Are you crazy?”
That is what my father said to me when he found out that I was applying to become vice-chancellor of Australian National University. He could not understand why, after winning a Nobel prize and having so many options open to me, I would choose to do something as hard as trying to run a university.
Three years of being a Nobel laureate meant that I had come to appreciate the remarkable new opportunities that had opened up to me, but also come to terms with no longer having enough unbroken chunks of time to do my astronomical research. I was getting frustrated. I could not pursue my research at a level that gave me satisfaction, and I did not have a platform to take advantage of being a Nobel laureate to effect substantive change. Leading Australia’s national university offered me the chance to make a difference.
When I moved to Australia in 1994 as a 27-year-old astronomer, a group of my mentors and colleagues empowered me to lead an international team with the goal of measuring the expansion history of the universe. This leadership opportunity was exceptional, but I would not have become the vice-chancellor of ANU except for our surprising discovery that the expansion of the universe was not slowing down as expected, but rather accelerating. It was this discovery that led to the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011.
The ANU Council’s decision to appoint me to lead an operation 1,000 times larger than my research group was described at the time of the announcement – by one of my fellow vice-chancellors – as “courageous”, a word that fans of the BBC sitcom Yes Minister will well recognise. And indeed it was. While it has been my experience that the basic tenets of my leadership style have translated from the observatory to the academy, running a university has a complexity and sustained intensity that is beyond my previous experience.
But the ANU Council also saw, balanced against the risks, opportunities. A Nobel prize connects you to the world, from leading academics and politicians, to business leaders and celebrities. You continually get to meet the people who shape society and, therefore, get an almost unique overview of, and set of connections to, the key drivers of change in the world.
Being a Nobel laureate also gives you credibility and a standing with the media, government and society more generally. While it doesn’t mean that you get preferential treatment compared with other university leaders, it does typically mean that you get, at least, an unlocked door.
One observation from my own experience is that many university leaders around the world fail to adequately engage with their students. Students bring vitality to a university, they set the mood, and they can be inspirational, or disruptive, depending on that mood. It has been a surprise to discover that the Nobel prize has seemed to help me form a close and trusting relationship with students at ANU. They came predisposed to like me, are excited whenever I do events with them, and there is seemingly no end to their demands for a selfie. In turn, I have taken the opportunity to listen to students, to get to know many of them, and have made sure that they are part of the university at all levels. The students make it easy to come to work each day.
The staff of the university are both incredibly talented, and in some cases, incredibly complicated. The world’s leading universities are successful because they have an impact in our ever-changing world. This impact comes about by staff doing new things and taking risks.
But universities are not command-and-control organisations, and my Nobel prize does not mean that I can dictate a top-down set of directives for ANU. To take risks, staff have to trust, respect and ultimately believe in the overall direction of the university. It is not the heft of my Nobel prize but my experience of being a 27-year-old leading a team of people, who were far more knowledgeable than I was, that has proved to be my most valuable leadership asset.
The power for change and risk-taking comes from creating and curating a shared vision, and using the collective knowledge of the thousands of staff and students to inform the university’s direction. Yes, my Nobel-enabled experiences help me to facilitate the new ideas, and connect my community to other relevant experts across the world, but it is my experience of working in complex and diverse teams that has made the biggest difference.
Being vice-chancellor of a world-leading university is an incredibly multifaceted job and in my role as researcher, I was able to gain experience in many aspects of the job. But where I was untested was in the sheer volume of activities and decisions that need to be made and, most importantly, dealing with the highly challenging (and often less-than-pleasant) situations that emerge on a regular basis. Like most researchers, I did face similar existential crises a few times in my career. But as a vice- chancellor, potential existential (at least for your continued tenure as vice-chancellor) crises happen regularly and, inconveniently, often several at once. This is something that nothing but experience can train you for.
A Nobel prize is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a successful vice-chancellor but it is a very useful adjunct for a leader to have as they do their job.
Brian Schmidt is vice-chancellor and president of Australian National University.