Vice-Chancellor's Fourth Annual Address

The Vice-Chancellor’s annual address to the University of Melbourne community, delivered at the Old Quad on Tuesday 21 June 2022.

Chancellor, members of the University community: I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we work and learn. I pay my respects to Indigenous Elders, past and present, and acknowledge Indigenous members of our community.

As we look out on the impressive landscapes of our campus, we can mistakenly think that those landscapes have never changed. Tall buildings like the tower of Ormond College, magnificent trees like the river red gums by the University oval, seem to be fixtures. But that tower was not there 200 years ago. The river red gums were only seedlings, once. This is a reminder that things that may look like solid entities to our eyes are transitory. Amidst constancy, there is always change. As University people we can and should hold both the virtue of stability and the need for positive change in our minds, as we think about our future together as a community from 2022.

What elements of our cultural landscape must we keep? What elements of that landscape should we change?

Let us remember that the University is a community that does many things well. Our researchers lead the world in many different disciplines, both basic and applied.  Our students and alumni are high-achieving in their studies and careers. In partnership with others, we are tackling some of the world’s hardest problems and asking some of the world’s most difficult questions.

We are also a community that is capable of even greater things, and always capable of doing things in new ways.

Community is crucial. One of our pressure points is that too many students feel they are not strongly enough connected to the University. We have research that indicates two thirds of students at the University have recently not had a sense of belonging and connectedness here.  Being locked down during the worst days of the pandemic undoubtedly has played a role in this. But it is not the only reason for the sense of disconnection.

Now is the time to improve on this score. This year we have begun again to have in-person interactions on campus. Now that we can actually meet together face-to-face, we have the opportunity to make this community stronger than ever. This is one of the urgent priorities that the Provost and colleagues are addressing in their work on the Students and Education Strategy.

Consultation on the Strategy is now underway, and I encourage everyone to take this opportunity to participate in the events to be held in coming months. How can we make sure that we value the great work our staff do in teaching and learning? How can we ensure that all students have a sense of belonging and connection to our scholarly community?

As we think about community, I would like to highlight the creation of the portfolio of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (People and Community), with Professor Pip Nicholson now in the role.

The work that Pip is leading to develop a People strategy is timely, with many colleagues involved in the consultations this month. I welcome the priority within this work of ensuring that we create a respectful and collegial workplace at Melbourne, underpinning the healthy and inclusive community that we aspire to be.

Central to this aspiration is the fairness with which we treat all our employees.

During the past year, much of our attention has been focused on the remedial work that has been needed to address the issue of underpayment of our colleagues employed on casual contracts, and most importantly to make sure that this never happens again in our university. You may have heard both me and the Provost be absolutely clear about our commitment to significantly improving job security and reducing our use of casual contracts in employing people in the University. This work is now properly underway. The goal is to improve our practices across the board.

If I can put it simply, the point of having a healthy and inclusive community is to be the very best university that we can be. Already Melbourne is one of the finest universities, anywhere.

But we can be even better. Inspiring our students. Energising our staff to continue working to the highest levels of professional and academic excellence. Remember that as an institution, we are not here just for our own good, but for the good of others.

Ultimately, all our work might be construed as being connected to an idea of a social contract. I want us to commit ourselves to honouring the social contract whereby we serve the world through our education and research, and through our work with others outside the university, and continually to improve the ways we do this.

This is an appropriate point at which to mention the election of the new Australian government. I welcome the positive possibilities for change that this moment opens. Two areas obviously relevant for us have been signalled in the early days of the new government: Indigenous constitutional recognition, and sustainability. As flagged through two different, important and relatively recent initiatives – the Indigenous Knowledge Institute, and Melbourne Climate Futures – these are already right on our radar.

I was delighted that Indigenous constitutional recognition was almost the first issue flagged on election night itself, by the new Prime Minister, and I know that many colleagues (and students) will show great commitment and energy to help ensure that this long overdue recognition is achieved.

I welcome the clear signal that action in response to climate change is now a clear priority for Australia, and again, I am keen that we join in partnership with Government at all levels to deliver the necessary outcomes required to address this critical issue.

And we are well placed to do so.   Increasingly, we see an exciting coming-together of Melbourne Climate Futures with our own daily work to make the University’s operations more sustainable. This was reflected very visibly at the recent launch of the University’s new Sustainability Plan 2030, which took placein our new 6-star green-rated Student Pavilion building, with students as well as staff members participating in the event. The passion, energy and commitment devoted to sustainabilityby our students, staff and indeed alumni is very inspiring.

On the sustainability front, there are so many valuable pieces of work going on with little fanfare. Just one is the Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub, led by the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences from the University’s Dookie campus, which brings together partners from across Victoria to collaborate and develop innovative approaches to drought resilience throughout our communities, including on farms and in the wider environment.

Beyond sustainability, another important global dimension of our work lies in the area of public education and advocacy. This can be seen on a number of fronts on any given day – not only in the passionate expression of opinions by our students, on matters from gender rights to political conflicts at home and overseas, but also in the important role played by experts on complex policy problems, from nuclear disarmament to public health.

Sometimes academic work and awareness-raising go closely together, as in the recent joint program between the Faculty of Arts and Queens College to support refugee students, again responding to an area of growing need in our world.

One of the most critical areas for us as we go about our daily lives in the University – and one that can be very hard to get right – is finding a balance between behaving respectfully to members of our community as persons versus tolerating others’ opinions. Part of the challenge for everyone in this moment, I suspect, is a growing tendency – perhaps driven by 24-hour news media and social media – of constantly boiling down complicated situations to the assumption that there is a simple answer to every problem which can be given in a few seconds. It is a development of the sound bite problem – not enough time and space to discuss and understand highly complex landscapes of ideas. This can then lead to opposing groups forming, who think that the way to disagree is to “take a stand”, and thence to start throwing metaphorical bricks at each other.  This is intellectually lazy and is the antithesis of how we should behave in a university.

The solution may be to reflect more on what we already do. As scholars and students, we challenge each other constantly, to think in better ways about questions and problems. This is one of the most important roles of a university education. We have an important role to play not just on campus but for the world, in finding answers to questions and solutions to problems, but also in dissecting and explaining issues, and in challenging governments and others, and of course ourselves, to think harder about whatever is happening.

Respectful listening as well as robust expression of views are centrally important here. We should not forget that listening is just as important as advocating and debating. Again, a challenge to this essential human practice arises from an incessant focus on media culture where listening has been marginalised by a media emphasis on proclaiming – via Twitter for example.

At university we have the obligation and opportunity to model more productive modes of disagreement and debate. This is a key part of our social obligation. We can respond to unhealthy trends in the popular discussion of issues by modelling vigorous, informed discussion and debate in our classrooms, on our campuses and through our social media platforms and our participation in external media outlets. Let us make this an objective as we move forward in 2022 and years ahead.

The return this year to working and learning face-to-face highlights the essential value of ‘place’ to our university community at every level. I raised a discussion point in an earlier Vice-Chancellor’s Address: about the question of ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I think that one part of an answer to that question is the need to be together, and that definitely has a ‘place’ dimension to it. Being physically present with each other in the same place is and will remain a fundamental part of being human and of being in society.

I do not mean to suggest that we should forget the positive lessons that we have learned from our extensive use of digital communication tools during the past two years. For me this is obvious. Let us remember that even before the pandemic we were already using and always seeking to improve the ways we use digital resources to serve our core research and education mission -- something I referred to in the Strategy Discussion Paper 2030 which, many months before the pandemic, spoke of ‘the vital role …. of digitally-mediated learning’. We would be foolish to ignore the pedagogical and other lessons learned from our remote learning and working since the pandemic began.

However, we should always remember that our use of digital tools takes place in a context of place-based and campus-based work and learning: not the other way around. The physical campus is not an add-on to an essentially digital learning or working experience. The way I view it is that with our return to campus this year, and in years ahead, we have a great chance before us to improve the overall quality of the student experience and of the working experience as well, utilising our digital tools and technologies while remaining anchored as a community in ‘place’.

Again, I thank everyone for the brilliant ways you have adapted to the necessity for changing working conditions, from the start of the pandemic through to today. Personally, I have been greatly energised by seeing everyone again, face to face. There is a public transport sign around Melbourne at the moment saying: ‘Let’s go into the office today.’ Let’s read that as ‘campus’. There is so much benefit for all of us, and our university, in being together again.

Since I began as Vice-Chancellor nearly four years ago, our senior team has evolved and is leading significant change at the University on a number of fronts, and this positive direction will continue. With a new Provost, new Deputy Vice-Chancellor appointments and several new Deans, as well as the great enthusiasm for positive change that I have seen at places like the Melbourne Leadership Conference in March, I feel that we are in a stronger position than ever to meet the University’s aspirations for excellence as a top-flight global institution.

Inevitably, in a high-performing culture like ours, leaders do change, not infrequently leaving for new leadership positions elsewhere, nationally and internationally. So, the new leadership team here is part of a natural process, but it also affords the opportunity to take decisive steps now to build community and develop the culture in even better ways.

Not only greater gender equity, but a more thoroughly inclusive culture is what we want to achieve. We have taken strong steps in this direction, and there is more still to do. We are for example making real progress with our Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2030.

Right across the organisation, we have made progress on diversity and inclusion, and all faculties have contributed to the progress, on gender inclusion in particular. But we still have significant gaps in important areas including anti-racism and disability. We can do better on cultural diversity too. Let us renew our commitment and build the momentum in each of these important areas.

Also, since last year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Address, we have taken action on sexual misconduct, launching a new Respect at Melbourne Committee, chaired by the Provost, that is leading the next phase of a major program of work focused on eliminating sexual misconduct in the University community, and on supporting victim-survivors. This is a crucial area of work.

Tonight, I repeat my exhortation to all staff members to play an active part in eliminating sexual misconduct, and creating a safe and respectful work environment.

Our institution has certain reputations, positive and negative, and some of the negative is deserved including something I have referred to before, namely ‘the institution’s troubled history in relation to Indigenous culture’. This is something that we will address through our next steps on reconciliation, which include the truth-telling project and forthcoming book about this institution’s involvement in past wrongs.

This necessary truth-telling work is painful and disturbing, but ultimately, can only enhance our university and its standing.

Reputations can and do change over time, as we see from the history of many other institutions and nations – including the Commonwealth of Australia, which from 1901 to 1973 was known for its White Australia Policy. Historic change can take a long time to come, but when it comes, it can happen quite quickly.

Today at Melbourne, we as the University’s people – leaders and community members –hold the present in our hands. Whatever happened in the past, we are the University now. Therefore, regardless of what has happened historically, we have the capacity to ‘be the change’ that we want to see.

In any organisation, there are aspects of having an embedded culture that are good, and also other aspects that need to change. If we work together, there will be much more positive improvement in our culture and institution in the years ahead.

Despite the upheavals of the past two years, the fundamental reason why the University exists has not changed. In fact, it has only emerged more plainly into view. That reason is our social obligation.

We exist to serve society.

As universities, we are curators and custodians of much of the important knowledge that humans possess, and the task of developing and applying that knowledge is a major part of our social role. We do this through the diversity of knowledge that we hold, from Indigenous knowledges through the cultural knowledges of the major world traditions, to the impressive varieties of arts, science and professional knowledge across our faculties. We do it particularly through many kinds of partnership, where we have the depth, the breadth, the boldness and the creativity to have a powerful impact.

Knowledge translation through partnership is one of the many things we do well at the University, and I was excited last week to announce two major initiatives which are going to take our efforts in this area, and specifically in research commercialisation, to a new level. These are the University of Melbourne Genesis Pre-Seed Fund and Tin Alley Ventures, which will support our people to take their ideas and turn them into start-up companies and beyond.

It is wonderful news on a couple of fronts. Of course, obtaining more financial capacity to fund these things is important. But important too, is the fact that these initiatives are intertwined with additional support to academics and researchers in the form of mentoring, partnership and skills development.

There are many diverse examples of successful knowledge translation projects happening at the University. In just two days recently, I attended the launches of two amazing but much different projects: Next Level Collaboration and Let’s Chat Dementia.

Next Level Collaboration is a social enterprise start-up using video-games to improve the social skills of neuro-diverse kids. Let’s Chat Dementia is a project which has taken a huge amount of research and created resources for a properly community-based approach to improving brain health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Both these projects are making unique and positive differences within particular communities.

On a different scale, another great addition to our armoury of partnership and knowledge is the Australian Institute for Infectious Disease that will bring the Burnet Institute to Parkville and expand the Doherty Institute, as well as enhancing our overall capability as a centre of innovation in fighting infectious disease in the Asia Pacific region, a crucial role globally given the potential for new pandemic diseases to emerge from this region.

I am excited by the fact that there are so many different people across this community, specialising in different areas of knowledge, some of whom are working on large-scale initiatives like the AIID and others on smaller social initiatives, each and every one of them working toward a significant social good.

We are strongly committed to being a university that works in partnership with those people – including governments, community groups, alumni, philanthropists, and other educational and research institutions – who want to make a difference in the world. We are committed to working at the cutting edge of knowledge - in the arts and humanities, in the sciences and in the professions - as we should as a comprehensive University. Through all the disciplines, we are committed to joining with others in the world who are likewise eager to be where the action is, globally, in tackling the world's big challenges.

We also know that a central thread in the fabric of the university is being a foundational institution in this city. ‘Foundational’ implies more than just history, important though history is. We are committed to continuing to be foundational in this city, for many years to come. This drives us to work with others to take new initiatives, form new partnerships, break new ground, in meeting the many and varied challenges that people and communities face.

We can be foundational through our work, tackling the problems of the day, from climate change to the multiple challenges of disease and war, through to all our basic but indispensable work supporting great education and blue skies research.

Our staff and our students have continued to do their work superbly well through the great difficulties of the past two years, and consequently I feel delighted and privileged that I will be with you for a second term as Vice-Chancellor, so that I may continue to work with this inspiring community.

As we face into the future, let us remember that we do not only undertake our work for one small community, but rather with the clear goal to be ‘foundational’ as a catalyst for society and all communities in a much wider sense.

It is great to be with you, and to have the chance to continue working for that objective.

There is so much to be proud of at this university.

Thank you.