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Autumn 2013 Issue
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Finding the narrative: key to leading a university

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Warren Bebbington was surprised and inspired when he learnt about the pioneering origins of the University of Adelaide. He explains how the new strategic plan aims to recapture the University's position at the forefront of international education.

In most organisations, CEOs soon learn there is a common core of rather mundane skills they need - setting objectives, leading staff, engaging stakeholders, managing resources ... But in universities there is a more powerful quality vice-chancellors can develop as a core of their work, one quite different from the skills generic to business leadership. In place of satisfying shareholders with profits they can share, a vice-chancellor can inspire people with something they can believe in - the university's noble history, character and values.

Put simply, the successful university vice-chancellor becomes a teller of tales. By reaching into stories of the lives of the university's founders, its early ambitions, major successes and aspirations, they can construct a heroic narrative, which can then be told again and again in speeches, presentations and publications.

At its most inspirational, this narrative can ennoble the strategic plan, lift staff morale, enliven marketing materials, animate representations to government and stimulate the case for philanthropic support. It can set staff aflame, animate students and reawaken alumni passion in a way the advertising of a commercial product seldom does with a market.

At the University of Adelaide when I arrived in mid 2012, the preoccupation was with modernising the campus, expanding student load and lifting research performance: 'Becoming a Great Research University' had been the title of the previous five-year Strategic Plan. Worthy ambition, but it seemed to me this near-140-year-old institution, the city's original university, had forgotten its history.

Dipping into the University archives, I was therefore stunned to learn that in the 1870s the University of Adelaide had been at the forefront of international higher education. It had been 40 years ahead of other English-speaking universities in admitting women to degrees, years before other British Commonwealth universities it had abandoned the ancient classical curriculum of Oxford for laboratory sciences, and it had produced two Nobel prizewinners in its first four decades. What could possibly have been the cause of such rapid success? Poring over the history, eventually it became clear: the University of Adelaide had benefited from a visionary founder, its first Vice-Chancellor, one of Adelaide's pioneers, Dr Augustus Short.

The more I read the more excited I became: here was an heroic narrative of the first order. A brilliant Oxford don, Short had taught at Christ Church College in the 1830s, producing from his students a staggering succession of world leaders: Governors-General of India and Canada, British parliamentarians and, most notably, W.E. Gladstone, the longest serving British Prime Minister. Coming to Australia as the first Anglican Bishop of Adelaide in 1847, he campaigned for 20 years to establish a university, finally pouncing on a Scottish donor, Sir Thomas Elder, who was intent on doing no more than assisting a religious college to secure the founding endowment for an innovative, secular university. Once in place, Short recruited professors internationally, threw open scholarship enrolment to any citizen of the colony, and pursued the latest in curricular innovation. Happily, his enlightened and humane vision for the campus reflected the progressive values of South Australia itself - the first Australian settlement founded as a free community rather than as a penal colony. No wonder the University of Adelaide came so quickly to prominence. "There were giants in the lands in those days," wrote Gladstone of Short on his death. Clearly, I had found the hero for my narrative.

In discussing our new Strategic Plan, therefore, I took the campus' wider community back to the vision of the founder, traced his shadow in the present shape of the University of Adelaide program and character, and challenged staff to recapture the boldness of the University's dazzling first era. The new Plan, called Beacon of Enlightenment after the University's motto Sub Cruce Lumen (Light under the [Southern] Cross), sets out to capture a sense of the light of learning, shining against the dark southern skies, illuminating new discoveries, and bringing enlightenment to southern Australia. The plan promises an end to continual growth, and pledges a return to the focus on individual discovery and small- group learning which characterised the Humboldtian model Short had espoused: every student, in every year, of every program would experience "small group discovery".

Far from making us the same as other research universities, the narrative made plain we were completely unique. Staff are now abuzz, workshopping how to make the plan operational for students entering in 2014. We have set about animating the alumni with the same sense of their alma mater's heritage and excitement, and we are now confidently plotting ways of recapturing the focused international research distinction we once had in abundance.

And for the wider community, we will soon refresh the look and feel of our published materials in the light of its story, inviting potential students to come and seek the light of discovery and innovative learning Adelaide has always stood for. Short's portrait and his vision will permeate our new web site, our print materials and advertising campaign.

So a vice-chancellor may be many generic things - an organisational leader, a strategic planner and a resource manager. But the vice-chancellor also has an opportunity distinctive to universities: to become a storyteller, a constant advocate of belief in the institution's noble past, its aspirational present and its inspiring future.

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Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Warren Bebbington.

Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Warren Bebbington.
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