UNE Vice-Chancellor Professor Chis Moran – Graduation Occasional Address

by | Aug 28, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

University of New England Vice-Chancellor, Professor Chis Moran

Occasional address, Winter Graduation 2023, Armidale

26 August 2023

The first graduation to be held at the University of New England was in 1955, the year following the universities official formation in 1954, making 2024 our 70th year since we became an independent university.

In 1959, UNE’s first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Robert Madgwick, offered the Occasional Address at graduation. In his speech, Madgwick wrote “that University education should be available in a democratic society to all who can benefit from it, and further that we cannot as a nation, waste our educational potential by leaving untrained and uneducated to the highest level, men and women who are willing to subject themselves to the personal and intellectual discipline which is essential in external students”. 

His Occasional Address in 1959 has been followed by hundreds of fascinating speakers, both UNE alumni and others, who take the opportunity to impart their wisdom and experience on the graduating cohort.

The occasional Address is a highlight of our graduation ceremony. Today, you were to have heard from the NSW Police Commissioner, a very proud Alumna of the University of New England. Commissioner Webb graduated from UNE in 2004 with a Bachelor of Professional Studies. Unfortunately, the weather and QANTAS have, together conspired to take her words of wisdom away from you today.

As the new Vice-Chancellor of UNE – I have been in the role for all of 6 weeks – I cannot take any credit for the great education you have experienced at UNE.

I graduated from the University of Sydney (sorry about that) in 1984 with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science and then again in 1988 with a PhD in soil science and digital image processing. My Ag Science degree positioned me incredibly well to expand my technical and research horizons over several decades. Ultimately it led to me spending increasing proportions of my professional time on leadership and management.

So, I guess that is my first reflection – you never know what you might do with the subjects you have studied. What is important is that you hone the skills you have acquired on how to learn.

I found my calling when I did my first undergraduate research project. I asked my supervisor if people really got to do that for a living and if so, what I would need to do so I could do it too? His response “You need a lot more marks between now and the end of your degree”. Once I knew what I wanted, getting the marks suddenly didn’t seem nearly as hard as it had been 24 hours before that.

So, two reflections from that. First, don’t worry if you don’t know what it is all for – don’t worry if you are not sure if you chose the right subjects. But, when you do get an inclination of what feels right then focus and go at it. Second, for me, the essence of research and science is the incredible feeling of discovery – seeing something for the first time, being the first person to see that thing or those data or getting the sense that you might be able to answer a question – even in part – that others have tussled with. Discovery is a way of learning, just as repetition is (as my 10th grade science teacher used to say … “repetition is the mother of learning, repetition is the mother of learning …”). There are many ways to learn – don’t discount any of them.

Since I arrived at UNE I have been on a really (really) steep learning curve. Whilst I knew a lot of things about university leadership, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought, and I certainly didn’t know anything about the aspects of UNE that makes it a unique university. Of course, I am not so arrogant as to think that after six weeks I’ve learned it all already.

My point is that learning never ends. The question is how you approach learning. You have all completed a very formal learning experience and that is why you are here today. Life will provide you many other learning opportunities, try to recognise them when they come along because being mindful of that is half the battle of new learning.

You are graduating from a great university, one founded on the quote I recited earlier. What is important is that an institution does not sit satisfied with its past but uses reflections on its past to frame what the future might be. This was the essence of a message from John Curtin, arguably Australia’s greatest and certainly most trusted Prime Minister – even today. One aspect of leadership is having the courage to draw together threads of ideas and dreams and weave them into a plausible picture of the future. Others can judge whether what is communicated is visionary or not – coherence is, to me, a more laudable objective than vision.

My interpretation of listening to a recording of Robert Madgwick was his characterisation of the metropolitan universities as those defining and reinforcing the messages of convention. I do not think he was being complimentary in identifying them as conventional. He was of the view that UNE should do what those conventional universities could not or would not do. There are more of those universities today than in his time, but the ones that were there then, still have the same names today and, I maintain, they continue to define convention. Like Sir Robert, I do not see the categorisation of “conventional” as a positive attribute.

Many of you have taken the opportunity of learning with us in ways that have suited your lives. We have tried to provide the pathways for you to seek new beginnings or grasp new opportunities. Others of you may have had a more traditional (but certainly not conventional) university experience here in Armidale, possibly benefiting from and contributing to our wonderful college life.

The hardest job of a researcher and academic is to pose the right questions. For without good questions our toil is too often in vain. My job as Vice-Chancellor of UNE, in a nutshell, is to pose the questions whose answers define what unconventional might look like next.

What are some of those questions?

What might the learners of the future, like you, want from UNE, that they cannot get elsewhere? What role does this physical campus play in that future? What significance is there for future learners in a university intimately interwoven with its local community? Armidale is Australia’s only university town. How can that convey opportunity for all our learners not only those who live here?

The convention was and largely still is “on our terms and at our times”. The University of New England invented distance learning for those who wanted university education but could not or did not wish to travel to get it. Our aspiration is to extend ourselves to be on your terms and at times that suit your lives. The demand for this unconventional experience remains as significant today as ever. We have already extended our reach to some of you living in cities who can see the value of a university that understands that providing you the wherewithal to learn is more important than attending physical lectures and being spoken at by erudite professors. Even further afield, our learners come from anywhere on the planet not just those towns and farms scattered throughout regional Australia.

I claim that this university, founded on the unconventional view that university education is about and for you, can grasp a new future because of the specific capabilities, passions and knowledge of the people of UNE. Most learners today have access to the world’s information in their pocket (albeit with unequal consistency of access to it). Our advantage for you in the future will be the mix of our people, our technological and our physical offerings. There are some very steep hills to climb to begin the transformation to the new “unconventional unique University of New England” but as I stated at the outset, I thrive on learning and climbing learning mountains. The other people at UNE that feel the same will answer these and other questions with me and we will together create a university that on the one hand remains faithful to the essence of our formation and on the other embraces the possible, and becomes a university that no-one has ever seen before. Our creativity will drive that!

So, as you continue your lifelong journey of learning, please consider including UNE in it. We are very eager to remain connected to you and to help you craft the life you wish for, by providing the learning environment and, hopefully, support systems and inspirational teachers to help guide you where you might need and want us. We will be here waiting to assist you.

Have a great graduation day, enjoy every minute of this very special event and this unique place. The weather has certainly been in our favour for it today.

Thank you.