ANU Decision Makers Series: Professor Richard Baker

(Photo by Ben Coughlan)

From ANU kid, to ANU student, to ANU staff member, to ANU leader. Professor Richard Baker is an ANU man. While a newcomer to the University Executive, Baker is probably the longest serving ANU staff member on the VC’s leadership team. His previous roles include Director of Science Education, and Deputy Dean of Science under the legendary Professor Aidan Byrne (now CEO of the Australian Research Council), who Baker describes as probably his greatest boss.

Baker also has a long-standing family connection to ANU that goes back much further – a vivid memory of his childhood is waiting each day on University Avenue for his father, then an ANU academic, to finish work.  As well as his father being an ANU academic, Baker’s mother also worked here in the 1950s (as a research assistant to the first professor of economics). Baker and his wife both studied here in the 70s, and he came to work full-time as an academic in 1993. And to keep a good thing going, their daughter is a current ANU student.

Despite only a few months ago having to be the strict voice of the Chancelry, when ANU took Woroni to task for a previous publication they considered went too far, Professor Baker was remarkably relaxed when I sat to interview him at HB Gods cafe for this series of profiles we are doing on each of the members of the ANU Executive.

As the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience), Baker tells me his job is about “enhancing the student experience in all dimensions in and out of the classroom”. Another way he puts it is “maximizing buzz” on campus. His portfolio also includes the halls and colleges, where he is active in engaging with staff and students there, alongside Luce Andrews, Director of the residential and campus communities. I know he has been doing the rounds here because I work at Toad Hall, which means somewhere down the line Baker is actually my boss (I have only just realized that in writing this sentence – so this can also be my disclosure statement!).

When asked what some of the key challenges are that he sees for ANU students, Baker first mentions Facebook and social media, so we talk about that for a bit.  “I hope students think about what they write and think if they’d be happy for that to be quoted back at them in 30 years… if Facebook and digital cameras had been around 20 or 30 years ago, you’d wonder if some people would be elected to parliament now”. An interesting point that makes you wonder what he knows about some of our current politicians. He was, after all, at ANU with Peter Garrett and admits to attending parties at the “infamous student house” Garrett lived in. I didn’t ask him to elaborate and he did not disclose the address.

It is likely that I will be criticized for saying this, but Professor Baker is well regarded by students across the ANU. I approached someone at ANUSA, someone at PARSA and sent Facebook messages to a quite a few people who were in his courses in the hope that I would get a range of views.  I did not get any negative criticism at all, not even off the record. A former student of his Vice Chancellor’s Leadership and Influence course (Baker created the VC courses), Jeevan Nadanakumar, said that Baker’s VC courses give students unique opportunities and that Baker has “always got time for you”, which is supported by another classmate who says she emailed and within minutes Baker had responded and agreed to meet with her on the same day to talk through a project idea she had. He is respected by student leaders too, with one former science faculty rep saying he made every student in science feel like they could change the world.  PARSA President, Arjuna Mohottala, says that Baker is “very approachable, has a student-centric approach and makes an effort to cut through red-tape… We feel he is engaged with us and it’s not just a show”. That’s high praise for someone in Chancelry not often quoted in Woroni, especially from a student president.

Less than four months into the new role, it is too early to say how well (or not) Baker is doing in the job, but with time we expect to cover more of his work and that of his boss, the formidable Professor Marnie Hughes Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), who we will be interviewing for an upcoming edition of Woroni.  For our next edition we move to research and will profile Professor Jenny Corbett, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research and Research Training), who will hopefully explain the difference between those two things!

When is the last time you spoke to a student, and what did you talk about?

A few hours ago I chaired the Equity and Access committee and after that I spoke with ANUSA Vice President, Tasman Vaughan, and we spoke about his plans for the rest of his degree and for his career. And last night I had dinner with 28 inspirational students interested in leadership in lots of different areas.

What is your favourite campus café and why?

[Laughs]. One of the dangers of this job is too much coffee. I like them all and frequent them all. A key part of my job is getting on my bike and meeting students where it suits them best. I do have a soft spot for Gods. At the moment one of my favourites is Food Co-op, they have really good coffee.

Do you read Woroni?

Yes. I enjoy it. I’ve read Woroni every decade of my life.

Three words to describe Vice Chancellor Ian Young?

Committed. Passionate. Knowledgeable.