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Chief a tonic for School of Music

When Peter Tregear first began contemplating taking on the role of head of the ANU School of Music in its most troubled period last year, many of his colleagues asked him why he would bother.

He realised this was exactly the kind of thinking that would threaten what he believed was one of the country's finest institutions, and took on the job, despite having spent little time in Canberra before.

That was just over 12 months ago, and he's just been appointed to head the school for another three years, having seen the institution through a rocky restructure that has involved funding cuts, staff redundancies and a drop in student applications.

Speaking to Fairfax Media on Friday, he said he was optimistic that the school's reputation would soon be restored as the country's leading institution of its type. But, having thrown himself into rebuilding the school, he had little patience for the attitude many had that it was a victim of anything other than the same changes that were affecting the entire sector.

''There is around the whole tertiary music sector a kind of entrenched position of victimhood, as if to say that the only thing we can be is victims of change,'' he said.

''Now we have to swing that around, because if that's what we convey to our undergraduates, we are not giving them the start that they actually need.

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''It's going to be tough - a certain ownership and responsibility as a musician is that you have to understand that actually, probably, whatever the genre, 90 per cent of the population will not care if you're funded or not. Probably, in some genres, even higher. So you need to be an articulate, passionate, front-footed, self-responsible, ethical owner of your own career.''

He said the school's mission statement was unusual in that it mentioned ethics, a notion that was rarely evoked by other institutions.

''The debate that erupted last year about who's funding what is not one that we say doesn't concern us - it has to concern us,'' he said.

''In other words, we are aware of the social contract that allows us to do the thing we love. I think that's an ethical issue.''

He said many institutions, particularly in the arts, operated under a kind of ''L'Oreal Effect - fund me because I'm worth it'', he said.

''This is where the curse of being a university is: that we are obliged to be responsible to ask that question. Why? What is of value? We can't just assume this stuff.''

And although he arrived during the school's most tumultuous period in its history, he made no apologies for some of the tough decisions he was forced to make under the restructure that occurred shortly before his appointment.

''It's personal, but it also obviously has a professional implication for me. I'd seen people in positions of managerial responsibilities really fail to follow through and make the tough calls, and I kind of think the salary and the position mean you are paid to make tough decisions. You've got to,'' he said.

''As unpleasant as that can be at times, I have to look at the man in the mirror and say, I don't want to be the kind of person I've criticised for most of my life. Does that mean when it comes to it that it's easy, that I don't go home and feel distressed? You bet you I do. But you have to have a bigger picture.''

He said he viewed his role as a position he held in trust for a purpose greater than himself, and that his biggest personal marker of success would be eventually appointing a great successor.

''The last thing I want to do is create an institution that's dependant on me. It's got to be something that has a sense of purpose and self-worth that transcends individual personalities, because it's been inspired by a renewed sense of self-belief,'' he said.

''But I think we're at that tipping point where people realise some pretty fundamental facts. One, the school's here to stay. Two, that of the things that people believe it should be doing, essentially it still is. It may be conceived in different ways, but essentially it is still an institution that is driven by excellence in performance as well as scholarship.''