Western Australia’s five universities have always faced unique challenges.
Globally, they are among the most isolated, and operate in one of the most sparsely populated countries. Within Australia, they are also thousands of kilometres away from the major concentrations of population. Ground-breaking research and legendary graduates and academics are not sufficient, alone, to sustain the profile needed to keep the multi-million dollar operations competitive. In an increasingly internationalised marketplace those at the top more than ever are finding themselves ‘selling’ their institution and its wares. Holding it all together and maintaining focus has become more complex and onerous for the executive few who are the public face of each institution, as SUSAN BOWER reports.
THOSE who accept membership of the governing body of a WA university never do so lightly.
Typically, they are leaders in their field, but with a wider vision for society and its chances of advancement through the activities of the State’s institutions of higher education.
In accepting their honorary positions, these people immediately assume responsibility for guiding and reviewing the management of million dollar budgets and thousands of personnel and clients.
Under WA legislation, each university’s governing body is accountable to State Parliament, as the university’s governing authority.
Separate acts for each university and the WA Tertiary Education Commission Act deem each council responsible to the public for the stewardship of the university, and holding custody of the institution’s prosperity.
The council lays out the strategic framework within which the university’s executive management team can function, sets terms and conditions of the university’s senior executive staff, and appoints and reviews the performance of the vice-chancellor.
With increasing competition in a worldwide industry, it is imperative the chancellor and councillors maintain the focus and direction of their institution.
Universities, in turn, take pride in the individuals they are able to attract to take on these roles.
All councils include the vice-chancellor and other university executives as ex-officio members, and most also include some academic, administrative, and student members of the university community.
The remainder commonly comprises high-profile individuals from business, judicial, medical, legal and political circles.
Non-university council appointments are generally made on recommendation by the council, which identifies and sounds out prospective members fitting current council needs.
Most postings are for two to four years, and under legislation, some appointments on the governing body of each WA university are made by the governor.
Curtin University of Technology’s council includes WA Disability Services Commission director general Ruth Shean, Subiaco councillor and Foodland’s Don Humphreys, and Michele Dolin (pro chancellor).
Members of the Edith Cowan University council include Schaffer Corporation director and WA Liberal Party president candidate Danielle Blain, and Bookcaffe director Karen MacDonald.
Murdoch University’s council includes WA Law Society executive director Alison Gaines, Western Power chairman Malcolm Macpherson, WA Supreme Court associate Janice Bowra, judge Kate O’Brien, and former private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, Sir William Heseltine.
Local names on Notre Dame’s extensive board of governors include Environmental Solutions managing director Denis Glennon, NAB Private Bank general manager Trevor Hunt, St John of God medical director Con Michael, Sealanes managing director Victor Paino and Voyager Estate managing director Michael Wright.
A glance down the UWA senate list throws up some high-profile names – Hartleys CEO and Alinta chair Tony Howarth, CCI WA chief executive Lyndon Rowe, Supreme Court judge Christine Wheeler, and Pilbara Development Commission chair and Woodside External Affairs general manager Erica Smyth.
Sitting at the top of a university council – which could also be known as the senate, or board of governors – is the chancellor.
The role of the chancellor has traditionally been perceived as a glamorous, figurehead role, usually filled by someone who has reached the top of their profession.
It is the chancellor who confers a university’s degrees and diplomas.
But for the council to fulfill its role of monitoring the operations, resourcing and strategic positioning of the university, the chancellor must be able to work well with the chief executive of the institution, the vice-chancellor.
Curtin University’s chancellor is Eric Tan. A surgeon, humanitarian and businessman, Dr Tan officially
assumed the role this year, following the sudden death last year of Harry Perkins.
Dr Tan is known as a pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, and for his development roles with such diverse initiatives as the WA Chinese Chamber of Commerce, sister-state relationships, the Oz Concert and the Positive Ageing Foundation.
Dr Tan has been awarded the Order of Australia, and in 1993 was WA Citizen of the Year for Community Service.
Justice Robert Nicholson, Edith Cowan University’s chancellor, has also been awarded the Order of Australia.
Justice Nicholson, who has been a judge of the Federal Court of Australia since 1995, is in his second term of office.
Before being appointed to the Federal Court, he was a Supreme Court of WA judge and deputy president of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Murdoch University’s chancellor Geoffrey Bolton is a historian and academic, and an Officer of the Order of Australia. Recently he received the Western Australian Citizen of the Year Professions Award for his teaching and promotion of Western Australian history.
Professor Bolton was Murdoch’s foundation professor of history through much of the 1970s and 1980s.
He was also foundation professor of Australian Studies at the University of London.
Terry O’Connor, who heads Notre Dame University’s board of governors, is another chancellor accustomed to the public spotlight, in most recent years as chair of the WA Anti-Corruption Commission.
WA gas access and acting rail access regulator Ken Michael is the University of Western Australia’s chancellor.
Dr Michael is a UWA graduate who went on to obtain his PhD at the University of London.
A former Public Service Commissioner and Main Roads CEO, he is a Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia. In 2001 Dr Michael was WA Citizen of the Year.
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