Interview with Simon McKeon

We talk to the Monash University figurehead about a world record in sailing and the importance of political certainty for Australian higher education

February 11, 2016
Simon McKeon, Monash University
Source: Rex

Simon McKeon is an Australian businessman, philanthropist and record-breaking yachtsman. He is the former chairman of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and independent chairman of financial services company AMP. In 1993, he set a world speed sailing record, which he held for nearly two decades. He took up the role of chancellor at Monash University last month.

Where and when were you born?
Dandenong, Australia, in 1955.

How has this shaped you?
Dandenong is an earthy, industrial suburb of Melbourne. In the 1960s, Dandenong was a place where many immigrants from Europe would set up home after arriving in Australia. There was accordingly much diversity throughout the community combined with pockets of real poverty. I had a very rich childhood full of confronting experiences, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I certainly appreciated the importance of diversity that brought together different experiences and different talents, along with the fact that many of us do it tough simply due to bad luck and circumstances.

What three words describe the feeling of being made chancellor of Monash?
Humbling, humbling and humbling.

You’ve been a part-time lecturer in finance and law on two academic courses. How does your university work compare with your other professional interests?
For me, the wonderful opportunity that comes with working in any capacity at a university is the opportunity to engage with people who are plainly wanting to improve themselves, to question, to explore and who want to grow as individuals. It is a privilege to be able to spend time in such an environment.

You were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago and have remarked that you don’t talk about it publicly that much. How does the disease affect your everyday life?
I am one of the very fortunate ones in that the condition essentially has little, if any, ongoing impact on my daily life…I think it assists me in having empathy for those who live constantly with difficult and challenging medical conditions and has certainly been a factor in why I simply can’t take any day for granted.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I’m the classic example of someone who simply did not know what I aspired to be. And, indeed, that decision was not made until after I had obtained my primary degrees [in commerce and law from the University of Melbourne]. For me, it was essentially a process of elimination – I started with a list of things that I knew were not right for me. I think I always had a feeling, however, that I never wanted to become too narrow in my focus. I had an innate fascination with how society works and so, without having the courage to become a politician, I nevertheless wanted to have some small role in serving the community and trying to assist in its general advancement.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be true to yourself. In particular, recognise that the only person we spend our entire lifetime with is ourselves. And what that means to me is that, deep down, we need to be fundamentally satisfied with the decisions that we make. In particular, we shouldn’t make decisions to impress others but rather to bring out the best in ourselves.

You’re an avid and successful sailor. Describe the pleasure sailing gives you.
Sailing was important for me as a teenager because not only did I enjoy it immensely, but it had a wonderful mixture of physicality along with the intellectual challenge of understanding hydrodynamics, aerodynamics and meteorology. On top of that, it gave me enormous self-esteem as I began to win the occasional regatta. More than 40 years later, I continue to experience precisely the same sentiments (although we don’t win too many regattas nowadays!).

How does it feel to have been a world record holder?
I was enormously fortunate to be the skipper/helmsman of an Australian syndicate that held the Little America’s Cup from 1985 through to 1996 and which, for most of the past 20 years, also held the outright world sailing speed record. Indeed, my [crewmate] Tim Daddo and I were the first to take a sailing vessel through the mythical 50-knot barrier several years ago. Frankly, as we set the record that day, my thinking was dominated by the notion that so many people over thousands of years have traversed the oceans by sail – from the Vikings through to the Polynesians who navigated the Pacific. And for a moment in time, Tim and I had gone faster than any of them. That was a moment to be appreciated.

If you were education minister, what higher education policy would you introduce?
As a new chancellor, I think it sensible for me to wait a little while before answering this big question. All I will say at this point is that the Australian higher education sector is one of the most important areas of human activity in Australia…My hope is that our political leaders will appreciate not only the importance of the sector but, in turn, the importance of making sensible, long-term decisions that have the effect of continuing to grow the sector and to minimise ongoing uncertainty.


Andrea Dlaska has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor for learning and innovation at Middlesex University. The position has been created to provide strong executive leadership to student success and further improve teaching and learning quality, and student outcomes. Professor Dlaska, who takes up her position in April, is currently pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at the University of Surrey. Tim Blackman, Middlesex’s vice-chancellor, said that she “impressed us with her commitment to our mission and values, her range of expertise and experience, her focus on students first and her collegial style”.

Mike Sutcliffe has taken up a position as dean of science, engineering and computing at Kingston University. Professor Sutcliffe was previously head of the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester. He aims to create a supportive culture at Kingston where people are encouraged to develop new ideas. He also highlighted the need for universities to look to alternative income routes, at a time when doubts remain over the government’s funding of research and development, so as not to “lose that competitive edge”. He added: “Universities need to be looking at diversifying income streams, but through appropriate partnerships that add value.”

Dutch-Canadian toxicologist Juliette Legler has joined Brunel University London’s Institute of Environment, Health and Societies as the new environment and health lead.

Gianvito Lanzolla, professor of strategic leadership at Cass Business School, City University London, has been appointed head of its Faculty of Management.

Brendan Casey has been appointed registrar and chief operating officer at Oxford Brookes University. Currently director of academic services at the University of Birmingham, Mr Casey will take up his position at the end of March.

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