Coming home

By Margaret Rice

The University’s new Chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson, brings a deep knowledge of corporate governance to her role, and hopes to guide with a firm but friendly hand. Most of all, she is thrilled to be back on campus.
Image of Belinda Hutchinson

Belinda Hutchinson. Credit: Ted Sealey

At the start of this interview with Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson, the University’s evocative carillon begins playing in the nearby clock tower. The peeling of the bells reverberates through the courtyard, providing an ideal accompaniment to the visual beauty of the moment.

Hutchinson’s office sits at one of the oldest corners of the campus, in the neo-Gothic sandstone quadrangle which emulates the English Oxbridge ‘dreaming spires’, inspiration for the University when it was first built. It also backs on to a more intimate flagstoned courtyard. She delights in this space, which she sees as a gift. “I was surprised to find I had an office at all, and such a beautiful office. It was not something I had expected,” Hutchinson says.

Since Hutchinson (BEc ’76) is enthusiastically putting many hours a week into her role, it was the perfect place to meet, especially given she started her career here almost 40 years ago, drawn to studying architecture before realising she didn’t have the passion required for drawing and switched to Economics, where she quickly found her métier.

From that point on, Hutchinson never looked back and in the Economics Department she built the foundations for a career that has now brought her all the way back to the University at the start of the year as its Chancellor. “As I said in a recent graduation ceremony, my University of Sydney degree has been a passport for my life. My first job helped me get my second job, helped me get my third job and I’m sure it was an underpinning to my ability to achieve in the positions I’ve held since,” she says.

Hutchinson’s plan is to knit her wide-ranging experience in the business and not-for-profit sectors with a deep, personal affection for the University. As a graduate whose father, siblings and three of four children attended the University, her affiliations are strong. “I remember coming for my first day of meetings here and I thought ‘It feels like coming home’. I feel comfortable being here. I mean, it’s all new in terms of trying to learn about how the institution is run and where it’s going, but there is a sense of homecoming really.”

"My University of Sydney degree has been a passport for my life."

Hutchinson has replaced NSW Governor Marie Bashir, whose reputation for warmth and humanity are legendary. It’s a hard act to follow but she looks to the challenge with confidence, explaining quite sensibly that the secret to her own success will be to try not to compete but to make the role her own.

Her style will involve bringing the leadership and management experience she has developed in her 35-year career to a range of the University’s committees and activities. She will advise and support the Vice-Chancellor where needed and wants to have an input into the University’s strategic development.

“It’s already a great institution, it’s already one of the top-ranking universities in Australia. But could well be better? Of course we could. There’s the very important role of working alongside the Vice-Chancellor and his team in implementing its strategy and managing the operational issues with an organisation of 50,000 students and almost 10,000 employees,” she says. “I think I’m good at working with people. I’ve got strong diplomacy skills but I’m also very focused on achieving outcomes. So hopefully I can bring that to bear here.”

Hutchinson wants to see the commitment to improved buildings continue. The new Charles Perkins Centre for research into obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the new Business School building at Darlington and the new Australian Institute for Nanoscience will all help the intellectual life of the University to surge. Ideally, other building works will follow.

The challenges of the Chancellor

Image of Belinda Hutchinson

Although the new Chancellor has a financial background, she left the world of investment banking in 1996 and believes it is her skills as a non-executive director, built and honed over the last 15 years, which will give her the opportunity to make her greatest contribution.

She has been on the boards of a raft of public, private and not-for-profit businesses, the most recent of which is her high-profile role as Chair of the QBE Insurance Group. She also sits on the board of AGL, the State Library Foundation, St Vincent’s Health Australia and Australian Philanthropic Services.

“As a non-executive director of both public companies and a whole range of not-for-profit organisations, I’ve really been working with institutions around their governance, strategy, operational issues, succession planning, their external and internal communication and culture development,” she explains. “So I’ve had that role where you act as a sort of adviser and mentor to the CEOs of those organisations, and that’s what I like doing. I actually find I really enjoy working with a senior management team and hopefully I can bring my experience and knowledge from those organisations to bear here.”

Hutchinson is a director of Australian Philanthropic Services, was recently president of Chief Executive Women, and keenly mentors other businesswomen. When Facebook executive Sheryl Stangberg’s book Lean In was recently published in Australia, Hutchinson jumped at the opportunity to write the foreword. She is passionate about securing a better place for women in our society, whose potential she believes is still, even in 2013, severely underutilised, at high cost not just to women themselves but the whole of society.

“I think it’s a really big challenge and that’s why I took on the role of being president of Chief Executive Women. I think it’s incredibly challenging, not only in business but in government and the not-for-profit sector as well, for women to really succeed and reach the most senior leadership roles. And I think that’s actually a societal issue.”

Other major social issues will have an impact on the way Belinda Hutchinson approaches the role of Chancellor. Recent political developments reinforce a need for a sharp focus on the University’s financial management. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s controversial plan to fund the Gonski education reforms to primary and secondary schools by cutting up to $2.8 billion funding for education-related expenses at the university level will present its challenges.

"I tend to come on campus and often wander down Eastern Avenue to get a cup of coffee because I want to see the students, I want to feel the place and be part of it."

Ms Hutchinson is deeply concerned, not just about the impact of this but an additional $1 billion removed by the federal government from the bottom line for university research last year.
“It’s very disappointing, particularly in light of the previous policy ambition of the government to have 10 of Australia’s universities ranked in the top 100 in the world,” she says.

As Chancellor, Ms Hutchinson has a strong ceremonial role and her early tasks prepare her for the busy pace ahead. She opened the University’s Centre for Carbon, Water and Food at Camden, ran an International Women’s Day event on campus and then launched the 1850 Society to honour University benefactors, while at the same time representing the University at many graduations, sometimes up to two a day.

She considers her role at graduation ceremonies, while symbolic, as one of the most important she performs, since she talks to graduates about focusing on the higher purpose of their education and aims to pull a range of experiences together to give being a graduate of the University of Sydney a real sense of meaning.

It’s not just the ambience of the University she loves but the people. “I tend to come on campus and often wander down Eastern Avenue to get a cup of coffee because I want to see the students, I want to feel the place, to wander around and be part of it. “There is something special about this quadrangle but I also like seeing the libraries, the new law building and other new facilities which demonstrate the way the campus is now being integrated."