On the last day of the mid-semester break, campus is quiet when we sit down with Brian Schmidt. The brown brick Chancellery building is not a hub of student activity, and as we walk over it appears a bit like ANU’s own Battersea power station. Inside, it has been done up in traditional Australian colours: rusty red, muted orange, yellow here and there, brown wood panelling, and a soft sense of beige. As we wait in the lobby, the building feels a bit empty, except for when someone walks through and jumps into the elevator.
The tranquillity is pierced, but not broken, by ANU’s departing Vice-Chancellor and Nobel laureate, Brian Schmidt. He is not loud, but passionate, and he has a lot to say on a lot of things. But most notably, he is an arm-waver. As he speaks, every concept is given a corresponding gesture. Dwelling on the aim of an inclusive community, he swings his arms out wide, and when he waves off criticism about large capital purchases, he points to where the two purchases sit, beyond the office and the gum trees outside.
In February this year, at his State of the University speech, Schmidt announced that this year would be his last in the role and that he will be returning to research and teaching. It is hard to know if Schmidt’s status as a cultural icon comes from who he is, or from his last name, which has proved endlessly punnable for ANU students.
Having spent eight years in the top full-time position at the University, he is tired of the work.
When we ask him about his pay, which is less than most other Vice-Chancellors in the country, he is clear that he would never be a Vice-Chancellor at another university, and that he did this for the ANU. Of course, he is still paid in the ballpark of $500,000. He argues there would be a “disequilibrium” if he were paid less than the people he hires, and the people he hires are paid around that much.
Schmidt is distinctly American as well. Listening to this thick accent while tall gum trees sway outside, with classic Canberra pollen in the air, feels slightly anachronistic. It extends beyond his accent though. When he speaks of his aims as Vice-Chancellor, it is about putting ANU in the same league as other word-class institutions. The first that comes to him is Harvard. When he discusses inclusion on campus, he does so in a distinctly American liberal tone: disagreeing with what may be said, but defending people’s right to say it.
As we begin to ask Schmidt about his time at the ANU, the first thing that becomes apparent is his candour.
He wants to talk about the areas where the ANU is not doing well.
We open by asking him if he is excited to return to a quieter pace of life, and he is quick to describe the job as relentless, throwing his life out of balance. There is, he says, a lot of unpleasantness to it. To explain further, he uses what sounds like a frequent anecdote: 20,000 people come to the ANU everyday, and most people work 20,000 days in their life, meaning that everyday is bound to be the best day of one person’s life and the worst day of someone else’s. And he estimates they deal with one out of ten people who are having the worst day of their life. Throughout the interview he returns to the issue of sexual assault, and it seems he sometimes has to address events like this. He admits that this includes executing the procedural fairness of the university.
The Long View
With a mammoth institution like the ANU, it is difficult to know what gives it momentum and what can push it to change course. Schmidt says his focus has always been on students, despite the expectation that as an academic he would focus on research. In his eyes, his impact has been to give the campus and the University’s research “the foundation of a vibrant student community,” including a distinctly Australian undergraduate experience. ANU, he believes, may lack the “gold plating” of Harvard, but he maintains that
“if you get a degree from ANU, it’s as good as a Harvard degree.”
Schmidt attended Harvard for his postgraduate and then taught at the ANU, so he is better placed to comment on the two universities than most. But ANU did slip this year in the Global QS rankings, suggesting that the gold plating may not be the only thing ANU is missing. Schmidt has clearly thought about this or at least had this discussion before. He rejects the methodology of rankings, like QS or Times Higher Education, arguing they don’t reflect the ANU’s mission. He says the focus should be on students’ experiences on campus, and that Quilt surveys show that ANU students have good experiences on campus, better than most other Australian universities. He also questions the methodology, asking rhetorically how something like QS can measure satisfaction better than Quilt. The value of ANU lies in breaking people out of their “high school clique” and exposing them to the diversity of Australia. Schmidt believes on-campus life and ANU scholarships and programs achieves this.
Some ANU students may reject this characterisation of the on-campus experience. ANU has one of the lowest enrollment rates for low socioeconomic students, and the interstate move for many students presents a cost barrier not often found at other major universities. On-campus rent is itself more expensive than off-campus, further alienating the people who Schmidt wants to include. But, this may also reflect the growing cost of tertiary education in Australia, as higher inflation means that HECS has now become an important, if not crippling, debt for many young people.
The government, in Schmidt’s eyes, is not doing enough to support inclusivity and diversity across the sector, but to him ANU is doing more than most,
in an area where it matters more.
When he talks about inclusion, Schmidt means more than just making students feel included. He chastises the idea that certain people should not be allowed to speak at the ANU, and he is clearly frustrated when he brings up the example of Michele Bullock’s address. Bullock, now the Reserve Bank Governor, gave an address on campus which was briefly interrupted by students who said that if unemployment had to increase to reduce inflation, Bullock’s job should be the first to go. Holding an enlarged Jobseeker application form, the students walked past the stage, yelling with a megaphone, before being escorted out. As he explains his philosophy on free speech, he echoes historian Evelyn Hall’s famous quote, often attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Schmidt’s line of thinking fits into the broader issue of free speech on university campuses across the anglophone world. In Britain, the US and here, many controversial speakers have had events brought to a standstill by students protesting. The subject matter of the speakers has ranged, from Malcolm Turnbull at the University of Sydney, to transphobic speakers and academics. Schmidt wants students to ask hard questions, not stand up and shout, or to protest outside the event. Of course, a student asking a question gets probably half a minute of airtime, someone like Bullock gets the full hour.
Serving as Vice-Chancellor for eight years – two four year terms – Schmidt has gone round the block more than a few times. His second term, though, was dominated by COVID-19, which presented a short-term and a long-term challenge. With one of the largest on-campus populations in the country, ANU administered its own lockdown. This presented immediate issues, from food provision for students living with communal kitchens or eateries, as well as the money spent on Rapid Antigen Tests and personal protective equipment. Part of the ANU lockdown involved Senior Residents distributing food to rooms, something they were not paid for and which led to protests, especially from Burton and Garran Hall. He noted the pay freeze agreed to in early 2020 as an example of a hard decision he had to make about the University’s staff: had staff not agreed to it, he says he would have had to make 90 more staff redundant.
In the long term, COVID-19 tightened the belt of ANU, and Schmidt has found that the financial constrictions stemming from the pandemic have impacted everything they do. “It’s one thing,” he says, “just being flat, but
it’s another thing having pressure to become smaller and… it’s not an easy place to be squeezed.”
There is, for him, no easy way to make things work. With staff enterprise bargaining having concluded this year, one of the centre points of the debate was how much the ANU could afford to pay.
Schmidt, from his own description, was not a diehard unionist before he became Vice-Chancellor, he only took note of union opposition to hiring young researchers, chiefly because he was a young researcher. However, he now sees the value in having the views and values of staff represented, because otherwise “there’s no one to talk to and you can’t actually get a sensible agreement.” But, he follows this up with an admonishment of what he calls “the theatre of the strike…
call it whatever you want, it’s theatre from my perspective.”
He doesn’t see the cause for the half-day strike, which, with around 300 participants, was one of the largest protests on campus in the last few years. He claims that it didn’t matter in the end, as the bargaining ended up where he wanted it to, although he would have taken the first deal: a payrise of about 16% over five years (compared to the 18% in the final deal). He believes that on casualisation, he was offering terms that were “far more exciting” than the language “that the Melbourne union office was using.”
Another recurring challenge for him, and for university administration across the country, has been sexual assault and harassment (SASH). Last year, the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) found that ANU had the second-highest rate of assault in the nation, and the highest of all Group of Eight universities. This year saw the establishment of the Student Safety and Wellbeing Committee (SSWC), which Schmidt points out is the only committee of its stature – reporting directly to ANU Council – in the country. Last year the University also established the Student Safety and Wellbeing Team to provide assistance for students and to walk them through the often quite complex processes of the University. These are two key student demands that the ANU has met, and Schmidt is now “much more comfortable” with the position and work that the University is doing on SASH.
Sexual assault in the university sector is more likely to happen the more people live on campus, and Schmidt both understands that ANU has substantial work to do, but also thinks that ANU’s on-campus nature contributes to its poor performance. However, this is not an excuse for him, and he believes it only increases the University’s responsibility. With the SSWC reporting to the Council and having both students and sexual violence experts sit on it, it is likely that ANU is entering a new era in reform around SASH. Whether the University takes up the committee’s recommendations, will be the work of the next Vice-Chancellor. Earlier this year, Woroni reported on the ANU’s failure to progress its Disability Access Plan; it remains to be seen if the University has learnt from its mistakes.
Another alleged mistake the ANU, and Schmidt personally, are often charged with is the purchase of large capital assets to be developed in the future. In 2021, he oversaw the purchase of a $17 million disused bus stop from the ACT, and this year he announced another similarly large purchase of a parking lot to build a new health sciences precinct on. Schmidt denies that the purchases are too expensive, noting that the cost of the acquisitions are amortised to be paid over a number of years and that the land will be used to realise the University’s long-term goals. He also says the purchases were a drop in the ocean compared to the pay rises the NTEU demanded.
The conversation next turned to the ANU’s involvement in AUKUS, which Schmidt denies: “It’s news to me.” Schmidt made a point not often discussed by students which is that the ANU, as the national university, ought to meet the educational needs of government policy. Hence, if there is to be a nuclear-powered submarine program, and Schmidt does not express his views on the alliance itself, then the ANU should provide the requisite education. It’s a reason which doesn’t seem to always be applied evenly at the University, which attempted to cut its Bachelor of Public Policy (BPP) last year, a degree which surely aligns to the government’s interests, even if broader society may not care. Of course, the BPP does not map onto any specific government policy, but one can imagine that if any university is to teach it, it should be the ANU, along similar lines to Schmidt’s thinking.
Education and research into nuclear energy and nuclear-powered submarines is also part of successful nuclear stewardship, Schmidt believes. This argument is a bit more familiar to students, with speakers at the student union arguing that there is a space for nuclear research. However, the controversy revolves around the conditions of any AUKUS-related scholarship that the Department of Defence offers. Will recipients be expected to work on AUKUS submarines, and what steps will be taken to ensure the education can’t be easily applied to nuclear armament? Without more details, these are moot questions, and we will have to wait until the scholarship program is formally announced.
No one person can accomplish everything, so what would Schmidt like to have achieved as Vice-Chancellor but never did? An academic overlay in on-campus residences, something he promises he’ll work on after his term, and hence tells us to stay tuned for. The second aim is more equity scholarships. The goal “is that every person who needs a scholarship in first year should get one.” ANU has a growing asset pool, and it may be that, like Harvard, Schmidt wants to fund equity scholarships from this pool. He doesn’t pull his punches though, and says the federal government could do more to fund tertiary education.
On Tuesday the 26th August, ANU announced that Professor Genevieve Bell would be its 13th Vice-Chancellor. She will be the first woman in the position, and Schmidt mentioned his passion for a more equitable hiring as Vice-Chancellor. Bell, like Schmidt, comes from the ANU, however she has worked as the Director of the School of Cybernetics, a more administrative role than academic. But, her experience in computing and anthropology makes her well-poised to lead the University in the age of AI, or at least the age of paranoia around AI.
Schmidt’s advice for Bell is clear: “Get out and talk to people, talk to students, include the students in the decision making that affects them.” At the conclusion of our interview, Schmidt mentioned that he doesn’t want to be an “alien overlord” believing that Vice-Chancellors must be “a part of the community, not an alien overlord.” Schmidt can be seen around Kambri fairly frequently, including in the queue at Daily Market. Having provided the name of ANU Schmidtposting, the ANU community’s largest online community, he is in a sense, instantly recognisable, and understood to be a part of the ANU. Whether he seems like a member of the ANU community is up to the reader.