From biblical hailstorms to flaming pizzas, the leadership life of outgoing Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt has been as colourful as it has been challenging.

When a slightly nerdy American-born astronomer threw his hat in the ring to become Vice-Chancellor of Australia’s only national university, he knew it was something of a moon shot.

Professor Brian Schmidt’s otherwise sparkling CV was light on for large organisational management, certainly at the scale and complexity of a major research and teaching university. What did he know about terrestrial matters such as budgets, government relations, capital works, human resource management and the famously febrile politics of the academy?

But rejection didn’t faze the stargazing physicist. Neither did the thought of failure in the unlikely event he landed what was arguably the most prestigious post in the Australian university sector.

“I don’t mind failing,” Schmidt told the 2023 Annual Tuckwell Academic Dinner. “I’m actually okay with it as long as I work hard, try my best — then I think failing on occasions is alright.”

That comment, delivered to a roomful of high-achieving students brimming with certainty about their mapped-out lives as professors, lawyers, scientists and philosophers, may have seemed like an odd one, but coming from a Nobel Prize winner, it was wise and inspiring.

The path to success, Schmidt seemed to be saying, is not a straight one. Unimagined things will happen along the way, opening up whole new directions. He would know.

In his case, it had meant becoming an astronomer when originally he had no such interest. And rising to the top in his field despite being what he has called a very good, “but certainly not exceptional” high school student.

Then in 2011, Schmidt was awarded the most recognised of all global accolades, the Nobel Prize in Physics, for his work in understanding the universe’s accelerating rate of expansion. That in turn led to a curious and unexpected career pivot for a world-leading researcher: appointment as the 12th Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU) in January 2016.

Outgoing Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian P Schmidt built friendships across academic disciplines, political lines and even into the media. Photo: ANU

Schmidt brought to the position a cosmologist’s panoramic breadth and limitless imagination, soon becoming a public figure, fuelled by frequent appearances on flagship current affairs platforms such as the ABC’s 7.30, Q+A and Radio National.

His friendships and fascinations would bloom in the new role — across academic disciplines, political lines and even into the media — particularly with stars of the national broadcaster, Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb. Somehow Schmidt got involved in the hottest of hot ticket events annually, hosting the redoubtable pair’s popular Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast Christmas live show on campus at Llewellyn Hall.

Sales recalls the “madcap” nature of those invariably sold-out events, during which Schmidt took various guises “as interviewer, tuba player and on one memorable occasion, pizza maker — notable to all who attended for the fact that he accidentally set a fire inside a pizza oven on stage”.

It’s an event that may, or may not, have been reported to insurers.

“Brian always showed such a brilliant sense of humour in those shows,” Sales says. “There was one time Crabb was ribbing me about not wearing my Order of Australia lapel pin, and I said, ‘Well I just rarely wear it because I feel like it makes me look like a wanker’, and Crabb pointed and said, ‘Brian’s wearing his’. It absolutely brought the house down and nobody laughed harder than Brian. My face was scarlet for weeks.”

To the deans, professors and researchers Schmidt has led and collaborated with during his tenure as Vice-Chancellor, which will conclude at the end of 2023, it’s his polymathic curiosity that has made him an unconventional but popular chief administrator. One who was never not an academic first, at home in the boardroom, but happiest in a classroom. One whose affection for the core function of education and research would remain undimmed even through campus tragedies, revenue collapses and the myriad challenges the sector faces.

“I really became focused on getting the University to be the ‘national’ university and to be different than the rest of the sector.”

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian P Schmidt

“‘No’ wasn’t in his vocabulary,” a senior academic says, affectionately but with a hint of reproach.

It was that kind of attitude that saw several policy innovations at ANU, with Schmidt determined to deliver on his promise to turn the national university into a model employer.

Jack Fox, producer of the Democracy Sausage podcast among many functions across campus, was the first person to take advantage of a generous paid parental leave scheme introduced in 2018, which provides six months off on full pay.

“It was brilliant because I spent the second six months of my kid’s life at home, and frankly, it allowed me to establish a bond that I just would not have felt otherwise,” he says. Fox has benefitted from the gold standard provision for both his children.

Schmidt’s tenure would be punctuated with challenges big and small, most of them completely beyond the University’s power to address. These hurdles would define his stewardship, limit his ability to achieve some of the things he set out to do, and force his priorities to change from actively leading a bold transition to defensively managing a prudent consolidation.

In the Black Summer of 2019 and 2020, the campus was swathed in acrid smoke making it essentially uninhabitable for weeks. As an enthusiastic vigneron, Schmidt’s grapes, along with most of the region’s prized cool climate fruit, were ruined by smoke taint.

The trauma of fires and choking pollution yielded in January to a violent hail storm, which cut a narrow path through the capital destroying ANU buildings, cars, trees and infrastructure. University House, a heritage facility at the heart of the ANU community, was heavily damaged and remains under repairs almost four years later.

Brian Schmidt and ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop in graduation regalia
Brian Schmidt speaks with students

Schmidt says university is not just about education, but a holistic experience. Photo: ANU

As the colossal scale of the damage was being understood, a global pandemic hit, shutting the borders and shredding the university sector. As an institution that had just taken on new costs as part of a deliberate downsizing, ANU was in a vulnerable fiscal position and hit disproportionately hard.

Yet through it all, Schmidt seemed philosophical, indefatigable and very human in his efforts to care for the ANU community.

“In three weeks, part of one of our campuses burned, we had the hail of the century and what is approaching to be the largest storm insurance pay out in the history of the country, as well as COVID. I was waiting for the locusts,” Schmidt says.

It was a long way from what he had envisaged.

“The succession of setbacks was so frustrating, like wading in treacle.”

Schmidt’s plans as Vice-Chancellor had involved rejuvenating the University’s specific mission.

“When I started in 2016, it was because I felt ANU had lost its way and was no longer concentrating on being the national university. It had sort of gotten into ‘we’re just going to be another university territory and pretend that the National Institutes Grant will continue unabated’,” he says.

“I really became focused on getting the University to be the ‘national’ university and to be different than the rest of the sector.”

Did it work? Financially, the revenue effects of long-term closure made it especially hard, but for all that, Schmidt says the University “is acting differently and sees itself differently than the rest of the sector and that’s what I’m most proud of”.

Others agree, saying morale is strong and the campus is happier than it once was.

Despite the many unavoidable diversions, Schmidt has made significant contributions to creating a more diverse and content culture at ANU, especially in the areas of gender equality, First Nations representation and research, and student experience.

He set and met ambitious 50:50 gender targets for senior ANU leaders, as well as introducing and personally paying for the Athena Swan accreditation for gender equity to come to Australia. He fully backed First Nations’ priorities, making them a pillar of the ANU Strategic Plan and creating a dedicated portfolio. The number of Indigenous academics increased 10-fold during his tenure.

Recognising that university is not just about education, but a holistic experience, Schmidt supported major residential projects that increased the number of students living on campus and the quality of their time here. Under his leadership, ANU has been transparent in reporting and actively working to address deep cultural issues around sexual assault and harassment. He has been prepared to face this confronting challenge head- on.

Having pulled up stumps before completion of his second five-year term, Schmidt remains passionate and engaged with ANU, which is why he’s choosing to stay at the University and return to research and teaching at Mount Stromlo Observatory.

An avid winemaker, Schmidt will return to research and teaching at ANU at the end of his term. Photo: ANU

He argues Australia would doubtless benefit from diverse universities with a broader range of remits, but government policy is driving sameness.

“There’s only one way for universities to survive in this country, which is sort of doing what everyone else is doing. I’d like to see this change,” he says.

ANU runs among the best schools in the world in areas such as international relations, political science, philosophy and law, but it is hardly lucrative, Schmidt says.

“In all of these disciplines, we get HECS — an income contingent loan — that is roughly $15,000 from the student, as well as $1,000 from the commonwealth as a subsidy. That total amount of $16,000 is about 30 to 40 per cent less than the worst funded high school in the country, public or private, and we have to run an internationally wonderful research program with it.

“I think the hard part is that Australia is addicted to not spending much on its universities and it likes all that funding coming from international students,” he laments.

Still, Schmidt is not without a sense of optimism, given the constructive messages emanating from the Education Minister, Jason Clare.

“I’m hoping there will be some fixing of a system that is just really, really bent out of shape right now. But there’ll be no rivers of gold,” he says.

Rivers of pinot noir will have to suffice as Schmidt hopes for a smoke-free vintage this summer and turns his focus back to the heavens.

You may also like

Article Card Image

Investing in and enhancing childcare at ANU

ANU will open two new purpose-built facilities on its campus in early 2025 as part of its commitment to high-quality childcare.

Article Card Image

Exceptional members of ANU community named on King’s Birthday honours list 

ANU celebrates the extraordinary individuals helping to shape our world for the better.

Article Card Image

Statement from ANU Chancellor to Senate Estimates

ANU Chancellor The Hon Julie Bishop's statement to Senate Estimates.

Subscribe to ANU Reporter