New uni boss dives right into role

THE Weekender sat down with amiable new Edith Cowan University boss Steve Chapman before his investiture as vice-chancellor at the Joondalup campus earlier this month. Professor Chapman, who received his PhD in chemistry from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1983, was headhunted by ECU from the UK where he was vice-chancellor of Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
THE Weekender sat down with amiable new Edith Cowan University boss Steve Chapman before his investiture as vice-chancellor at the Joondalup campus earlier this month. Professor Chapman, who received his PhD in chemistry from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1983, was headhunted by ECU from the UK where he was vice-chancellor of Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.

What has been your approach to learning about ECU and Australian fee structures and proposed reform?

In terms of the government reforms and macro things happening, I was following that even before I came here, checking things (newspaper articles) on the web� just triangulating what was going on. Since I have been here, I have had a meeting with (Education Minister) Peter Collier and of course started to get to know people.

In terms of ECU, I have decided to take a total immersion approach so I am visiting every school, every professional service�so this morning was all day in psychology and counselling, meeting staff, students, touring the facilities, coming back having meetings with key people� and then in the evening I’m going to dinner with key operators in the Perth area� And because my wife hasn’t moved over with the kids yet I thought this is it, total immersion, I might as well leap in the swimming pool and keep swimming. So I’m using up every second that I have to get to learn about the institution and it’s been wonderful.

As you go around the university, is your focus on listening?

I’m listening and what I did to each of the schools, and we have fourteen of them, was to say I want you to decide how you present yourself to me. So no school has an agenda set by me. They can show me their research� they can introduce me to their labs. If you go to WAAPA� it’s pretty easy what you’re going to see, you’re going to see singers, dancers, you’re going to see percussion, acting – and that was four hours of bliss. You’re seeing some of the most talented people in the country performing. So that’s the way WAAPA would do it, so If you went to see the school of natural sciences then they would want to show you their labs, research, introduce you to their PhD students and show how their research is relevant to society and how it would benefit Joondalup or Western Australia or wider. So yes I have been listening and it’s not just meeting the senior management team, it’s been every school. I’ve asked I do want to see students, I do want to see staff. Some schools have had total staff meetings. But I have let them do it the way they want to do it. That actually is interesting because it often reflects the leader of the place, and the personality and culture of the place as to what they think is important to them, what they want to share.

You lifted your previous university up the rankings in the UK; is that what you want to do here at ECU?

That’s why I came here. I came for a number of reasons, first of all when the headhunters approached me, because I was looking at many different institutions and they said would I be interested in Australia and my initial reaction was no I’ve got other things going on. They said ‘well why don’t you come and have a look, we’ll fly you over’. So I thought ‘I might as well’. You probably don’t or maybe you do appreciate how beautiful your city is and how special it is, so I arrived never having been on Australian soil before, never having been in Perth before� You arrive and walk around, maybe go to Kings Park, get the a ferry to South Perth and just things in the central area first of all, I think ‘wow this is – like Kings Park for example – world class, wipes Central Park in my opinion and Hyde Park and all these things. Beautiful, the views and everything, the city has got a really nice laid back style. Then of course there’s the coastline – and I thought this is a good beach and then you realise it goes for 2000 miles�

Then you move out towards to the suburbs where you look where you might live and think, gosh. So I moved to Mindarie. I love it, love the harbour, I love the Indian Ocean Brewhouse. But I also love all other properties that serve something in that harbour.

So it’s a great outdoor lifestyle� the first impressions of Perth and the surrounding areas were ‘this is absolutely gorgeous I would love to live here’. But of course what’s important is what your work life is as well�.

And me coming here never having seen it (ECU Joondalup campus) I walk through here (Chancellery building) and think ‘this is absolutely amazing’. Then I walk down and see the lake, the engineering facilities, the medical facilities and the simulation facilities we’ve got for health�there’s a person there running it who has come from Stanford. Stanford’s one of the best universities in the world and they’ve come here because we have got better facilities. I had absolutely no idea what the facilities were like and in terms of infrastructure, far better than most UK universities.

It sounds like a clich� and you’re going to think it’s naff but I went back (to the UK) and thought ‘I’ve got to go there, this is where I want to go’.

And professionally you thought ‘it’s a great place’, do you want to make it greater?

I had offers at other universities far more established than this. But I’m a kind of project-driven guy. I’ve always done things for maybe five, six, seven years and moved on to the next project. This is an institution that didn’t exist 24 years ago. So the people that have come before me, their job was to establish an identity as a university. It’s always difficult melding things together and making them a new culture, a new organisation. They’ve built this in 24 years. I thought the platform here is brilliant. So do we need more international students? Yes. Do we need to grow research? Yes. Do we need to grow local students? Yes� Would I rather be anywhere else? No.

The project is meaty enough that I think I can make a big difference… I think I can have an impact on it in two, three, four, five years. Whereas if you took over a Cambridge say, you could be the worst vice-chancellor in the world it would still be Cambridge. Your impact would be consequently less.

I could have a really major impact on this institution and that’s what’s exciting.

The university has 23,000 students, do you have a number you want to get to?

No I don’t have a number. I think we’ve got to look at all kinds of different things, what type of students we want to bring in, what type of university we want to be, what’s our mission. We’re not UWA for example. When I met the students from psychology and counselling and around the table was a 60-year-old lady finishing a PhD, a middle aged lady from South Africa, a young guy who was just in from school, a lady from Kenya, another student who was doing some really good psychology stuff� the diversity of the students was energising, refreshing, to be applauded.

You can go into many universities and you’ll just see a bunch of school leavers. We’re not like that, we have all range of different people. Yes we have school leavers but we have people who have come back, we have single mothers wanting to be a nurse or train as a councillor and we have avenues in which they can come in. We have good online support so if they can’t come in today because they have to look after their kid, they can work at home and when they come in the staff are responsive� this campus has a welcoming feel, a collegiate feel, has a kind of family feel. Now I’m not suggesting this should make us complacent�but what I’m saying is people who come here genuinely feel welcome and enjoy the experience.

You’ll stick with the number of campuses; have you got a plan to open an overseas campus?

I haven’t got a plan that we will open a campus in X tomorrow.

But we will develop an international strategy and if there is appropriate opportunities that match with what we want to deliver and what country we go into wants. You have to be careful. When we (Heriot Watt University) went into Malaysia we first analysed what Malaysia wanted. So it is big in oil and gas so we launched petroleum engineering�.We look at what they want rather than what we’ve got. So I would look at – lets say – China says we’re really interested in growing nursing numbers or in education or communications that would be an opportunity that I think would match ECU’s skill set and it would be an opportunity I hope we would grasp.

But if you’re asking me have I come with pre-planned ideas of what I want to do. I have preferred things I might want to do but until I have done my total immersion and got under the skin of this institution and really understood where it’s willing to go as well as where I want to go, then it would be presumptuous of me to make those decisions. I will make them along with colleagues but I think if I’m going to represent this institution I want to know it.