Founding Vice Chancellor inspires at 25th Ceremonial Graduation

Forward-thinking courses and locally-based research with international relevance. When Southern Cross University opened its doors in 1994 it set out to be break the traditional university mould.

At the helm was Founding Vice Chancellor Professor Barry Conyngham. Under his leadership, Southern Cross led the sector with innovative and in-demand courses like tourism, coastal management, popular music and medical crops.

These days Professor Conyngham AM, a composer as well as academic, is Dean of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne. He returned to the Lismore campus in April 2019 to celebrate the University’s 25th Ceremonial Graduation. In his address Professor Conyngham said Australian universities were now too similar, lacking distinctive differences that make them compelling to prospective students.

Yet universities such as Southern Cross could change that: “Regional universities, reflecting on the nature of their locations, should try to focus on proactively being different to the sandstones and metros,” he said.

“We live in challenging and uncertain times. The best chance of continued success still rests in knowing how to identify what has changed and what has not, reflecting the region and those who now live and work in it, offering something different while connecting to our region. Let this place (the Northern Rivers) itself engender new strategies to hold on to its local young people while attracting others from around the world.”

Professor Conyngham said regional universities would benefit from more research dollars.

“While universities such as Melbourne need to have a very comprehensive program to compete with places like Harvard, regional universities need to focus. Southern Cross can produce teaching and research that is world-class, but it is more likely when linked to the quality and distinctiveness of their communities and locations.”

Twenty-five years ago, Southern Cross University came into existence. Your present Vice Chancellor and the Council invited me back to give this address today as I was the first Vice Chancellor of that brand-new university. It was a very exciting time for us all and I remember, as if it were yesterday, the sense of creating something new, young, adventurous and imaginative.

It occurs to me that many of you graduating here today may also be 25 years old, or near enough. Whatever your age, though, this graduation marks another step in your learning and growth. So, while I doubt some of you remember 25 years back quite as clearly as I do, I hope you can see that, today, both you and your University are celebrating significant milestones.

Like you, I hope your University is proud of its achievements and ready to show off its new maturity, to continue to make a mark and to plan for sustainability. You and your University will both be required to wrestle with the unknown, to adapt to ever-changing technology, to help mitigate the unforeseen impacts of artificially intelligent machines and processes, and to watch with some alarm the increasing incapacity of governments to govern in such a complex and connected world. In a sense, you will have to deal with too much: too much information, too much isolation of experience — too much screen time!

But, perhaps most importantly right now, both you and your University will need to deal with those high expectations that spring from the promise you have shown so far and, of course, you’ll need to avoid the trap of complacency. Resting on your laurels, though well earned, is out of the question.

On your part, I hope that what you have learnt in your time gaining your qualification is not dominated by facts, by structure, or by technical information. I hope it is dominated by one thing: how to learn. Too often we focus on outcomes rather than the means to achieve them. The learning process is always relevant, because you will always need to learn. Facts, procedures, even technical skills can change, go out of style, become irrelevant. Learning is essential and ongoing — like breathing, thought, analysis, imagination.

But how should Universities assist in learning how to learn. Universities can and should prepare people for the jobs of today, but the jobs of 25 years ago have changed, and future work will change again. Giving graduates the ability to adapt, to create, to respond to new situations can prepare them for work and roles that don’t yet exist, for lives we cannot guess at, in contexts and circumstances as yet unknown.

What about this University? Twenty-five years ago, Southern Cross came into existence because the culture here did not match that of the University of which it was a part. The University of New England was, and is, a great long-serving institution, but it became all too clear that it had an inappropriate culture for, and different aspirations from, this region. So, it was decided to create a new university for the Northern Rivers.

Those of us who were charged with making this happen (some are here today) set out to identify and respond to its local culture, its geographical location, and its regional traditions.

Thus, this became the first university to accept tourism as a study, as a profession. Here we had the talent and location to research coastal management, plant genetics and medicinal crops. It was the first university in the country to concentrate on popular music and to introduce the formal education of alternative-medicine practitioners — over the dead bodies of a lot old-school thinkers.

Though we introduced many “firsts”, Southern Cross is not alone in these endeavours now.

Many universities have followed our leadership in these fields.

So, what do I hope the University has carried over after 25 years of its existence? What has been learnt? What makes it relevant for today? And what will keep it so, for tomorrow?

I believe that the focus and selection of the things we did a quarter of a century ago were motivated by a desire to reflect the region as we brought a university opportunity to its people. The region possessed a wonderful combination of a hippy, creative, freewheeling, anti-establishment culture, and the fierce independence and tradition of agriculture — sugar, dairy, cattle — and the coastal enterprises and subtropical industries that had characterised the Northern Rivers for over a century. The traditions of creativity and conservation bumping up against each other.

If some of this has changed, I suspect the University’s best chance of continued success still rests in knowing how to identify what has changed and what has not, reflecting the region and those who live and work in it. In the nineties, the reason we could grow, recruit students, researchers and academics — besides the beautiful environment and exciting culture — was that we were also seen to be creative, offering something different while connecting to our region.

As I no longer live here, I can only reflect on what I learnt and experienced while Vice Chancellor, then as a resident for ten years. So, I must emphasise, there is still one other aspect of the making of the University back then that was really important. The people of the region embraced us. They came with us. Back then, they wanted a university and responded to its being their own. My hope for the future is that that is still true. But we live in challenging and uncertain times. After 25 years, complacency in the community, in the University is a danger to be avoided. The University needs to continue to reach out, to reach into itself.

I believe that Australia needs diversity in its universities. Regional universities can do that by being different from those in big cities, have their own character. Southern Cross must sustain and draw on its region, but must also attract other students and staff from the rest of Australia and overseas in order to thrive. Could it not re-examine as drawcards the natural attributes of this special environment: the wonderful gifts of the coastline and reefs, the rich and strong indigenous culture of the Bundjalung people, the new agriculture, young and curious backpacker tourism? Let this place itself engender new strategies to hold on to its local young people while attracting others from around the world.

But it needs you, its graduates, who are, from this day on, members and representatives of Southern Cross University, to stay connected with, and committed to, its future. And it needs the support of its region and its businesses more than ever — to sift ideas, to collaborate, to take risks, to encourage and to back its university. All of you in this room and beyond, the University needs your support, your enthusiasm, your understanding, and your attention.

To all those here today not graduating, the parents, family, good friends, teachers, mentors, who have supported those graduating today, you deserve thanks and acknowledgement.

But you too can continue to contribute by spreading the word, being involved. Those not here today, Councils, enterprises, companies, the wider community, must be encouraged to learn more about and work with, the University, help it reflect the needs and aspirations of the region. Southern Cross University has already done much in its 25 years, but like those graduating today, it stands at the beginning of its future.

Graduates, everybody, many thanks for listening. I wish you and this wonderful institution the very best.

Thank you.

Barry Conyngham April 2019.