Interview with Vice Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs

By Natalie Sekulovska

Get the low down on trimesters, the Respect. Now. Always. campaign, and UNSW’s 2025 Strategy.

  1. UNSW is proposing to introduce a new academic calendar, in the form of trimesters. What’s the idea behind adopting this new structure?

We’ve consulted with a large number of students and staff, and the message that came through was that people liked the so-called Stanford model – three terms across the academic year plus an optional summer term.

I think it could be exciting. We are attracting really talented, go-getting students, and the more flexibility we can give them, the better. An important aspect is that we have an amazing campus and we only use it for half the year. I want to see the campus vibrant with students for more of the year.

  1. So the structure isn’t confirmed yet?

No decision has been made. We hope to make a firm decision by the start of the next academic year. If we go ahead there will be plenty of time for planning, as the new timetable would not commence until 2019.

  1. How are you looking to maximise student consultation about this change?

We will be speaking to elected formal student representatives through the SRC. We’ll also have more informal workshops and discussion groups. We want to hear the views of as many of our more than 50,000 students as possible.

  1. UNSW’s 2025 Strategy states that the university is committed to work towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Given the huge social and environmental consequences of climate change, what is the university doing to respond to the urgency of this issue?

Climate change is a major threat to humanity. That’s absolutely clear to me, and just about every student and staff member in the university.

It’s an issue we need to act on now, hence the identification of Climate as our first Grand Challenge. We had an excellent forum in November last year with external speakers to kick off our 2025 Strategy’s climate change Grand Challenge. As a result of this event, I was asked to chair an Energy Transition Leadership Forum in partnership with the Australian Conservation Foundation to produce a blueprint for Australia’s rapid transition to being carbon neutral. This blueprint, which will be presented to the government, will be published and available for discussion in early November. That’s a national call to arms that comes directly from the climate change Grand Challenge at UNSW. I see that as a really good example of action to make change. It stands alongside our research in climate change and renewable energy including a recently announced ARC Centre of Excellence in climate change research and our education in this area.

  1. UNSW currently holds investments in companies involved in fossil fuels. According to Fossil Free UNSW, 78% of UNSW students and non-academic staff out of 1000 people surveyed support divestment. In addition to this, over 160 academics and notable alumni from every faculty at UNSW have jointly signed an open letter from Fossil Free UNSW urging the university to divest. How can the University Council justify making a decision contrary to what the university community recommends?

UNSW has recently been through a process of reviewing the university investment policy to ensure that it is consistent with our overall strategy and our concerns about climate change and other issues. This process is nearly complete and you can anticipate an announcement before the end of the year. As I have previously stated on the issue of divestment we welcome robust debate. UNSW will be a platform for staff and students to have open, robust debate in a respectful, law-abiding way, but it will not as an organisation take a political or campaigning stance on this or other issues.

  1. There are also concerns that UNSW’s investment in companies involved in fossil fuels sends a contradictory message, not only to the university community, but also to Australian and global communities, particularly in light of the university’s open commitment to tackling climate change. Do you feel that this is a problem?

I anticipate our concerns about climate change and our investments being well aligned in our new investment policy. It reflects a shared wish for Australia to become carbon neutral as quickly as possible. The new investment policy will be announced before the end of the year.

  1. In light of the Respect. Now. Always. initiative, how is UNSW working towards creating a safer campus for students?

This is an incredibly serious issue for the university. What is the tolerable level of sexual harassment and violence on a university campus? It is zero. It is not acceptable in a modern, forward-looking, dynamic university to tolerate any level of sexual harassment or violence.

I have been working hard in my role as lead Vice Chancellor for equality and diversity at Universities Australia for universities to address this issue. I was pleased that the Respect. Now. Always. initiative, emerged from those UA discussions. It is not a solution in itself, but it has succeeded in raising awareness across the country.

How do we support victims? When we started the initiative, I really was not confident that we had enough in place. I think we are better placed now. Our website provides many avenues for support: campus security is available 24 hours; there is access to the Student Integrity Unit; provision of counseling and psychological services; access to meet confidentially with a qualified psychologist; availability of appointments with health services; and contact details for the NSW Rape Crisis Centre. We are exploring how we can have more counselling services available immediately and in the longer term.

We’re now in a very proactive phase in dealing with this issue. One challenge is that we do not have good information about the extent of the problem on university campuses. That’s why we have a really important survey of about 60,000 students from campuses right across Australia underway now. I don’t think the findings will be pleasant reading, but it will be a call to arms to redouble our efforts.

  1. Does the university also have a clear procedure for disciplining students who engage in conduct that constitutes sexual harassment?

This is a zero tolerance university, and I do mean zero tolerance. If we hear of criminal activity, the criminal justice system should be triggered immediately. If the matter doesn’t reach the threshold of a criminal offence, then the university has its own disciplinary procedures. There is a range of steps that we can take, up to expulsion from the university.

  1. Some students believe that the disciplinary procedures in the instance of the Baxter College incident were not made transparent enough. Do you think that the university should have, or could have, been more open about the process with the student community?

The university’s disciplinary procedure is well laid out and for good reason has to follow a defined process. I’m sure there is room for improvement and we regularly review our processes, but the university will not hide or protect the people who commit these offences. I would not be prepared to be Vice Chancellor of a university where that is happening.

  1. How are colleges responding to the aftermath of the incident?

I’m pleased to report that residents and people running the colleges have been very cooperative with us. We do now have a Charter, which involves the residences associated with UNSW, and our senior leadership team meets with the staff running those colleges on a regular basis.

  1. Is UNSW on track to achieve its Indigenous student intake and retention rates outlined in the 2025 strategy?

For the first time, the university will now have a Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous, which is a great step forward. The PVC will take overall responsibility for making sure we deliver on our agenda for Indigenous students. We have some ambitious targets. We have said that by 2025, we will match the demographics of NSW for our student admissions and our student graduations. We currently have less than 1% of Indigenous students at the university, when we should have 3%. We will have preferential scholarships for Indigenous students and staff, so getting from 1% to 3% though challenging is eminently doable.

We are also proud of ASPIRE, which is a UNSW led effort to link with schools in NSW to encourage students in those schools to think about going to university. Next week I’m going on a tour to Walgett and Lightning Ridge to meet with elders of the Aboriginal community, and also to visit schools as part of ASPIRE.

  1. Other universities like UTS have just opened accommodation specifically for Indigenous students. Will you commit to seeing Indigenous student housing become a reality at UNSW?

What a great idea. I’m not sure about that, but we’ll check. If we’re not doing it, let’s see if we can make it happen. We want to expand the amount and range of accommodation available to all students.

  1. Most UNSW Art & Design students are pleased to hear that plans to merge with the Sydney College of Arts (SCA) have been called off. Can you comment on that?

We have ambitious plans for our Faculty of Art and Design which is thriving as an innovative, internationally competitive centre. In that context we opened our arms to a request from the University of Sydney, to assist with the challenges the SCA is facing. The discussions ended some months ago and although the University of Sydney is still struggling with this issue we are no longer involved. Our students and staff were understandably concerned about whether the campus was large enough to incorporate SCA students. The number of students at the SCA is relatively small and we would have made sure that we provided whatever resources were needed. But it’s not something we had any interest in forcing.

  1. What are your plans with the National Art School (NAS) moving forward?

As far as NAS is concerned, we are happy to have discussions. The ethos of UNSW is to contribute in partnership wherever we can in the best interest of NSW and Australia. If the NAS community feels that there is something we can do in partnership with them, we are of course happy to explore opportunities- but only on the basis of partnership, which will add value for the arts in NSW.

Note from the Managing Editor: 

In response to the question about Indigenous housing and accommodation, Professor Eileen Baldry, Academic Chair UNSW Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Board, has confirmed that, “UNSW provides Indigenous student accommodation scholarships for Indigenous students in UNSW Colleges. The largest Indigenous student accommodation program at UNSW College is provided by Shalom College. Each Shalom Gamarada Scholarship covers full board and tutoring support at the College to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students studying at UNSW.”