VC's Update - 'Twas the night before my annual 'end of year' video…

18 Dec 2023

Hello everyone,

Firstly, I’d like to say thank you to all the staff who turned out to celebrate with me at the End of Year Awards and Garden Party last Friday. It was wonderful to spend the afternoon with you all. Congratulations to the award winners and congratulations too to our successful academic promotion applicants of 2023. I was so impressed by the ‘Bake Your Brian’ entries and absolutely loved tasting them all. The decision was tough. I also want to thank the University for the amazing piece of artwork created in my name by Jesse Martin. The detail in this work is remarkable, and I truly am humbled by the acknowledgement.

Presiding over my final set of graduations last week was a bittersweet time for me. Graduation is such a momentous occasion and having the opportunity to revel in this important milestone for more than 47,000 graduates over the last eight years is something I will never forget. But after 93 ceremonies and more than a million claps, I am literally a bit clapped out and know it is time to hand over the reins. 

When I started in 2016, I was genuinely worried that ANU was beginning to lose its way – and foremost, I hoped to reset the ambition of ANU and get us to re-connect with the idea of being the national university. It was important to me that ANU differentiated itself from other Australian universities by being proud of our national mission, and not shying away from the National Institute Grant that enables us to carry out the important work that others cannot. 

I am so proud of how the ANU community has reconnected with being the national university, and how the Government and even other universities are seeing that we are providing value to the nation with our special grant. This alone has made the last eight years worthwhile. 

But we’ve also made great strides in First Nations participation, knowledge advancement, and impact across the entirety of the campus. The number of Indigenous academic staff at ANU has increased tenfold since I started, and we’ve created pathways from undergraduate to PhDs and from early career research all the way to professorship. The number of Indigenous students studying at ANU is also at an all-time high. We continue to have the highest success rate in the sector, with 70 Indigenous students graduating this year alone. 

A memory I’ll cherish as a high point was the opening of Kambri precinct and working with the four local Indigenous groups to gift us that name. It has brought the centre of our campus to life and is a significant cultural achievement for our University that will last into the indefinite future. It has been such a pleasure working with the local families over the past eight years and learning about the 20,000+ year human history of our campus. 

When I applied for this job, I think the panel was somewhat surprised about how much attention I placed on the importance of ANU providing an education second to none in the world. We may not be gold-plated, but I really believe we are living up to this aspiration. 

Last year ANU achieved its highest ranking in student satisfaction in recent memory, and the highest amongst any of the research-intensive universities in Australia. 85 per cent of our students now come from across the country and the world. And while most universities are struggling with under-enrolment, the ANU is 17 per cent over-enrolled, much higher than any other institution. (It’s a shame we are currently teaching those students without Commonwealth support due to the vagaries of the Job-Ready Graduates scheme). 

We have continued to invest in on-campus accommodation so that any student who wants to study at ANU is now guaranteed a place to live on campus when they first arrive. I believe this is so important for students. It helps them become part of the community and make friends with people from all sorts of backgrounds and areas of study. Again, we are the only University in Australia that can do this. 

While most other Australian research universities are rapidly expanding, a major benefit of leading a university that is our size is that we can remain an academic community, rather than becoming a quasi-corporate entity. While we still have a long way to go, focusing on ensuring that the ANU is one of the best places to work is an achievable goal that we should not take lightly. Getting our workplace structure and culture right across the board is something we need to continue to work on. I’m proud that we were able to put world-leading parental leave in place and also ensure we have enough day-care spots on campus. We’ve also implemented staff and student in distress programs that are there when people need them. 

Of course, It has not all been sunshine and light. I knew being the Vice-Chancellor was going to be hard, but the last four years have been beyond anything any of us could fathom. From Black Summer to the hailstorms, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent financial challenges, the ANU has gone through a particularly tough time. But things are getting better and we should all be optimistic about the future.

This does not mean we should be complacent. I am looking forward to supporting Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell’s vision for the University when I return to my academic post. Each of us will need to evolve how we work and teach, and this is exciting!

I am afraid that the highs and lows of being a Vice-Chancellor are an aspect I never got used to. Every day 20,000 people come to our campus and this figure is also roughly the number of days in a person’s life between high school and retirement. Therefore, on any day, someone on our campus is having the best day of their life while someone else is having their worst. I get to see both and celebrate when the amazing things happen, but I am also often required to intervene and frequently share in the grief when the terrible things happen. This is the part of the job that has worn me out. 

The other challenging part of the job is that each day I am asked to make line-ball calls on issues that have percolated up from below. There are no magical solutions to these problems. All that you can do is your best. So, my parting advice to everyone is to have the self-confidence to know that doing the best you can is all that you can do, and this is always your best option. If you do this consistently, people will always give you the benefit of the doubt. I appreciate everyone’s forgiveness for the things I got wrong. But I have no real regrets, because I tried to do my best each day, and I hope more than anything else, that this is how I will be remembered. 

Tomorrow we will drop the annual 'end of year' video, a cinematically themed reflection of the past eight years. For those worried about my ritual of self-humiliation in years past, fear not – I am just pretending to be Tom Cruise this year.

It has been an honour to serve the University as its Vice-Chancellor, and I am so privileged to have had the opportunity. But after eight years, I am equally privileged to hand the reigns over to our 13th Vice-Chancellor. Genevieve is a remarkable intellect and has a clear and aspirational vision for the future of our University which I share. I hope you will join me in supporting her journey as you have supported mine. 

So, assuming there are no disasters before the New Year, I’m planning to have a few weeks off. I will travel overseas in January for some work, and then return ready for my next adventure up at Mount Stromlo. I hope to spend a day a week on the main campus, so shout out and let’s have a coffee. And maybe I’ll have some fresh raspberries to share. 

I wish you all a safe and restful holiday period.