dared to think big and act on big dreams and hopes.

ANU is the embodiment of that vision.

On the 75th anniversary, I also ask: Does our nation make enough use of its own national university?

I think the answer is no - actually there's far more that can and should be done.

ANU is a great national treasure, which must never be taken for granted.

The world is entering a new era of great power competition, most notably between the United States and China.

The policy challenges for Australia in navigating the more difficult waters ahead will require insights and wisdom from our leading thinkers, policy makers and legislators.

The fourth industrial revolution, the technology revolution, is transforming our lives and the greatest technological advancements and disruptions still lie ahead.

Climate change is a global threat, and to Australia and the nations of the South Pacific.

Government financial responses to first the 2008 global financial crisis and now the global pandemic are unprecedented in sheer scale, with longer-term implications difficult to forecast.

So as these complex issues continue to challenge policy makers, they will need to rely increasingly on the intellectual support of institutions including universities.

ANU was established for precisely that purpose, and I am confident that our people can and will rise to meet these current and future challenges.

My hope is that in say 25 years' time, when we celebrate the University's centenary, we will be recognised even more broadly for our vital role in Australia's national development.

So happy 75th anniversary to this great national institution - from its humble beginnings to the world-class university it is today.