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Lumen Spring 2017 Issue
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New VC comes home

Peter Rathjen

Peter Rathjen, incoming Vice-Chancellor and President

In January 2018, Professor Peter Rathjen will become the 22nd Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide.

An Adelaide graduate and Rhodes Scholar for South Australia, Professor Rathjen is only the third Adelaide undergraduate to rise to the position of Vice-Chancellor of this University, and the first in more than 70 years; he follows in the footsteps of Sir George Murray (1915) and Sir Herbert Parsons (1942).

Lumen asked Professor Rathjen to talk about his long association with the University of Adelaide and his vision for the future.

You are one of just a few Adelaide undergraduates to rise to the position of Vice-Chancellor of this University. How does that change your perspective on the role?

For me, it’s about giving back. This University has done an immense amount for my family. 

The University educated my parents, me, my four siblings, and all of our spouses; the University of Adelaide has been the most formative experience on our family outside of the family itself. My parents were both the first in their families to go to university, as was my wife. I have an intense personal connection to this place.

Dad (Professor Tony Rathjen) worked on the Waite Campus of the University from 1965, and I spent vast amounts of my childhood acting as free labour for him. I’ve always known the people and places of the University of Adelaide – they’ve been part of the dinner table conversation when I was a kid, so there’s a sense of continuity.

There is another important line of connectivity for me: the Biochemistry department. I majored in Biochemistry, undertook Honours with Professor Bob Symons, and the department welcomed me back as a young lecturer and supported the development of my career. My first university leadership role was with the Biochemistry Department, I am still immensely proud of what was achieved during my tenure.

I am excited that I will take custodianship of the University that played such a pivotal role in shaping me and my family and be able to lead it through the next years. This University has been largely responsible for the path I have taken in my career. I was taught by wonderful academics, and I was conscious of it at the time. I’m talking about the staff in genetics and biochemistry, but I had an outstanding geology lecturer as well.

That I will be able to influence the journey of the University, guiding it to do as well as it possibly can, and to contribute as meaningfully as it can to South Australia, the state that has been my family’s home for 170 years, is really quite inspiring.

You have made a career in Universities. Why are you so passionate about the University sector and the role Universities play in society?

Universities are probably the single most important institutions that modern communities harbor, and they will play a pivotal role in positioning society for the next 50 years.

The wonder of universities is that they’ve persisted for nearly a thousand years, and that they have done so with so little change to their core values. As institutions they have been reinterpreted in terms of contemporary settings, so their precise shape changes a bit, but their values have really not changed. I developed a very deep set of academic values from the people that taught me at the University of Adelaide.

I value the collegial approach to decision-making. That people should always feel free to put forward their point of view and be treated with respect, that ideas are robustly tested through the rigours of intellectual debate, and that everyone participates in the process; this means that members of our institution share a decision once a decision’s been made. I think it’s a marvelous form of decision-making. It may not work in the corporate world, but it’s part of why universities have survived for a thousand years.

Your time as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania has been hailed as a success from many different quarters. What do you see as your main achievements during that time?

Tasmania is bedeviled by a low aspiration for education and a low understanding of what education can deliver.

What I’m proudest of is that right across the state, even in the most underprivileged areas and sectors of society, education is now front and centre of what people are talking about. We have made the university visible to all of Tasmanian society. It is being discussed around dinner tables, where families might not have ever considered education as a valid pathway before. There has been a change in the culture of an island, a change that was desperately needed, and I think it is now an irreversible change. Education has a role in the future of Tasmania.

What have we been doing to position Tasmanian society for the next 50 years? The first thing we have championed is a need for innovation – new ideas, new ways of thinking about things – and have forged a stronger connection to the greater world of ideas.

We have focused on the development of human capital. There are no longer meaningful jobs for people who are not educated – more people have to be engaged with education, and engaged throughout their lives, to ensure they have meaningful and productive lives. As a University we have been working to increase the participation of Tasmanians in all levels of education, and specifically in higher education. We have approached this by developing educational programs and built environments that provide attractive pathways to more Tasmanians.

Tasmania is a work in progress. These two objectives – developing innovation and the human capital – will need to be even more closely drawn together to create a new future. That is the wonderful mission of the University of Tasmania, and it is a mission that only universities can deliver on, and which I think sits at the core of socio-economic prosperity or the next 50 years worldwide.

Increased global connectivity is the third objective. And again, in Tasmania it is the university that is delivering a global connectivity for society.

Society has no more important asset than its people, and it will not matter that careers and jobs will come and go – educated people with a set of skills that informs their approach to life will thrive regardless of what the future holds.

Being in the only university on the island gave me acute insight into that simple relationship between the state, that supports the university, and the university in turn delivers benefit back to the community.

Where do you see the University of Adelaide in five years’ time?

We will teach more people; I think part of the great university mission at the moment is to see that more of society is educated, and we will find ways of doing that.

We will become more innovative with our education; the great bachelor programs will stay, but we will find more tailored, flexible programs that are better matched to the short-term needs of some students and some industries.

We will be a stronger research university; one of the great things that the University of Adelaide can do for the state of South Australia is to be a very highly regarded university on the basis of its research, but increasingly, we will learn how benefit for the state can be extracted from our research agendas.

The University will have a very strong partnership with the state at its core, and the state will realise that by investing in this University, it will actually produce the best possible future for South Australia.

What I like to do, to be honest, isn’t to set big targets for five years’ time, but to have the whole organisation just think about how it can always be better. I think we should have very high aspirations for the University of Adelaide in every way that we can. But we also need to explain to the Government of South Australia and the people of South Australia what our aspirations are, to create shared aspirations for this University, as it should be a shared aspiration to have this University as successful as it can possibly be. It is this common goal that will give our kids their best future.

Story by David Ellis
Photo by Jo-anna Robinson


Professor Peter Rathjen

1964               Born, Cambridge, UK
1965               Family returned to Adelaide, Australia
1976 – 1980   Educated at Blackwood High School
1983               Awarded R A Fisher Prize for Genetics and Morton Prize for Biochemistry
1984               Graduated from the University of Adelaide (BSc (Hons))
1985 – 1987   Rhodes Scholar, New College, University of Oxford
1988               Graduated with a DPhil
1988 – 1990   Postdoctoral researcher, University of Oxford
1990 – 1995   Lecturer in Biochemistry, University of Adelaide
1995 – 2002   Professor of Biochemistry, University of Adelaide
2000 – 2002   Head, Department of Molecular Biosciences, University of Adelaide
2000               AIPS Tall Poppy of Science Award
2002 – 2006   Foundation Executive Dean, Faculty of Sciences, University of Adelaide
2005               Research Leadership Award, South Australian Science Excellence Awards
2006 – 2008   Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne
2008 – 2008   Dean, Graduate School of Science, University of Melbourne
2008 – 2011   Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), University of Melbourne
2011 – 2017   Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Tasmania
2017               Appointed 22nd Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Adelaide

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