Farewell from President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs

This is an edited version of the speech given by President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs at his farewell event at the Clancy Auditorium at UNSW on 25 November 2021.

Hello friends

Upon moving to the countryside in Kent some 25 years ago, my wife Chris and I sometimes pinched ourselves at how lucky we were to live in such beautiful part of the world. Each day, as the train taking me home on my commute from London emerged into the Kent countryside and I saw our village, I felt as if I was stepping through the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, into Narnia.

Chris and I had that same feeling when we stepped through the wardrobe to our new Narnia, Sydney, Australia and UNSW in January 2015 – not to newly fallen snow – but to a magnificent, warm, welcoming country and University, with a sense of excitement about what might lie ahead on our great adventure – and an inability to believe our great fortune. Now, as we leave, we can say with certainty that it exceeded our expectations, personal and professional, in every way.

Before I arrived, I had read about the people and achievements of UNSW but hadn’t seen it first-hand, so before I started my job, I took a walk around the campus and soon found myself standing at the stairs of the Scientia Building looking down University Mall towards Anzac Parade. It was full of vibrant activity with staff and students moving between the impressive buildings. That was a ‘wow moment’ for me. A vista of a great university and the promise of all it can deliver to change lives. I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to be.

I was energised by the opportunity to lead this amazing institution and to try to put in place my vision of what a top-class university can do for individuals and society.

Of course, I didn’t know at that point whether my vision would be a good fit. But I sensed it might be, because in my interview with Council I was unashamedly bold, ambitious, altruistic and idealistic. They could have been frightened off – but they were brave enough to appoint this passionate Englishman they hardly knew, and I thank them for that trust.

I started the job by undertaking a wide-ranging exhaustive – and exhausting! – consultation. I wanted to quickly establish whether this Narnia was going to be receptive to my ideas. To my delight it immediately became clear that for most of the university community, many of my ideas aligned with exactly what they aspired to. Over an exciting, invigorating nine months we agreed, through several iterations, on the 10-year UNSW 2025 Strategy – the consultation unleashed the passion of staff, students, alumni and supporters. In our survey upon publishing the Strategy, only 0.9% of staff were against – a level of support which has carried us through all the challenges thrown at us since then.

One of the things I promised about the Strategy was that it wouldn’t sit on a shelf. The UNSW community mobilised to turn a vision and objectives into a detailed implementation and financial plan which our Council was again brave enough to support and commit over $2b to. Well, the rest is history – we have delivered more than 90% of the objectives we set for 2021, we have stayed true to our values, our ethos and our principles. No-one can doubt that UNSW is all about delivering top quality research, innovative education, thought leadership, social progress, and knowledge exchange which transforms and improves the lives of people in NSW, Australia and around the world.

I have asked myself whether an institution like a university can really be unique? I believe that it can, and I am convinced that UNSW is a unique place. What is it about this university that stands out and justifies that description?

I want to share with you the five ingredients that combined, in my view, make UNSW unique.

The first is PLACE. It is in Australia, which is a good start, in the beautiful state of NSW, and in Sydney, which I rated as the number one city in the world before I arrived – and I still do. And when I first stood on the top corner of campus in the Kirby boardroom and could see the racecourse, CBD and the Harbour Bridge in one direction, and the hospital precinct leading to Randwick and Coogee Beach in the other, I had another wow moment.

Part of the place is the Campus. Big but not too big. Impressive but not flash. Well-maintained, cutting-edge facilities. Dense but not crowded, meaning that no member of staff on the main campus is more than 10 minutes away from anyone else in medicine, science, engineering, business, law arts, architecture or design. Perfect for a high-impact, action-oriented, dynamic university.

And while that first ingredient is not about people, the other four are. People, people, people – the key to success. And so, PEOPLE is the second ingredient.

The vision and determination of those who worked to create opportunities for those who did not yet have them has defined UNSW throughout its history. From the foundations in the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts in 1833, to the Sydney Technical College in 1878 and the establishment as a university in 1949, right through to today, their contribution has been enormous. This is an institution which, with each reinvention, has reflected its understanding and commitment to the community it serves.

That vision and commitment has led to a spectacular critical mass of academic quality in research and education. Attracting, training, nurturing and retaining world-leading academics, which means we can say, hand on heart, that UNSW Sydney has truly earned its place in the top 50 of over 25,000 universities in the world. Quantum computing, materials science, climate and the environment, renewable energy, HIV treatment, refugee law – just a few nuggets in a long list of areas in which UNSW excels.

Academic quality is essential, but it is built upon the foundation of outstanding professional staff who care deeply about the university and its mission. That has never been more apparent than during the challenges of the pandemic over the last two years. I have worked in five other top-quality universities over my career, and have got to know many others, and I can say with confidence that the quality of our professional staff is second to none.

The third ingredient that makes UNSW unique is our STUDENTS and ALUMNI. Their ability and potential, reflected in our incredibly high entrance standards and their range of backgrounds – domestic and international, advantaged and disadvantaged – creates a rich, vibrant environment. And their character. I have got to know many of our students over the last seven years and I know that many choose to come to UNSW because they want a university which not only provides a stellar education, but is also entrepreneurial and a bit edgy and has a strong focus on values and serving society. That is a potent mix and I believe that we have always attracted a particular type of student because of it.

That slight bias in student intake is reflected in the loyalty and support in action and through the philanthropy of our more than 300,000 alumni. One of the joys of this role is attending events in Sydney, elsewhere in Australia and across the globe and meeting alumni successful in every field of human activity who are so proud of their university.

The fourth is the exemplary UNSW COUNCIL. It is led by an Australian great – David Gonski – and is packed full of talented people who care deeply about the mission of UNSW. Most importantly they understand the role of Council, which is crucial. A scan of universities in Australia and elsewhere quickly reveals that a prerequisite for success is a sound relationship between the governing body and the executive leadership, a relationship we have got right at UNSW and is worth nurturing.

The final ingredient is the ETHOS of our COMMUNITY. One aspect of that is a commitment to collaboration and generosity in partnership. A characteristic of UNSW which our staff and students exhibit every day and is symbolised as an institution through the NUW Alliance, SPHERE, the PLuS Alliance and by working together across the organisation. It makes me deeply proud and enables us to work with other universities, government and business to turn our achievements into social and economic benefit.

The other aspect of this ingredient is compassion. Compassion for each other and for those within and outside our community so well demonstrated through the challenges of COVID. It is captured in our motto, which we so appropriately updated two years ago to Scientia Corde, Manu et Mente, ‘Knowledge by Heart, Hand and Mind’, adding the heart at just the right moment; enshrining the compassion that has been part of UNSW from the earliest days. The UNSW community’s compassion for others was never more evident than in the difficult days of the pandemic, the greatest test in our university’s history.

The way the students, staff, donors, alumni, Council and leadership team came together to support those in need and to support each other was a true show of humanity.

I have also been grateful for the way we have forged new paths for students who experience disadvantage; introduced respectful behaviour guidelines; hoisted the Pride flag outside Clancy for the first time; and supported Indigenous rights and those who seek to bring an end to the injustice experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There are so many good memories I take with me and a few that will always make me laugh. From capsizing a dinghy in Sydney harbour to great tennis, cricket, AFL and soccer events, living in stunning places and travelling around this country. And of course, the successes at UNSW.

But my fondest memories will be of the ‘people, people, people’ – I had to get that in one last time. There are too many to thank individually, but I am grateful to all the students I got to know and admire, impressive academics and professional staff, alumni who have given me encouragement and support, Council members, our Deans, PVCs, DVCs, VPs and our Provost, and my superb office team.

There are three people I must mention though.

The first is our Chancellor, David Gonksi, for whose friendship, wisdom, advice and unfailing support I will be forever grateful. UNSW is fortunate to have David as Chancellor – the best ever university chancellor in most people’s estimation – and it has been a joy and privilege to work closely with him. We have had a close-knit partnership built on shared values and the same desire for UNSW to reach its greatest potential.

The next person I want to thank is Sarafina, my Chief Operating Officer.

Sarafina and I worked together for 27 years in three hospitals and four universities. Sarafina has been my right-hand person, an unfailing supporter, my biggest friendly critic and with her finger on the pulse of big complex organisations. She is calm, clever, organised, efficient, has a work ethic that is second to none and a great sense of humour. She is a VC’s secret weapon.

Sarafina has also been a great friend to my wife Chris and me and we consider her family. We all became Aussies together at a citizenship ceremony in February 2020 and then never got the chance to use our Aussie passports because the borders were locked down!

Leaving without Sarafina was always going to be difficult, but our loss is Narnia’s gain and we’ll keep checking that the wardrobe door is always slightly ajar so she can find the way back for a visit.

And, finally, my wonderful wife, Chris.

Chris gave up a sparkling 20-year career in London as a consultant and head of genetic counselling at Guys Hospital, in the middle of a part-time PhD. Amazingly she managed to complete her University College London PhD remotely and has had another stellar career as an academic at UTS.

Chris gave enormous amounts of time in our first few years here attending UNSW events and hosting, with me, dinners for staff, alumni and supporters. But most importantly I can now reveal that every important decision I have made for UNSW over the last seven years has been run-by and scrutinised by Chris. I simply could not have succeeded in this role without her.

We now return to the UK with very mixed feelings…and two dogs! Jamie, my Lassie and JoJo, Chris’ Cocker Spaniel, are Australian born so will also be dual citizens.

We will miss Sydney and Australia. We love the sunshine and the beaches and the wonderful lifestyle.

Most of all we love the people who have come into our lives and enriched them beyond belief.

But, family is everything and ours need us.

The pandemic reinforced the proverbial tyranny of distance between Australia and England, and it was never felt more keenly than when my father died in 2020 and I couldn’t get home for his funeral or to support my mother.

As my mum, and Chris’s mother and father slow down and encounter health problems, it is time for us to repay our parents for the love and care they gave us and the opportunities they provided that made possible the past seven years. And like so many others who have been separated from family and friends during the last two years, we are desperate to see and spend time with our three wonderful children who are in the UK and the US.

I leave hoping that my work has laid a strong foundation for UNSW to achieve even greater heights under Attila Brungs, who I know is excited to be UNSW’s next Vice-Chancellor. The university is in excellent hands.

Like the fictional Narnia, my time at UNSW has been a grand adventure – but as those who have read the book will know, with fewer slayings and somewhat less Turkish Delight.

Chris and I are banking on the crack in the wardrobe door working both ways because we intend to return frequently and perhaps live here again.

Until then, I will miss you all and I will miss this magnificent university.

And I am incredibly proud and honoured to have been a small part of its story.