• Allan Myers’ five decade-long relationship with the University of Melbourne reached a pinnacle with his recent appointment as chancellor. PIC: Joe Sabljak

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Noted philanthropist and barrister Allan Myers takes on a new role as universities become increasingly reliant on donors. He talked to Anders Furze.

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The chancellor is telling me a story in order to illustrate a point about bureaucracy.

“The first emperor of modern China described the officials upon which he relied as like ‘the rats in the barn’,” he begins.

“You've got to keep their numbers under control and make sure they’re not destroying the harvest, but you can’t take such actions to achieve that end as would destroy the barn!”

At this, the chancellor lets out a hearty laugh.

“It’s a view of bureaucracy and how to deal with it that, I think, is rather helpful. And it was identified by a pretty smart fella a long time ago.”

Allan Myers AC QC is many things — barrister, philanthropist, successful businessman, proud Western Victorian. He is also the newly-installed chancellor of the University of Melbourne. I learn quickly that his title is how you are to refer to him with his staff.

“I’m here to meet Allan,” I tell the first person I run into at 7.50am one day in his office.

The response is a blank stare.

“Allan Myers. The chancellor.”

“The chancellor’s not in at the moment,” comes the reply. “But please take a seat.”

When Chancellor Myers does arrive, I quickly learn that he likes to refer to himself in the third person.

“Yes, one hears that sort of thing,” he tells me after I mention that university staff frequently complain about bureaucracy.

“And I see it . . . That’s what every bureaucracy is about, isn’t it? Process, not outcome.”

Process not outcome. It occurs to me that the new figurehead of one of the largest bureaucracies in the country has managed to define the whole thing in three words.

“Still,” he says, “you need them to keep the ship steady.”

*  *  *

Take a high profile legal case of recent years and the chances are Myers pops up in some capacity.

There he is at the start of 2016 telling the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse that his client George Pell wants to give evidence via video link and not in person.

There he is in 2015 winning $200 million from Rio Tinto for Gina Rinehart and the Wright family.

There he is a year later representing the Wright family in a dispute with Rinehart.

Myers also chairs the boards of the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and sits on various others.

The BRW rich list valued his wealth at around $650 million last year. Much of his fortune is believed to be derived from an eclectic mix of investments, BRW notes, from Polish brewery outfit Grupa Zywiec to the Swiss holding company Norinvest and Danfoss Turbocor, an American commercial refrigerant compressor manufacturer.

“These institutions are a gathering point of the best people. I’m not trying to be St Peter at the Pearly Gates describing the best people, [but they’re] the people who aspire to personal improvement in a proper way. Who aspire to create a better society.” — Allan Myers

Myers has a penchant for making his points through anecdotes and jokes. He is softly spoken, except when he chooses not to be — that’s when he really makes his presence felt. Over the course of our interview, he holds my questions up to the light, verbally inspecting them for dents before liberally reframing or returning to them. It’s clear why he’s so successful as a barrister.

He has been involved with Melbourne University almost continuously since first setting foot on the Parkville campus 52 years ago, the son of a country butcher from the western Victorian town of Dunkeld.

He is a noted philanthropist, most recently chairing the board of the University of Melbourne’s ‘Believe’ campaign. The campaign aims to raise $1 billion in donations by 2021; Myers kicked it off by donating $10 million. His giving is by no means limited to one institution — he gave $58,500 to the Liberal Party in the last financial year.

He also took a phone call last year that he says surprised him.

“I’ve never been a member of the University Council so it’s a bit surprising that I should be asked [to be chancellor],” he says. He notes that the last chancellor appointed from outside the Council was probably Robert Menzies.

“That’s an interesting point. I’m not sure why that is.”

Sources familiar with Myers’ appointment have been reluctant to speak about why he was appointed. A university spokesperson noted that the increasingly standard governance practice across the sector is to look at external candidates as much as internal ones.

His appointment comes at a time when Commonwealth funding for higher education remains mired in uncertainty, with universities increasingly looking to philanthropy and partnerships to bring in money. He is adamant about the important role the university plays in the broader institutional ecology that makes up Melbourne.  

“Can you imagine Melbourne or Victoria without the University of Melbourne?” Myers asks. “We’d be a backward little place at the end of the world.”

I wonder how the eight other universities in our city would feel about such elitism but, for Myers, there’s no doubting who is top dog.

“We’re the leading university in Australia,” he tells me. “I know there’s some contest about that at the fringes but I don’t think anyone would seriously say otherwise — not even my friend and acquaintance from my university days, Gareth Evans [chancellor of the Australian National University].

“I’m sure he wishes he had my job,” he says with a knowing smile.

“Glyn [Davis – the vice-chancellor] told me the university owns about 8 per cent of the land in the City of Melbourne,” Myers says. “That tells you a lot about it.”

It certainly does. The university’s tentacles stretch all over the city: from the newly opened billion-dollar Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre on Elizabeth Street to the forthcoming $26 million Michael Buxton Centre for Contemporary Art on Southbank. Then there’s the recent announcement that weapons giant Lockheed Martin is coming to Parkville with its first research facility outside the US.

In short, there’s a lot going on, and some of it is quite a departure from previous conceptions of what Australian universities do. Is there a broader recognition within the community of just how important the university is?

“Insufficient, I would say. Even in government. They know, because the statisticians tell them, that education is the biggest export in Victoria . . . but whether the knowing of that fact leads to full comprehension of the consequences, I’m more doubtful.”

Myers has a plan to address this insufficient attention and it’s already “set a cat among the pigeons”.

“It’s probably heresy nowadays but I do think the fundamental purpose of the university is to teach. One wants to . . . encourage people who have an aptitude by nature for teaching to be engaged in it, I think, and reward them when they do.” — Myers

He has asked his staff “to tell me who are the 1000 most important people — define important how you want to — in our society. We’ve got to have them all here, engaged in the activities of the university.

“I haven’t got the list yet but I haven’t forgotten. Do you know what I mean? I’m answering your question with that.”

I assure The Chancellor that I understand.

“I just don’t know that the 1000 most important people in the state of Victoria, or Australia, or wherever, understand what the university is about,” he continues, before solidifying his hitherto mild-mannered voice into something of a boom. “I want to make sure they do. And when I say I, I want to make sure the university does.”

He says the role of chancellor is analogous to the chair of a company board, with the vice-chancellor serving as CEO.

“This sounds a little pompous perhaps, but I would see myself as being the guide and mentor of the vice-chancellor,” Myers says.

“The person to whom he or she should turn if he or she has some issue, the person who will make sure that the vice-chancellor understands the policies and directions set by the council.

“I’ve been chair of quite a lot of bodies in various parts of our society and abroad and, jokingly –  this is a joke – I always say that it’s very easy to sum up the job of the chairman. He’s got to have a happy board and a chief executive who’s afraid of him!”

He laughs at his comment before making sure I understand his message.

“They’re different relationships, you see. I don’t literally mean afraid but, someone whom you pay attention to. Because there’s no-one else that the vice-chancellor has to pay attention to.

“No doubt the vice-chancellor is saying to his friends as we speak ‘Oh yes, Myers, he’s alright, I’ve almost broken him in’.”

Again, he laughs. “But this is human relations isn’t it?”

He regards the vice-chancellor as a friend. “Glyn I know very well, of course . . . and I have great admiration for what he has achieved at this university.”

Indeed, Davis has had a very active tenure over the past 11 years. In 2008, the university’s undergraduate degree offering was reduced from 96 to six, and in late 2013 management consultants came in to help develop a ‘Business Improvement Plan’ that cut more than 500 administrative jobs. There has also been a major renewed emphasis placed on engagement with industry and alumni.

Of the university’s main functions, its so-called ‘triple helix’ of research, teaching and external engagement, Myers is most passionate about teaching. It’s an attitude that he notes is at odds with the prevailing research-focused orthodoxy of the sector.

“It’s probably heresy nowadays but I do think the fundamental purpose of the university is to teach,” he says.

“One wants to . . . encourage people who have an aptitude by nature for teaching to be engaged in it, I think, and reward them when they do,” he says.

“Maybe we can do better,” he adds and pauses. “Maybe we can do better.

“I know universities’ . . . positions on league tables is judged primarily by the output of research, but I would judge universities on the quality of their pupils. I don’t mean when the pupils come in, I mean when they leave.

“These institutions are a gathering point of the best people,” he continues. “I’m not trying to be St Peter at the Pearly Gates describing the best people, [but they’re] the people who aspire to personal improvement in a proper way. Who aspire to create a better society.”

 

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