13 September 2021

New ANU Dean for Asia and the Pacific breaks the mould

| Ian Bushnell
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Helen Sullivan

Professor Helen Sullivan: “I put my hand up for this role because I believe I can make the changes that I thought could be made.” Photo: ANU.

Strategically, it’s arguably the most important college at the Australia National University and the new Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific, Professor Helen Sullivan, understands the responsibility she now holds.

“The ANU is extraordinary, but the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific is unique in its collection of academics and professional staff,” she said.

“There’s nothing like it in the rest of the world. We combine this deep knowledge of countries and issues with a focus on how that makes an impact in the world, and how we can inform government policy.”

At a time when Australia’s future is so heavily tied to the region, the country’s major trading partner China is reshaping the regional power balance and the full implications of the pandemic are yet to play out, the college will play a crucial role.

“There remains a rigorous focus on the college developing the next generation of public policy thinkers, economists and other leading thinkers and expert practitioners in the region,” she said.

“We’ve been building this knowledge base well before the pandemic hit.

“As a leading university in the Asia-Pacific region, we will continue to bring in students from not only Australia, but all over the world to ensure the diversity of experience and expertise we have here.”

The British-born political scientist has already made a big impact at the ANU, leading the Crawford School of Public Policy for five years before moving across to the college.

Known for being an outspoken leader who makes things happen, she is now challenging all her colleagues across the college not to wait to be asked to do things, but to continually ask what their core purpose is by developing new knowledge for the next generation.

“I’m very outspoken and very direct, and that doesn’t always work. But, I put my hand up for this role because I believe I can make the changes that I thought could be made,” she said.

“I mightn’t be everybody’s idea of what a dean should be – so I’m happy to break the mould.”

That extends to pursuing change for women. Professor Sullivan will continue to speak out for more opportunities for women at ANU, where four of seven college deans are women.

“Having more women deans shouldn’t be unusual, but often it’s the exception rather than the norm,” she said.

“But numbers aren’t everything – you can have women in strategic positions but you also have to have an institution that is willing to see and do things differently and be willing to adapt.”

READ ALSO ANU, UC on the rise in world rankings despite pandemic upheaval

She said Australia and its parliament still has some catching up to do and recent events in Canberra bear that out.

“It’s also about the degree to which we don’t accept misogyny or any kind of discrimination and that is something that for me has been one of the biggest disappointments since coming to Australia which advertises itself as an egalitarian society,” Professor Sullivan said.

“ANU takes these issues very seriously and while we also have work to do, there’s definitely progress.”

The college understandably has a huge cohort of international students that now come under her wing, something she is keenly aware of given the constraints the pandemic has imposed.

“Our duty of care to the students unable to study on campus is not just an intellectual duty of care, but it’s about what we can do to support them as members of our community. It’s challenging for their physical and mental wellbeing, as are the consequences of COVID for all of us. It’s going to be a long time before we properly recover from the impact it’s had on us.”

Prior to joining ANU in 2016, Professor Sullivan was founding Director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne.

She has also held roles at the University of Birmingham as Professor of Government and Society, Director of Research and Knowledge Transfer and Director of the university’s inaugural Policy Commission.

At the Melbourne School of Government, Ms Sullivan broke new ground in its engagement with the wider community through initiatives like Vote Compass, Election Watch and the Trawalla Foundation which funded the Pathways to Politics Program for Women.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said the university was “lucky” to have Ms Sullivan’s “experience and wisdom” to help guide the college.

“She brings a keen academic intellect, strong strategic thinking and the ability to bring people together to create outcomes that exceed the sum of the individuals involved,” Professor Schmidt said.

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