ANU Decision Makers Series: Vice-Chancellor Ian Young

There is only so much you can learn from these profile pieces, and the subject of this one was always going to be difficult to write about.

Difficult in part because of the position he holds – it has been almost impossible to find someone who is willing to put their name to negative comments about the big boss at ANU – and partly difficult because of the man himself. Young does not talk much about himself (unusual for people in his position), and he is not convinced about the value of these types of profiles, which he made known when asked about a recent article in Honi Soit, the student newspaper at the University of Sydney, on their Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence.

After concluding that the Honi Soit article was “quite balanced” about a person he feels is often unfairly criticized, Young continued:

“But did it capture the real Michael Spence? I am not sure any of these profiles ever do that. You really only ever know a person when you have been very closely associated with them for many years. In many cases, one still does not really understand what makes a particular person tick”.

In a sense, Young is right. The only person who can really explain what makes him tick is Young himself.  And perhaps these profiles don’t really capture the “real” person, but that never stopped biographers and reporters the world over making an attempt to do just that.

This profile attempts to strike a balance. Instead of trying to understand what makes Young tick, a very personal and complex thing, it aims to give you an insight into Ian Young by asking and answering the ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’, ‘where?’, ‘how?’, and with a bit of luck ‘why?’ questions. And while it is longer than our usual feature articles, we want our readers to have the chance to get to know more about the person whose decisions affect every student and staff member at ANU (and, indeed, future students and staff too!).

This will be the most detailed piece written about Ian Robert Young that has ever been published.

 

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The private side of Young is exactly that, quite private. In interviewing him, he was more interested in talking about higher education issues and the future of ANU than himself, and most of the other people interviewed for this profile did not know anything about his family.

Born in Cunnamulla, a small town in South Western Queensland in the late 1950s, Young is still a relatively young vice chancellor despite being in the role for over ten years (seven at Swinburne University of Technology and three so far at ANU). Young’s father was a teacher in the Queensland State education system at a time when there was a desire to get good teachers into remote parts of the State. It was also the pathway for promotion within the system and as a result, Young’s parents made 17 moves in 21 years. As the youngest of three children, Young arrived towards the end of these moves.

At age 1, Young’s family relocated to Stanthorpe, where they stayed for a year before moving to Mackay. They moved from Mackay to Townsville when Young was 5 years old and by this time his father was principal of one of the largest State primary schools in Queensland. Young says he can still remember his father saying “OK! That’s it, no more moves”. As a result, he grew up in Townsville and went to James Cook University where he completed all three of his degrees in engineering, also spending time in California and Hamburg to undertake research.

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While Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) Professor Marnie-Hughes-Warrington was able to reveal that Young loves Monty Python (he was seen with his wife attending the ANU Inter-hall musical, ‘Spamalot’, last month), most people could not identify any interests he held outside of work.

While most of us use the weekend to catch up on odd jobs around the house or to relax, Young sees weekends as a great time to do research in his specialist area of oceanography. He spends a few weeks each year travelling interstate and abroad but it is almost always for work, “he is not really big on holidays and is always in contact by email” says a close staffer. One college dean said that Young had done exceptionally well to come from a modest background to lead one of the great universities in Australia. “He doesn’t come from privilege. He’s a self-made man. He clawed his way to the top and good on him”.

Young has been married for 29 years. He and his wife Heather, a warm, softly-spoken, somewhat shy person, live on campus in the Vice Chancellor’s residence, a large house near the Research School of Earth Sciences that is sometimes used to host dinner functions for special guests to the University. They have one daughter, based in Melbourne, who with friends founded her own theatre company. Described by a colleague as a devoted father, Young goes to Melbourne to spend time with his daughter and on one trip, apparently, spent his time mowing the lawn for her.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Margaret Harding, well known for her quirky sense of humour, says that one thing people might not associate with Young is humour. “He actually has a good sense of humour. I play the odd practical joke on him now and again and he has a good laugh”.

 

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In Australia, Young has worked in five different universities, having first held a research fellow position first at James Cook, then moving to University College ADFA at the University of New South Wales for over a decade (apart from a six month stint as Humboldt Fellow at Max-Planck-Institut fur Meteorologie in Germany), then to the University of Adelaide as a dean and then later as Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) before becoming the chief of Swinburne. Since March 2011, Young has been at the helm of the ANU and in that time he has – perhaps quite fittingly as a specialist in ocean engineering – been making waves.

When he arrived at ANU, Young replaced a vice chancellor, Professor Ian Chubb, who had been in the role for a decade during a time of significant expansion. Other than their shared first names and career paths, there aren’t many similarities between the two Ians. Chubb, now Australia’s Chief Scientist, was a prominent vice chancellor with a bold personality and an imposing presence and that left many intimidated.  By comparison, Young who is 13 years Chubb’s junior, was, on arrival, not as well-known, much slighter, and not at all imposing. One senior staff member commented that he initially thought Young would “struggle to fill Ian Chubb’s shoes” and that he was not expected to “fit in well at ANU or in Canberra as you need to be politically savvy and well-connected”.

Three years later and Young has shown that he had no intention of ever filling the shoes of the former vice chancellor, instead bringing his own pair with him, and with that a very different style of leadership and management.

Young says he is not a political ‘junky’. “I don’t find the political system particularly interesting”, and when asked who his favourite Australian prime minister was? He responds “I don’t read political biographies. Therefore, I don’t analyse previous PMs in detail. Having said that, I admire Paul Keating. He was prepared to make tough decisions and changed Australia in many ways. He is also a wonderful character – a huge ego but with the achievement to back his self-belief.”

One of Young’s deputies at Swinburne, Professor Shirley Leitch, who is now Dean of the ANU College of Business and Economics and was encouraged by Young to move here, says he is “a very quiet and modest person who is open to other points of view. This dimension of his character is a rare quality in a VC”. Others who work closely with Young share this view, but the further you go from the Chancelry, the less positive the reviews. One senior academic said that Young is “a metrics man” who represents a corporate style of leadership that “does not fit with the ANU culture”. Another staff member felt he was “aloof” and not fully engaged with staff. Sharing an experience from an event last year, he said “the VC was initially making an effort to engage with me and my colleagues but after a while he clearly got bored and started checking his phone for messages!”

Professor Hughes-Warrington, who is widely regarded as a future vice chancellor herself, is very complimentary about her boss’ working style, “He enables others to be their best and gives support for them to exercise leadership”, she says.Departing Dean of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Professor John Hosking, also had high praise for Young and pointed out that he is not, as some interviewed for this article have claimed “a micro manager”. “He sets the parameters but has let me get on with the job without second guessing me”.

 

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ANU students have mixed views about their vice chancellor. Recentlysome have called for Young’s resignation as a response to his support for the deregulation of student fees. A number of people interviewed felt that Young was disconnected from students, with one saying he “represented a narrow-minded view of ANU’s future and not the interests of students and staff”. Of those interviewed who had actually met or worked with Young, it was generally agreed that he appeared to be both approachable and interested in what they had to say. One student leader, who asked not to be identified, said Young was “actually pretty fair in the way he makes decisions. Whatever you think of his decisions, he makes sure to hear from students and I think he genuinely wants to hear all sides of the argument before he makes a decision”. Interestingly, three recent ANUSA presidents (Tully Fletcher, Leah Ginnivan and Aleks Sladojevic) all declined to comment on the record for this profile and we were not able to get comment from current president Cam Wilson in time for publication.

And what does Young think of our student leaders? “ANU has excellent student representation. ANUSA and PARSA represent student views strongly but are still positive and constructive.” He views the presidents of both organisations as “colleagues”.

The workaholic Young is often first in the office at ANU’s Chancelry and has been known to reply to emails at 5am. His inbox averages around 150 emails a day and Young said he usually sees everything that comes in. While not a Facebook user (although there are Facebook groups set up about Young), he joined Twitter (@young_ir) in July last year and has since attracted almost 500 followers. His tweets tend to cover the following themes: #ANU #research #highered #science #oceans.

 

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Photo taken from the “What Ian Young Did Today” Facebook page

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It is not likely that Young reads up about his star sign in the daily newspaper, but the attributes people ascribe to him match many of those associated with Capricorns (Young was born on 17 January). Many describe Young as practical, disciplined and ambitious and a few have pointed out that he comes across as slightly detached or even shy. A criticism by a senior ANU academic was that Young is too pessimistic (“He needs to be more positive and upbeat about ANU’s future”). All of these are traits of a Capricorn.

But trying to understand Young based on his star sign would be a pointless exercise, because while he may partly fit into that mould, in many senses he cannot easily be put into a box, and he is to some extent quite misunderstood by students and staff at ANU.

Young is not your typical vice chancellor. An unassuming man who wears tidy but plain clothes, drives a mid-range Mazda that he has had since he started in the role, does not exude an air of power and influence (or even charisma) that you might expect of one the nation’s most powerful vice chancellors. If you walked past him in the street, or if you saw him running around Lake Burley Griffin as he has been seen to do, you might not even notice this man who earns close to $900,000 a year.

On that note, Woroni asked Professor Young how he felt about his large salary package and in response he acknowledged that Australian vice chancellors are well paid [note: Australian VCs are paid significantly more than their equivalents in the US, UK and NZ] and when asked if he was embarrassed about this, he replied: “I guess I am a little embarrassed, I believe I am a fairly unassuming person. However, my salary is not an outlier in Australia and it seems this is what the sector has decided is appropriate”.  Young announced during budget cuts last year that he would gift back $50,000 of his salary to ANU. On his role and pay, Young says that:

“The job is rewarding (in ways other than money), exciting, tiring and stressful. The hours are long and sleep is always limited, you are always in the public gaze, you need to juggle many things – education, research, human resources, FoI requests, media, financial management, alumni, fund raising, political lobbying, capital development and even car parking. Having said all that, it is a great job!”

Young reports to the University Council, ANU’s governing body made up of 15 members including two students and four elected staff members. The Council is headed by the Chancellor, Gareth Evans, who described Young and his predecessor Chubb as chalk and cheese. “Chubb is a force of nature” with many skills that drove ANU forward. “But nobody should ever underestimate [Young’s] passion and the steeliness of his resolve in achieving ANU’s interests”. Evans himself is not particularly comfortable with some of the very high salaries in the public sector and he accepts that VCs are paid extremely well but says “the reality is that we are stuck in a market”. Evans stresses the point that Young was paid in the median of the Group of Eight when he could probably have pushed to be paid nearer the top. Young also took a slight pay cut when he came to ANU.

Evans says that “Australia’s national and finest university is well served by Ian Young”, and the Chancellor was supportive of Young’s call for student fee deregulation because, he says, it is in ANU’s long-term interests. Would he re-appoint Young if his five year contract was up tomorrow? “Of course! He’s done an outstanding job. There is real heart and soul in this VC. He has real passion for this institution and real passion for excellence. Make sure you get that quote down exactly!” Evans also acknowledged Young’s role as chair of the Group of Eight, which he said shows that Young is recognized by his peers as a high-performing VC.

 

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Woroni recently hosted a forum “The Great Debate” on student fee issues arising from Budget 2014, where Youngwas invited to speak alongside his University of Canberra counterpart Professor Stephen Parker, who is a strong opponent of student fee deregulation. Parker is on the record criticizing Young’s position, and claims that this particular government policy is the worst he has seen in his 26 years in Australia.

During the debate Parker and Young sat next to each other looking slightly awkward as Parker, who was invited to speak first, gave an impassioned and humorous speech targeting Young and appealing to the largely student audience. When it came time for Young to speak, he admitted he had a “tough gig” but went about explaining his position in his usual calm and reasonable manner. While not gaining a standing ovation as Parker did, Young received respectable applause from an audience that shared little love for his position. One student tweeted that he proposed a VC swap between ANU and UCan, while another said that “amid all the hysteria, the VC’s [Young] argument made some sense”.

A Woroni source claims that Professor Parker was a finalist for the ANU VC job when Young applied but nobody was able to verify this.

 

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Professor Ian Young with Professor Stephen Parker at Woroni’s Great Debate

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An undergraduate student, who has had interactions with Young over the past year and a half, said he felt Young was so focussed on research that “it feels like he doesn’t care about education and teaching”. Young himself told Woroni he has three major interests “my science (Oceanography), technology (I am an engineer) and education (I was a good teacher)”. When he “eventually” finishes at ANU he would like to go back to a combination of teaching, research and engineering consultancy.

“However, my dream job is still science fiction. I am not a climate scientist but my research intersects with climate all the time. Global warming is the biggest problem humanity faces and I think we have the solutions all wrong. We seem to have decided that the solutions are in the hands of economists (pricing mechanisms for carbon etc.) and politicians (for obvious reasons). I believe the solution will be technology. New alternative energy systems will become so much more efficient than carbon based energy that it will gradually fill a bigger slice of the total energy use. I also believe that we will need to eventually develop technology to “scrub” CO2 from the atmosphere. This is still science fiction. However, when this becomes science fact it will be science and engineering on an enormous scale. This would be an enormously exciting activity to be involved with. As I say, science fiction, at least in my working life.”

Perhaps that is a fitting note to end, as one person close to Young, when asked to hazard a guess as to what the VC might do when his time at ANU comes to an end, had a rather unusual prediction. While most people predict that Young will go back to his research passion and perhaps take on board directorships in the area of education or research, this particular colleague said she heard Young was likely to be the next Doctor Who. “As in the character on the sci-fi TV series?”, I asked. “Yes. I hear he’s a shoo-in”.

Perhaps she was not far off.