Directors don chancellors' robes

January 8, 1999

The search by Australian universities for non-government sources of income is affecting their choice of chancellors.

Universities are increasingly looking to corporate chiefs to don their chancellors' robes and help improve business links. Whereas ten years ago, most chancellors were judges, lawyers and knights of the realm, today half of them are captains of industry.

Chancellors have traditionally played a ceremonial role, especially at graduation time, and in the past they have usually been drawn from the law or the social aristocracy. But now the number of business people heading university governing bodies implies that vice-chancellors and their councils prefer someone with financial nous and good corporate contacts.

Of today's 38 chancellors, only five are judges and, while lawyers are more common, most of the rest have been drawn from the nation's boardrooms.

Two of Australia's biggest universities, Monash and RMIT, have both recently appointed leading business figures as their chancellors. Monash announced in November that Jerry Ellis, chairman of Australia's biggest company, BHP, would begin a three-year term as its chancellor from this February.

RMIT announced last month that its new chancellor would be Don Mercer, former chief executive of the ANZ Banking Group. Similarly, the University of South Australia nominated David Klingberg, managing director of one of the largest professional engineering companies in the country, as its chancellor.

Also in that state, the University of Adelaide's chancellor is Bruce Webb, a one-time managing director of the mining company Poseidon and director of several mineral exploration firms.

Swinburne University in Melbourne persuaded one of Australia's wealthiest and shrewdest company heavyweights, Richard Pratt, to become its chancellor.

Mr Pratt floated the idea of creating a "million-dollar club" for Swinburne: companies would give the university Aus$1 million (Pounds 370,000) or some lesser but still substantial sum in return for access not to its gymnasium but its academic expertise.

Some institutions seek different qualities in their chancellors: the Australian National University in Canberra and Murdoch University in Perth both opted for former conservative politicians; La Trobe University in Melbourne went for a scientist while Sydney and Ballarat universities chose former academics.

At the University of Melbourne, a one-time top spy at the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Sir Edward Woodward, has been chancellor for the past eight years. The Australian Catholic University needed someone more influential with God than mammon as its earthly head and His Eminence Cardinal Edward Clancy fills that position.

But these are exceptions to the rule that business know-how is prized above all. A capacity to manage money, rather than social status and a firm shake of graduand hands, appears to be the key qualification for today's very modern chancellor.

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