New President and Vice-Chancellor eyes global opportunities

Professor Margaret Gardner AO
Professor Margaret Gardner AO

Monash University has welcomed a new President and Vice-Chancellor.

Following an extensive international search, the University Council appointed academic, community leader and economist Professor Margaret Gardner AO as the ninth Vice-Chancellor. Professor Gardner is the first woman to serve in this pivotal role. She succeeds Professor Ed Byrne AC who has become President and Principal at King’s College London.

Monash Life met Professor Gardner in the weeks leading up to her commencement.

What is your academic background and how did you come to this role?

I have an undergraduate honours degree in economics from the University of Sydney. My intention was to be an economist and to work at the Reserve Bank or perhaps the Treasury.

All my plans to be an economist were quickly overtaken by my interest in academia and I stayed to do a PhD. Like many others, I moved with the jobs and ended up at a very new university called Griffith, in Brisbane. As a young academic I was engaged in policy debate at university level, and at faculty level, in a much greater way than would have been possible in an established setting.

There’s this old saying about activists: “If I don’t do it, no one else will”. I failed to step back quickly enough when various administrative tasks were offered and I somehow gained invaluable experience. I’ve been everything from the leader of a program, to a deputy dean, to a head of a school. I was the first Pro Vice-Chancellor (Equity), with responsibility for student and staff equal opportunity.

When I went to the University of Queensland, I loved rethinking learning and teaching including how spaces could change to improve our practice. I had responsibilities for marketing and communications as well as various other areas in the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Academic portfolio.

I began in a senior executive position in 1994 so I’ve had a lot of experience with different governments and reforms – and like all social sciences, there’s something to be said for what experience teaches you.

Have you had a mentor on your journey?

I’ve had various wonderful people including the first dean I worked for who’s still a political scientist, Pat Weller; and John Hay, the VC at the University of Queensland when I was there, for his strategic approach.

In this sector, people are committed to the greater good and the impact of education and research. People care passionately about their fields, their research and their students and this is what makes the journey exciting and full of creativity.

What about the role of alumni in the University? How do you see them engaging in University life?

I am hoping the alumni will connect with the University in a few ways. Ideally they will see part of their role as giving back to the next generation of students, perhaps as career mentors and by opening doors.

I hope the alumni feel proud to be advocates for us. We will work hard to keep them informed and connected. And I hope they’re able to provide a sense of global community so that we can expand our ambitions, possibilities and opportunities.

How do you view philanthropy in the bigger picture of university funding?

Philanthropy is vital for a number of reasons, especially as we move into a more deregulated world. If we have the opportunity to donate, we should give to causes we think will make the world better.

Giving to a university means you are giving to grand and enduring causes. I think the need for scholarships is essential to ensure people from all backgrounds have access to education. People underestimate how much even the smallest gift matters. It says to a student: “We think you are important”. It can change someone’s life.

What about the challenges of the global nature of the University?

There are huge opportunities. Monash has large and significant alumni communities embedded around the world. What an asset! I’m looking forward to getting to know the alumni and to explore some of their exciting ideas.

What are your plans for the first 100 days?

I want to understand the bones of Monash and clarify people’s aspirations. That’s really important – to distil the essence of what they think we can achieve and articulate where we are now.

People often talk of clashing priorities and goals and there is always more to do than there is time or resources. But I think the priorities become really clear. Once you know, it’s easier to focus. That conversation is really important in the first 100 days.

Will you be looking into our mission and values as well?

Indeed. Looking from the outside, Monash has taken a different approach to many other universities when defining itself and determining its place in the world. It’s that willingness to forge an alternative path that is very interesting and attractive. It’s exciting.