Ian Chubb: The Interview

Between retiring from the ANU Chancelry and accepting the Chief Scientist position, Ian Chubb spoke to Woroni about growing up in rural Victoria, his love of pies and his time at the university.

Born in 1943 to small-scale farmers in rural Victoria, playing with his dog Cloudy, form some of Chubb’s earliest memories.  ‘I was always South Melbourne and he was the opposition – all I know is that dogs can’t kick, so I used to win all the time.’

Now a proud Swans supporter, Chubb said he loves to eat ‘pies and watch the Swannies.’ He then corrected himself ‘…well maybe not pies because my wife doesn’t let me, but I love to watch the Swannies.’ The only time his children have seen him cry was when they won the premiership in 2005.

Leaving Cloudy at home, Chubb ‘vividly remembers’ his first day at primary school. It was the ‘first time I’d played with other kids.’

At his small, rural school ‘there were 25 kids from many different years and only one teacher.’ Upon reflection, ‘they were some of the most formative years of my life, in a way, because you were very much left to your own devices. I guess that’s what’s set me in good stead.’

Lamenting his parent’s lack of opportunity to pursue education because they were ‘poor and suffered from being born into particular circumstances,’ Chubb also drew from his own experiences and decided he wanted ‘education to be inspirational and accessible.’

‘So deep in me is buried this notion that it shouldn’t be the circumstances of your birth that determine your life’s opportunities: it should be how hard you’re prepared to work and how hard you’re prepared to commit.’

This philosophy clearly informed his opposition to accepting undergraduate domestic fee paying students at the ANU.

‘The reason we didn’t charge fees in my time was because if ANU was Australia’s best university, then all Australians who were capable should be able to come here and not be blocked by money.’

When questioned what he thought of the other Vice-Chancellors who didn’t stand with him on this matter, he drolly noted: ‘I think of highly of them, as they think of me.’

‘You’ve got to have courage of your convictions. If you haven’t got courage, it doesn’t matter how strong your convictions are; if you haven’t got any convictions you should be sitting in your tinny, fishing on the Murray.’

Chubb’s conviction gave him a share of admirers and detractors while in the top job at ANU. Believing in the interdependency between the teaching and research departments, merging the two areas was one of his most controversial moves.

Before the restructure, Chubb saw the ANU as a ‘table covered with unconnected balls of wool where you could pick up any ball of wool and toss it away and nobody would care’.  He thought, ‘what we needed to do was to stitch this into a tapestry so if anybody pulled the thread the whole tapestry would buckle, and people would say hang on a second, you can’t do that.’

Far from his days as a pupil at a small rural Victorian primary school, Chubb remarked from his new honorary office overlooking the ANU campus: ‘Nobody should forget where they came from.’