Leading with meaning
Introducing Professor Peter Høj
Peter Høj is known today as one of Australia’s most experienced university leaders and the only current Vice- Chancellor to have been in charge of three universities. But for the Danish-born Vice-Chancellor, who originally made his mark in biochemistry and wine science, the climb was never the goal. “I’ve always been driven by the desire to do meaningful work, conducting and enabling research and education that society genuinely needs,” he said.
The seeds were sown early. “In Denmark, where I grew up, I did my Master’s research with Carlsberg, one of the largest brewers in the world. So although I was involved in fundamental research there, without exception it was defined by industry need. I’ve felt that connection acutely ever since.” Indeed, it was industry connection that first attracted him to Adelaide.
When Peter interviewed for the Professor of Viticulture position here at the University of Adelaide in 1994, the then Faculty of Agriculture Executive Dean Harold Woolhouse’s vision to collaborate with the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) inspired him to accept the role.
“That and the Australian Wine Research Institute’s co-location on campus,” Peter said. “They were the outlets through which I could see my research being tangible in society.”
He started at the University of Adelaide in January 1995, arriving with his wife Dr Robyn van Heeswijk who had also won a position here as a senior lecturer in horticulture, and their two children, Torbjørn and Stine, aged 11 and nine.
Twenty-four months later, two momentous things happened. One, Peter was offered, and accepted, the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) Managing Director and CEO role, while continuing with the University part-time as a Professor of Oenology.
“I learnt to lead at AWRI. And because it has no recurrent funding, the experience cemented my understanding that, to survive, your work has to be valued outside the organisation.” The second major event was devastating: Robyn was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It was the beginning of a six-year fight. In 2001 she resigned to focus on treatment, but tragically died in 2003.
Coping as a parent during Robyn’s illness and after her passing was difficult for Peter. “But I was fortunate that my children were very adaptable and supportive,” he said.
Returning daily to the same workplace, however, made moving on impossible. In Peter’s words, he needed a circuit-breaker; and in 2004 one came, again through his keen appreciation of the research – society nexus.
Having joined the Prime Minister’s Science Council in 1998 his views made an impression on many in government. Consequently, when inaugural Chief Executive of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Professor Vicki Sara retired, Peter was encouraged to apply for the position. “I talked to my children, who were both studying at the University of Adelaide by then, and asked how they’d feel about me commuting to Canberra. They were very understanding - they needed their happy Dad back,” said Peter. He won the job, and again grew as a leader.
“I learnt a lot dealing directly with both Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop as Education Ministers.” But the weekly commute back to Adelaide on Friday evenings and back to Canberra on Sunday afternoons lost its shine. So when the opportunity arose in 2007 to return to SA full-time as the University of South Australia’s Vice-Chancellor, Peter took it. His skills in guiding society-connected research were further honed. Working closely with his Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation Professor Caroline McMillen, a former head of physiology at the University of Adelaide and now Chief Scientist for South Australia, he oversaw the development of a research agenda that was industry-relevant, and distinct from that established at the University of Adelaide.
That success prepared him for another big step: leading the University of Queensland (UQ), an institution with revenue equivalent to all three South Australian universities combined. Peter’s experience there, from 2012 to 2020, expanded his leadership skill set in ways that are now proving invaluable. “UQ had been rocked by the resignation of its previous vice-chancellor and his senior deputy, amidst a much-publicised Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission investigation. Bringing that culture together again - reminding people that we owe it to everyone to ‘look through the front windscreen’ - that was a good journey.”
The following years saw UQ rise in the world university rankings to become a genuine top 50 global university, with a nation-leading record for research commercialisation and its student satisfaction scores among the very best in Australia, and repeatedly highest of the Group of Eight universities.
Now enjoying life back in the same city as his grandchildren, Peter is determined to leave an equally positive legacy at our University. “When I’ve finished here, I hope we’ll have much greater self-esteem. We’re going to ensure our first 147 years of service to South Australia can be followed by another 147. But with one difference: we're going to get even better.”
Story: Matthew Hardy
Photos: Mike Smith and Urrbrae House Historic Precinct