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Star-gazing Nobel Prize winner wants ANU to regain its stride

 In the three years since affable Montana-born astronomer and Sutton-based vigneron Brian Schmidt won a Nobel Prize for Physics, he could have taken his pick of international job offers.

That he chose to stay in Canberra, continuing his work at the Australian National University where he has been based for 21 years, is surprising enough. That he has turned his focus to running the university as its 12th vice-chancellor is even more so.

Newly appointed vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Prof. Brian Schmidt.
Newly appointed vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Prof. Brian Schmidt.  Photo: Graham Tidy

This week the 48-year-old world-famous stargazer began his entirely new and unfamiliar role – managing both the big picture and minutiae of the ANU.

Many feel it is an inspired decision, giving stewardship of Australia's only national university to one of its most accomplished sons – and one with unparalleled global influence.

Newly-appointed vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Prof. Brian Schmidt, in his chancellory office.
Newly-appointed vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Prof. Brian Schmidt, in his chancellory office.  Photo: Graham Tidy

Others question how an astrophysicist will transition from a research background to administering what amounts to a highly government regulated, billion-dollar business.

Why become vice-chancellor?

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For Schmidt, the move appears to be the result of his sense of duty to the ANU, science and his adopted country, as well as a deeply-rooted sense of adventure.

"I will admit that life is pretty good as a Nobel Prize winner and Mount Stromlo is one of the great places in the world to work. It is a big step to leave what is, quite frankly, a very comfortable nest."

"But what I was looking at was the future of the ANU, and I see it as having two paths to take; to reassert itself as the national university, which the nation needs and which Canberra needs, and which my own research needs, or to be just another university.

"In thinking about what it would take to reassert the importance of the ANU I asked myself who could do that, and it dawned on me – maybe I was the person."

Schmidt cites some encouraging precedents of Nobel Laureates successfully running universities after their immersion in ground-breaking scientific inquiry.

English geneticist Paul Nurse, who won the 2001 Nobel for Medicine, was appointed president of Rockefeller University in New York for eight years in 2003, while American immunologist J Michael Bishop, who won the 1989 Nobel for Medicine, ran the University of California San Francisco for 11 years from 1998.

"They've done pretty damn well. Paul Nurse is one of my heroes and he did really well for Rockefeller while J Michael Bishop took the University of California San Francisco and made it into the top two or three medical research institutions in less than ten years, so he was spectacularly successful.

"These men are my friends. I get plenty of chances to talk to these guys. I know what they are, I know what I am, and we are not that different."

Why now?

Schmidt believes the ANU is at a cross road. Its mixed fortunes in international league tables over recent years clearly show its vulnerability to competition – notably the University of Melbourne and to a lesser extent Sydney and NSW.

"The ANU is the national university but its position has been eroded over the last 15 years or so."

"It was born at a time when essentially no research was being conducted in universities, so we became the research university and we seeded research throughout the nation, such that we have arguably for a country our size, the best university system in the world. But now we have all this competition and the ANU has to change and say, what is the role of the national university now? It hasn't done this and its position has become in competition to the other universities rather than saying 'no, we have a role as the national university'. I want to come in and ask, what does it mean to be excellent, what does it mean to be a truly national university?

"The vision I have is one people already know about – it's based on excellence, excellence excellence."

Schmidt has committed to a period of intense consultation with his staff and students over the coming six months before committing to a long-term strategic vision which will guide his five-year term.

Will there be changes to the management team?

Not immediately. While incoming vice-chancellors are usually expected to import their own management teams over time, Schmidt has expressed initial confidence in those he is inheriting from his predecessor.

"There are not going to be major management changes as Ian Young put in a pretty effective management team. We have similar choices in people to work with and I am new to the job so I need to see how things play out and how people are going to work with me."

But he said he would not be afraid to make changes.

"It's always a hard decision (when things don't work out) but I've become better at it, you get the experience and confidence to know this is not working, and the confidence to know that if it is not working for you, it is usually not working for them either. I will make changes that need to be made for the university to do what it needs to do, for me to do what I need to do. I would not expect those in the next month. Those are things which, if I need to do it, will happen six to nine months from now.

Meanwhile, he promises a collaborative style.

"I have never tried to do everything in science, it's called collaborative delegation and I have many people to choose from here. I am not going to be sitting here hacking out things when there are people much better at doing it than me."

It is not overstating things to say that Schmidt carries a heavy weight of expectation from the ANU community.

Young's single five-year term was mired in industrial tension, budget cuts and what can only be described as the very near death of the School of Music.

The sense of anticipation on campus is palpable and expectations are high that Schmidt will bring a more personable, consultative and inspirational leadership style – not to mention an intimate knowledge of the peculiarities of the institution he has remained at since he was a 27-year-old Harvard post-doc.

He sees it as a definite advantage to rise to the top as "one of the troops" rather than the ANU importing an external leader.

"I know the culture of the place very well. I am not just a scientist, I have a broad view of the entirety of the university and that is something I want in whoever leads this place."

Will the School of Music live or die?

Bizarrely, Schmidt's first visit to the ANU was as an 18-year-old French horn player invited to perform at Llewellyn Hall as part of the Anchorage Youth Symphony in 1985.

He is adamant the ANU needs a School of Music and he will address it as a priority.

"It is absolutely already getting my attention in the first couple of days but we have to have a nice slow, methodical process. Most of the staff and students are still on holidays so consultations will start to happen in the next few weeks and months.

"People have to have patience, because I cannot simply turn it into something world-beating in a day. Putting out fires all the time will not allow us to build a great school of music."

The school has suffered almost irreparable damage since Young announced a savage round of budget and staff cuts in 2012.

Over the past 18 months it has lost a steady stream of acclaimed music academics including its head Peter Tregear mid-last year after he seemingly lost his battle with management for greater resources to support staff and students.

An international head-hunt has so far failed to unearth a new head and there are as many as seven positions which need to be filled. Enrolments, already at record lows, are expected to suffer further.

Schmidt acknowledges the deep level of unhappiness at the school.

"It's been a tough road for everyone involved. There have not been any winners out of the School of Music saga so I'm very focused on getting it right for the future."

Key will be the appointment of a new head, which Schmidt indicated would be locked down in "the near future".

"If we get the right person in that role they are going to have a lot of support from me. We are not going to do exactly what we have done in the past.

He wants the school to follow his mantra of excellence, says it needs to be "interesting" and must be economically sustainable.

It could be one of the new vice-chancellor's toughest challenges and only a week into the job, he is appealing for faith.

"People need to look into my eyes. I am someone who likes to get things done. I really don't like to fail. We are going to make this work. I have not failed on anything big like this – I don't want the School of Music to be the first big failure in my life."

Will cuts go ahead to the School of Culture, History and Languages?

Schmidt says no decisions have been made despite fears 40 positions are in imminent danger at the school – considered to be one of the ANU's top research performers.

"We are in the process of reviewing the entire university, and Culture, History and Languages is one of the first cabs off the rank. We need to understand what excellence is and part of that is taking a good look at ourselves.

"We brought in local and international experts and what did they say? They said this is a truly great department. And it is. In fact, it's one of the crown jewels of the university.

"The goal of the university isn't to count pennies and destroy great parts of the university. The goal of the university is to be great, so CHL has a great history and it has a great future. But that doesn't mean being static. It means saying how can we improve and are we economically sustainable?

Schmidt would be asking staff what they considered to be ways to increase earnings and save money.

"I am hopefully going to get them to engage in process and show me what great looks like and then we can make decisions."

"This is just step one, there are 50 other organisational units in the university who are going to go through the same thing. Change is scary for people. People always like the way things were in the past because they are comfortable with it – unfortunately if you only reside in the past you don't end up being excellent."

Is the ANU facing a financial crisis?

When Ian Young took over, he announced – but later abandoned – $40 million in university-wide budget cuts which he said were required to keep ANU internationally competitive.

It will come as no small relief to staff to hear Schmidt does not feel the same way.

"Things are lean right now but I do not see us facing any impending doom. The government could change that with a single stroke of the pen but I don't see that on the horizon. Ultimately the government is focused on its ideas boom and ultimately those ideas are going to come from universities including the ANU."

While Schmidt wants a national conversation on university deregulation and the need to improve funding for the sector, he has been buoyed by Malcolm Turnbull's $1 billion innovation package and cross-party support for the value of innovation.

"It's great to have all political parties talking about this. It's a great time. We are not splashing money around but people are excited and they are open to ideas. It is a great time to be a vice-chancellor and it is going to be a really exciting five years.

"The Government has articulated, I think, that we need to take some risks and possibly fail. The key is failing quickly. I want to take people and throw them some crazy ideas they are passionate about and give them the chance, that's how big things are found out – my own Nobel Prize included."

Will the Schmidts be moving to campus?

It appears Schmidt is doing the prime ministerial thing and eschewing the official vice-chancellor's residence to maintain his vineyard and property in Sutton.

He and his economist wife Jennifer run the Maipenrai​ Vineyard, producing between 2000-6000 bottles of pinot noir each year to consistently favourable reviews.

It turns out that having a Nobel Prize means you sell more wine and each vintage is snapped up by a loyal following who have secured a place on his mailing list.

"The vineyard is something I'm passionate about, it is where I live."

"We will use the VC's house for entertaining, but it turns out when you own two horses and a vineyard 20 minutes' drive from here, it is slightly challenging to bring the horses on campus."