The boss with the larrikin streak

1 June 2008

There's something missing in the Vice-Chancellor's office. It doesn't strike you at first because all the usual trappings of high office are there: shelves full of serious books, expensive paintings, a chiming clock, even a telltale whiff of cigar smoke. But the big wooden desk is surprisingly bare.

There's no computer, not even a laptop. For any academic, let alone a first rank mathematician, this is a surprising state of affairs. But the Vice-Chancellor is no Luddite, and there's a Blackberry on the desk in front of him (although he rarely gives the number to anyone). So why the aversion to computers? "It's a luxury," he confesses, "but I like to write in longhand. And there's a lot of drudgery in high office, you need to have a little bit of space. You need to escape the tyranny of emails."

Gavin Brown has always been an unconventional vice-chancellor. He signaled as much in his first Obiter Dicta column for the Uni News in July 1996, writing that "vice-chancellors are in danger of taking themselves too seriously". They should allow time for fun, he urged, and the University should encourage "a larrikin streak".

Twelve years on, his own larrikin streak is still evident. How many other vice-chancellors have chucked out their computers or occasionally keep visitors waiting while they have a crafty cigar in the garden? So has he had fun? "It's been infinitely variable and there have been lots of intellectual challenges, lots of human interaction," he replies.

"You need to be fairly robust to stand it, but if you are, yes, it's terrific fun." Ironically, his robustness was in some doubt when he arrived at Sydney from Adelaide, where he had also been vice-chancellor. His academic and managerial credentials were unquestioned and he was known to have a formidable intellect, but he had recently suffered a serious heart attack.

He also had a lot on his plate: Sydney's reputation as an old and venerable university was badly in need of modernising. Steel needed to be added to the sandstone. But he has stayed the course, and the judgment on his period of office in the next volume of the University's official history deserves to be favourable.

"I like to think it has been a period of restoration of the University to where it should be," he says modestly. "It has provided a base for somebody else to take it to great heights." One of the great dangers for a university like Sydney, he says, is that it could easily relax into complacency.

He is reticent about the achievements that have given him the most satisfaction. When pressed, he opts for the balance he has maintained between what he describes as the three most important elements of the University: research, teaching and the student experience.

Surprisingly, he has more to say about something he feels has eluded him: the need to widen the catchment of the University to include a bigger cross-section of students. He doesn't want to see Sydney becoming a preserve of students with massive UAIs. "I would hate us to be pushed too far upmarket," he warns.

Overall he feels he is leaving the University is in good shape. "All Australian universities have been under considerable financial pressure for a long period, and they have responded by, if anything, becoming too managerial," he says. "But here at Sydney we have a very good business model and a strong financial base."

He too is in good shape for his new role as chief executive of the Australian arm of the Royal Institution. At 66 his health problems seem to be behind him and his mind is as sharp as ever. Colleagues long ago learned not to be fooled by his habit of closing his eyes during meetings. Judges take note: he's not dozing off, it's his way of absorbing information. Feigning sleep is not his only idiosyncrasy.

The other, the one that everybody knows, is his frequent habit of taking a long pause before answering questions. At times the pause can seem long enough for seasons to change, but it means that the answer, when it eventually comes, is even more measured and considered than usual.

There were plenty of pauses for thought in 2001, probably the low point of his period in office, with the Senate tearing itself apart over the departure of Dame Leonie Kramer as chancellor - "an ugly period" - and the death of his wife, Barbara, after a long illness. Together for more than 30 years, they had two children, Colin and Janet.

Three years later, unconventional as ever, he became the first Sydney vice-chancellor to get married while in office. The union between the shy Scot with a passion for cryptic crosswords and the livewire Diane Ranck - then a manager in the College of Health Sciences - caused some raised eyebrows, but their relationship has been demonstrably strong and close.

His second marriage coincided with a significant period of success, both personal and institutional. The University launched into an energetic building program, went through an overhaul of its senior executive group and notched up some outstanding performances in international league tables and domestic research grants. The Vice-Chancellor, meanwhile, was admitted to the Order of Australia - 30 years to the day after he arrived in the country - and was elected chairman of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, a significant pat on the back from his peers.

He also entered the fray on contentious political issues, arguing in favour of full-fee paying places and against the introduction of voluntary student unionism. He remains unruffled by the controversy generated by his comments, particularly on full-fee places, and points out that being attacked from the left on fees and from the right on VSU is a worthy display of political neutrality.

He is proud that he has been a vigorous defender of academic freedom, describing this as an essential part of the vice-chancellor's role. "My job is to protect academics so they can get on with the things they are good at," he states. He has kept up a steady flow of research publications in maths, and believes passionately that education is emancipating.

He often points out in speeches that he was the first person in his family - he was the son of a Scottish bricklayer - to attend university. Away from the office, he is well known for his interest in sport: he enjoys a visit to the racetrack and is a big fan of the Sydney Swans. His wife insists that he is "a punter not a gambler", taking a mathematician's interest in the bookies' odds. He is also a star performer in the Australian vice-chancellors' footy tipping competition; his tips are sent in every week, come what may, even from distant foreign parts on overseas visits.

His passion for sport is not born of personal athletic prowess. He played a bit of rugby at St Andrews University, but was much better at bridge and chess; he also used to hack around at golf, and his lazy left eye is the result of a water-borne virus picked up while swimming in a river.

When he returns to Adelaide later this year he admits he will miss what he calls Sydney's "spirit of commitment, that feeling of shared enterprise you get when you walk around the University". But he is not a man for dwelling on the past, and his new role will occupy all his energies.

After 45 years in academe it will be his first full-time job away from a university campus, but that isn't something that worries him. He has no fears of the world outside. "Someone I was working with recently on a project outside the University even asked me if I'd ever been an academic," he chuckles.

Contact: Andrew Potter

Phone: 02 9351 4514 or 0414 998 521

Email: 531d3d0e471b56412f3835163b25165e3556174c2e523b183725