Vice-Chancellor's Address

Inaugural Vice-Chancellor's Address at the Old Quad, University of Melbourne, Tuesday 18 June 2019.

Council members, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen –

I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which the Parkville campus stands, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to the Indigenous Elders, past, present and emerging, and to any Indigenous people here today.

Thank you for coming to hear me speak, especially given that most of you won’t know exactly what this event is all about! So I will begin with a short explanation.

At the university from which I have recently arrived, at the start of the Academic Year, a solemn ceremony is held at which the Proctors and the University Constables are sworn in and receive their weapons, with which, in days gone by, they would keep the peace in the city, and the students out of trouble.

The Statute Books are present, as are various other symbols of office, and of course everybody has to dress up in somewhat idiosyncratic clothing. Most people think this ritual goes right back into the mists of time, but in fact it was mostly invented by the good old Victorians. And I mean by that, of course, people from the late nineteenth century, and not distant colleagues from this wonderful State.

A further element of the ceremony is that the Vice-Chancellor is required to address the Masters and Scholars of the Colleges, and indeed anyone else from the University who chooses to turn up. In the absence of such a tradition here at the University of Melbourne, I have decided to require myself to address you. Today, I don’t come bearing arms and I don’t expect any trouble!

This gives me a chance tonight to share what is on my mind, what I have seen and experienced over the last nine months or so, and what I think the direction of travel needs to be for our University.

Now the closest we’ll get to ceremony and flummery this evening is that we meet in the ceremonial heart of the University, here in the Old Quad, a fine building which stands on a site that has a long and complex history.

As James Waghorne has noted, ten years before the foundation stone of the Old Quad was laid in 1854, a man called William Westgarth found himself lost in the bush around this area while riding home in the dark. He saw the light of a campfire, and found a group of Wurundjeri people on or very close to the land on which we meet today.

Westgarth recorded this story to praise his notion of ‘civilisation’ that was brought to this place with the establishment of the university, to enlighten what he and his ilk regarded as a primitive colony. He of course missed the irony that it was the Wurundjeri people who guided him out of the darkness, perhaps literally enlightening him, and who pointed him on his way home.

As night falls once again outside, I want to share with you my thinking about what the fundamental principles of this University should be as it strives to be the best that it can be in what is a rapidly changing, and increasingly ephemeral world. What is it that top-class higher education institutions must be? What are the ineluctable foundation stones upon which success must be based?

The starting point seems perhaps surprisingly straightforward to me. We want to be, quite simply, an outstanding community of people who are dedicated to understanding, challenging and generating knowledge in a wide and diverse range of fields.

This concept has many important elements to it. It is about the work we do – the vital work of education and research, in all the disciplines of the sciences, the arts, the humanities, the professions.

It is also about the kind of communitywe are and can become – a community rooted in scholarship, in the give-and-take of respectful but impassioned debate and argument, in ideas, in facts. A community with a distinct place in the world, but also reaching out to people everywhere: locally, the city, the bush; peoples of this and other nations.

But while these might sound like clear and simple concepts, underneath each of them lie many layers of complexity and, importantly, differences of opinion. As we consider the community we want this university to be, I will dig a little deeper this evening, not to weaken but to strengthen the foundations as we build towards the future.

What does the word ‘education’ call to mind for us? If we want to we can trace a line of thought here through Socratic dialogue and dialectic as reported by Plato, through to Rousseau, Newman, Dewey and many others.

But let’s start with a familiar entity – the student. Students are quite obviously why we are here. Acknowledging and stating this clearly is important, not least because it keeps us focused on the primary purpose of the university.

Universities have unique responsibilities to understand what knowledge is, how to preserve it, but also how to challenge it.  There are current bodies of knowledge that need to be maintained and passed on to others eager to learn, our students.

But there is a related, dare I say more important, activity in university education, which might be called ‘inquiry’. We undertake the crucial business of asking questions of that knowledge in rigorous and methodical ways that will refine the knowledge base, and might even radically change our understanding of the subject being studied.  This too needs to be passed on to our students, and indeed done with the active participation of our students whenever and wherever possible.

Let us think back to our own journeys as students and, for many in the room, subsequently as academics.  In my first year as a student, a supervisor told our class that we came in to the University thinking we knew everything; by the end of the second year we would think that we knew absolutely nothing; and by the end of the third year, if he had done his job properly, we might think that we knew a bit about something, but that there was still a lot to learn.

This put me in mind of the well-known quote attributed to Mark Twain, in which he says:  “Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”

But seriously, the life-changing thing about being a university student is when excitement about knowledge starts to build.  We need to help our students to learn how to make systematic inquiry, how to interrogate knowledge in productive ways. Under the influence of scholars at the University of Melbourne, that sense of excitement within the student can grow into something that can change the world. “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled” said Plutarch, and that is apt for what I want the University of Melbourne to be known for - among its students and alumni, and those who meet them in the world. Bringing students into the ongoing conversation around knowledge is about bringing people into a very real community, which lasts through a lifetime. That is what I want to see happen here.  Education and research must be seen as conjoined activities undertaken with the full participation of the whole community at the University, and this most definitely includes our students.

How do we go about making this happen?  Is it through small-group teaching sessions?  Or is this unattainable at the scale at which we operate, and if so what can we substitute in its place?   A crucially important current question is how is all of this affected by current and emerging technologies?  What are the opportunities provided by the rapidly changing communications landscape?

In just nine years’ time – in 2028 – the University of Melbourne will celebrate its 175th anniversary. The first-year students who will join us in 2028 are currently in Year Four of primary school. These digital natives will want more than mobile connectivity. They will want efficient mobility, accessibility through technology and the best learning facilities. It was only nine years ago that the first iPad was released, and thirteen years ago that Facebook was launched to the world. What devices and technologies might exist in 2028?

All of these questions need to be considered in the context of a business model and wise planning for the future that keeps the university financially secure and able to continue as a perpetual establishment. This is most certainly not easy in the current worldwide climate of mistrust of institutions and disregard of facts.

As well as mistrust we must also navigate a high level of scrutiny from government. There are at least four reviews of the sector that are currently about to report, with implications in numerous areas including funding of Commonwealth-supported places.

If this kind of scrutiny is added to the short electoral cycles – three years federally, and four at state level – we can start to feel like we are living in a kind of perpetual uncertainty as to the policy landscape and even the structure of the higher education sector. This becomes a perennial challenge for organisations like us which deal in the long-term business of educating students and the even longer term business of research.  We constantly need to keep a close weather eye on the external environment, and to seek to engage productively and respectfully with policy-makers and politicians, whether or not we like their views, opinions and policy directions.

These challenges notwithstanding, we continue to make powerful contributions to society.  This happens first and foremost in producing well-educated students who go out from here into the world to do great things – as citizens in the workforce, as parents, friends, collaborators and in many cases as leaders, often on the international stage. When they leave campus to do these things they remain, in an important and real sense, part of our community, and we should celebrate and promote this more.

Very recently, a Deloitte report was published on ‘why the future of work is human’. It noted that technology is changing demand for skills in various ways. But it emphasised the biggest demand is for capabilities wherein “humans excel and digital technology has been less successful in automating or augmenting human effort.”

I read that and I think ‘exactly’. Technology is advancing apace but what is it that cannot be replaced by machines? And what can we as a university contribute uniquely, for our students and for their employers, to help shape the workers who can deliver the skills they will need for the future? Clearly high-level knowledge will remain in demand, but can we not also deliver the things that only humans can do, through developing students’ ability to connect with and understand others, to know and understand the world in its’ diversity, to develop insight, to acquire the acumen to synthesise knowledge and to develop the sensitivity to incorporate the perspectives of others? I think we can do all these things.

This really gets to the heart of what we want for our graduates. At this university we will continue to maintain that deeper understanding and knowledge are the best foundations for doing any high-level job. We are also determined to provide appropriate training where we can, and in the future this will include a continuing commitment to our students in the shape of the lifelong learning ideal.

But of course, we are not in the business of cloning graduates to fit precisely into one, time-sensitive job-mould, not least because the employment landscape is rapidly changing, and what we set out to produce in five years might not be the right shape or fit at that time. Similarly students leaving university now are unlikely to stay in one single industry or role for the rest of their working life.  Flexibility is thus key to their success.  This is one of the important insights of the Melbourne Model I think, which is a curriculum model that I very much intend to maintain. Broad education and high-level thinking skills are part of the grounding in knowledge that a great university like this can give its graduates. This will always be valuable for them in the world.

The curation and interrogation of knowledge leads us inevitably to the next core activity in a great university, which is of course research. Great research relies on the habit and practice of asking serious questions and following wherever the answers may lead. One thing that I have enjoyed hugely in the nine months I have been here is the ongoing dialogue with many different colleagues at all levels in the university about research. What does really good research look like in different disciplines? Should we be doing more cross-disciplinary research, and if so how should we go about it?  How do we, wherever appropriate, foster translation and commercialisation of research?  How do we educate the broad sweep of people outside the narrow bounds of the University about the importance of research for its own sake, that might never be translated?  How do we decide on the importance of the research-teaching nexus, and how do we maximise our brilliant research in the educational programmes for our students? These are live questions and I am very keen to encourage the widest possible discussion of them.

One thing I want to make clear is that we must be here to be what I call the ‘engine of discovery’. This is our primary role as a research university. We are not, first and foremost, here for research translation or commercialisation; we are here to find out interesting and important things about ourselves and the world in which we live. But this fact does not in any way remove the further obligation on us to translate our research when we do find something interesting about the world.

How we maximise our ability to do this is being discussed, and worked on, and this will take a long time to get right.  If we think of research translation as a pipeline from pure knowledge to knowledge embodied in the world, then we can see how this might work. The university might be seen as a vast river of knowledge and discovery which fills the front end of the pipeline with such energy and force that brilliant innovations are pushed through it and out into the world, quickly and with maximum impact. For this to work we need to build the infrastructure and culture to keep this pipeline clear and efficient.

A question, then, is how can we square up the vision for translated research with the vision for pursuit of knowledge pure and simple: the timeless ideal for supporting brilliant researchers, scholars and academics to follow their curiosity in knowledge to wherever it leads.

Let me briefly capture a very interesting discussion about this among the Deans recently. It began with my asking how we might encourage more cross-disciplinary initiatives at the university to identify and address big questions.  During the discussion we touched on the fact that universities are under increasing pressure to reassure the public and politicians about their usefulness. But the important point was made that under that pressure, we should not hesitate to continue to make clear that, and I quote one of the Deans, “much of the best and most innovative research done in universities is curiosity-driven, blue-skies work.”

I completely agree with that. But a problem highlighted by this Dean is that the external pressures mean that there is a real risk that we become instrumentally fixated on complex contemporary problems that require solutions.

He went on to add, and I quote again: “Indeed, there’s the deep question of our age, I think, around which all our researchers should be able to converge: ‘what does it mean to be human?’ The question is asked of us by the environmental disaster, by rapid developments in technology, by the erosion of privacy by big tech – and by much else besides. Imagine how at the University of Melbourne we might change completely how we understand what it means to be human.”

I took this away from the discussion that ensued, and thought, first, that this is a fascinating proposition, and second, that although it is completely curiosity-driven, it is nevertheless a big question that can be properly addressed by a series of cross-disciplinary research efforts that can only be carried out at a great comprehensive university such as ours.

I have to confess that I also enjoyed the thought that it is no hardship to be required to think about such things while working in a great university with brilliant colleagues!

Back to the point that I am making. We need to make clear that scholarship and research driven purely by curiosity are the bedrocks of what a university does in research. This can be framed in terms of addressing questions and it can be framed in terms of seeking to solve specific problems. These are compatible, not mutually exclusive methods of inquiry, and can each be present in an individual researcher’s portfolio.

What we communicate publicly about what we do as a university can also be expressed without compromising these principles. We already have a great set of stories to communicate, with governments and with others. Stories like FREO2, the project led by colleagues from the Department of Physics, which is delivering oxygen, the gift of breathing, to mostly children with pneumonia who would otherwise die in remote hospital locations in Africa. Or the SWARM project where a multidisciplinary, international team is working on ways to develop fundamental advances in collaborative reasoning.  Or the 50-word project by linguists in the faculty of Arts which is striving to save as many Australian Indigenous languages as possible.

The intent and quality of our research across the disciplines is stunning.

I want to say something here about academic freedom. Supporting the freedom of our academics to study whatever subject they are interested in goes hand-in-hand with the fact that sometimes they might come to conclusions that we do not agree with, or even like, or that might offend us or some of our friends elsewhere in public life. This is when we must be at our most intellectually robust, within a framework of deep respect for their work and their scholarship. This does not mean that we cannot disagree with their conclusions, but as talked about earlier, this should be done by using proper methods of inquiry and intellectual challenge based on evidence, and certainly not by shouting from the safe spaces of social media, often about an article or research paper that the naysayer has not even had the courtesy to read.    Academic freedom and freedom of speech are distinct but overlapping things.  They will both remain core values of the University of Melbourne.

As with education, so with research: we cannot think seriously about anything that the University does without thinking about the people who actually do the hard work.   People who are contributing to our community, who are the essential formation of our community, and who perform a plethora of tasks, come in all shapes and sizes, with a very wide range of characteristics and attributes.  We want all of these brilliant people.  We must ensure that our recruitment processes and our culture in the University can celebrate the diversity of our staff members.

So how can we make sure that we recruit and nurture the broadest range of people? This is where the vital work that we are doing on diversity and inclusion comes in. Part of what is under way right now is the important work of gathering the views of our people to find out what their experiences are in terms of inclusion and opportunity.   I think that we will find out that we have much to learn, and much more to do here.

Let me pose a tough question. Why do we really want diversity and inclusion?

My view is that diversity and inclusion is another of the ineluctable foundation stones that makes a university community strong, and enables it to perform at the highest level, in the globally significant realm of top-level education and research.

If we are serious about playing a leading role in the broader community - in the world - we should showcase the world to itself. We should embody, in our students and our staff, the world in its full diversity, complexity and plurality. We have lecturers and students from more than 140 nations here. Our university community is diverse in many ways and respect must be at the heart of how we operate. Respect is not optional at our university, it must be the norm.

Though I do not see the work of our Reconciliation Action Plan as simply a sub-set of diversity and inclusion, it is appropriate to mention it at this point. As I said at the beginning we meet tonight in the ceremonial heart of the University. Its buildings are not as old as some of the so-called ancient universities but the culture that has been present in this place is much older, and that is entirely thanks to the heritage we have received from the Aboriginal people of this country, Wurundjeri land. Australian Aboriginal cultures are the oldest continuous cultures on earth. If we did decide to inquire into what it means to be human, here is a very good place indeed to begin to ask the question, and in so doing, weave Indigenous knowledge and culture into our very fabric.

Indeed, we are surrounded here by echoes of what we are in this place: Maree Clarke’s beautiful artworks downstairs; the stunning stained-glass work by Tom Nicholson; and the nineteenth century illustrations by our academic forebears on these walls. We are built on an ancient home, a centre for culture and for the community, a place for meeting and sharing knowledge.

This is absolutely central to who we are. Our story is, very much, a narrative about place. We are, and should always see ourselves as foundational in this city of Melbourne. This university is very much a part of the fabric of this city and the nation.  Don’t forget that this building’s foundation stone was laid on the same day and by the same people as was the foundation stone of the city’s State Library.  From here, I want us to continue to require ourselves to be foundational and to be a partner in good new things that happen in this city, and beyond the city in the wider world. One of the many ways in which this is happening is in our continuing involvement in developing and building various precincts in the city, and in the beautiful new buildings that we are bringing to life on our campuses.

Our narrative about place is a continuing evolution, and one of its aspects is the way our artistic and knowledge legacy is being put to great new uses by students, artists, partners, remote communities and people around the world. Look at the stunning works here in the Old Quad. Tour the brilliant new Conservatorium of Music at the Ian Potter Southbank Centre, and just take in the fantastic way new partnerships with philanthropy help us to go way beyond what we could otherwise achieve as a community.

We can see this philanthropic principle embodied in the new Ian Potter Southbank Centre just mentioned, in thousands of students who can study here now through the generosity of philanthropists in funding scholarships, through the 27 new research professorships created at the University of Melbourne in the past five years through the great generosity of our donors. Philanthropy is a principle of partnership here which is becoming one of the foundational principles of this university.

Our broad community is based in knowledge and for knowledge, not just by harnessing the brilliance of students and academic colleagues, but by bringing in too the combined energy of impassioned alumni and friends of the University who value the knowledge enterprise, the engine of discovery and inquiry, and human creativity, as we do here in the academy.

We are a University with increasingly global reach. We need to be proud of that, and recognise the many occasions when we might lead international collaborations and ideas, to understand what it is to be human in the broadest sense, and to address some of the world’s biggest and most daunting challenges, working with colleagues, institutions, alumni and friends wherever they may be.

In closing, as I have moved around our campuses, our city and this nation, and as I talk with students, staff, alumni and parents, with our philanthropic supporters and friends, and with our community, business and government leaders, I hear and feel the deep passion and enthusiasm for our university.

They have enormous belief in our institution and our ability to be an engine for discovery. They have great passion and enthusiasm for what we are doing today and what we can do in the future.

I feel exactly the same way. I want to harness that conviction and encourage everyone to stretch that passion for inquiry, learning and research, to make a difference in our community and to strive for excellence in all we do. We are already a great university for Australia, but we can strive to be even better in the future, not just for the benefit of all Australians, but also to do our fair share as members of the global community: to understand the world around us and to contribute positively to the lives of people and communities in that world.

Perhaps the greatest strength we bring to this endeavour is our people – the exceptional quality of the students and staff that are the heart of this university community. It has been a real pleasure to work closely with many of you in this room since starting as Vice-Chancellor nine months ago. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reflections, and continuing to listen and learn from you in the months and years ahead.

Thank you.