VC’s Update – Foreign interference, privacy and expertise

4 September 2020

Hi everyone,

I wanted to start this blog by addressing concerns about foreign interference in Australia, and specifically in universities. There is a lot to digest in the new proposed legislation that has been put forth this week, and I do not yet know the implications for us and the sector.

What I do know, is that at the core of our mission (First to know the nature of things) is to undertake research in the public sphere for the benefit of humanity. As we enter a new era of geopolitical instability, the importance of our mission is being vindicated by the large amount of attention we are receiving with respect to the potential of foreign interference. From my perspective, our most potent defence against these concerns is absolute transparency in our activities, and that is why we have worked with University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) to make sure we are transparent.

Much of our work has an international dimension to it, and many of us will receive small amounts of funding or resources from international partners, or have honorary positions. These are all things that are going to be important to make sure we declare, and the DVC-R and his team are working to make this as easy as possible going forward. Please work with your director to get your declarations up to date. 

But this is important!  I want everyone to feel confident that they can continue to work internationally in their research - this is absolutely essential for our mission. If you have any personal concerns, please contact the DVC-R's office. We will continue to work with Government to ensure any legislation does not undermine the foundational principles of universities and our contributions to securing the future of our vibrant democracy.

Earlier this month, the Academic Board committed ANU to increase open access to research, and we're the first university in Australia to make our research outputs available freely online. Sharing our knowledge is core to our founding mission to be a resource of expertise and training for the nation and our region. The new policy and procedures take another significant step with a commitment to making research data openly available.  Researchers from all colleges helped to develop the new framework working through many complex issues. Thank you to everyone who has helped. You can find the new policy and procedures online. Training and support will continue to be provided by the ANU Library team.

We are lucky here in the ACT where we have now been COVID-19 free in our community for many months - but we must remain vigilant in our social distancing so we don't end up in a much sadder state. We continue to rely on our panel of experts to make informed decisions when it comes to COVID-19. This is why we are transitioning to a traffic light system to keep our community updated and safe.

I've been reflecting recently on the importance of expertise. Like our campus response, Australia's national response to COVID-19 has been led by expert advice, including those from ANU. When it comes to dealing with a global pandemic (or any issue), it's important that expert voices have more weight than interested opinion. In the last few weeks, many of our experts have been called on to provide advice to Senate committees and the Government - and at times, these discussions have been robust. Contesting of ideas in academia is important, but it must be done in a respectful way. Of particular note, I want to acknowledge the response from Dr Jennie Mallela, Professor Barry Pogson and Dr Ulrike Mathesius for their contributions to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Reference Committee.

It's a critical part of our mission as Australia's national university that our academic staff engage in their areas of expertise. And our commitment to academic freedom is there to protect their right to express their views in their area of expertise. That's not negotiable and I'll recommit to it now and whenever the need arises.

The expertise of our professional staff is just as important, and we're lucky to have professionals at ANU who are leaders in their field. I caught up with Sue Webeck, the pioneering leader of our Respectful Relationships Unit, the other day. She applies her expertise and experience with great sensitivity and she and her team stay up to date with best practice in everything they do. It's important to acknowledge and celebrate the passion many people have in these issues, but just like when making decisions about a pandemic, passion and interest are not the same as expertise. This has been a difficult year and the expert services our professional staff have provided to help keep the campus functioning and give us the tools we need to plan for our uncertain future have been invaluable and I want to say thank you.

Last week our marketing team had great success shifting us to our inaugural 'Virtual Open Week' or VOW. It was great to see more than 5,993 students engage with our online platform. I attended a Q&A session where I was asked some very pertinent questions from our prospective students about what ANU will look like in 2021 and beyond, and how we can help them prepare for a COVID-world. While we don't have all of the answers yet, we do know that we'll be training our graduates to be among the most employable in the world; encouraging them to ask the most important questions facing humanity, and equipping them with the education to find solutions for the most complex problems. While our researchers will advise and support the national reconstruction effort, it will be our teaching staff and educators who ensure our students are prepared for the world in front of them. I'd like to thank all of our staff and students for your support of VOW and ensuring we were able to showcase ANU. Thank you!

Also last week, we had Satellite Selfie flyover 2.0 - and thankfully, the weather cooperated! It was also great to see many of our partners, including CSIRO, Government House and Questacon take part, as well as students from across the ACT and Northern Territory. 2020 will be remembered for many things, but these images remind us that despite all of the challenges, we have been able to come together to create something fun and a little quirky. 

Finally, over the last few weeks, I have attended a number of farewell events for friends and colleagues. 2020 has been a year like no other, filled with constant change and disruptions, but it has also been an opportunity for some to say goodbye to ANU and move into new roles or retire. In a time where physical events have been replaced by Zoom calls, it's been very touching to see the creativity shown at these farewells. From trivia, to videos, to kudo boards and war stories, it's been a real privilege to drop in and see the comradery in teams across campus. To anyone departing ANU, I want to say thank you for your contributions and I wish you luck with where life takes you next.

Brian