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Merger advocate appointed new Adelaide University VC

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An outspoken advocate for merging universities in South Australia has been appointed the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, vowing to restore the institution’s reputation after a sexual harassment scandal involving his disgraced predecessor Peter Rathjen.

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Danish-born Professor Peter Hoj – a former vice-chancellor at the University of South Australia and most recently the University of Queensland – will take up the prominent role on Monday.

His appointment follows an extensive global and domestic search, after the resignation last July of former vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen, who was found by South Australia’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption to have committed “serious misconduct” by sexually harassing two female staff members.

Hoj, who brings more than 20 years’ senior leadership experience in higher education and research, acknowledged he had a big task ahead of him in restoring the university’s reputation, telling InDaily there was no “magic wand”.

“I think it’s a journey and the journey is one where the university leadership… actually realise that people don’t necessarily listen to what you say, they observe what you do,” he said.

Hoj said he wasn’t yet sure how big the “cultural challenge” was but that he had “runs on the board in healing a culture”, referring to his eight years as vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland, until 2020.

“When I came to the University of Queensland, I came there on the back of both the vice-chancellor and the provost having to leave at the same time because of an admissions scandal,” he said.

“There are many, many parallels with what happened here and the journey I travelled which by all accounts has been successful and is a journey that took at least two years.”

He said the “first thing is to really get to the bottom of what our staff think about it and our broader community so I would have to engage very deeply within our community and the community being our staff, our student alumni and business and government”.

“Then I have to form a view on what it is that led to that unfortunate development and get a shared understanding of how we can move forward,” he said.

When asked if he thought Rathjen’s misconduct was an isolated issue or a reflection of a deeper cultural problem, he said: “It’s too early for me to say.”

“I think if I said it was just a case of a single incident I think I would do the organisation a disservice,” he said.

“I think the issue is probably broader than a single person and, you know, it’s something that organisations, not only universities, have to work on perennially.

“So I think it’s important to not simplify it and think that ‘ok this is just one person and that person is no longer here so we don’t have to worry about it any more’.

“I think it’s a societal issue to continually explore with your staff and stakeholders whether we are on the right track, whether the values we espouse are being adhered to in everything we say.”

Hoj has been a vocal advocate of merging the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia.

After a failed merger bid in 2018, Hoj, as former vice-chancellor of the University of SA, told InDaily South Australia was unlikely to boast a world-class tertiary institution without the greater scale that a merger would have provided.

At that time he acknowledged a previous aborted merger bid in 2012 played a decisive role in his decision to leave SA.

“I would have been unlikely to move on if it had gone ahead,” he told InDaily.

Today he told InDaily “my views are publicly well-known but those views were espoused some years ago… and the other thing that’s absolutely critical is that a decision about whether to explore a merger or not is a decision that is owned by the governing body of the institution”.

“The governing body of the institution is the owner of the university strategy,” he said.

“So just because you get a vice-chancellor who might have a particular idea, that idea should not be pursued unless it’s owned by its governing body.”

Hoj said, “having said that, I understand that the Chancellor, on behalf of the university, some 10 days ago or so, put out a very clear statement that the University of Adelaide is open to explore this”.

“My personal view is that universities in Australia will have to look very deeply at themselves if normality after COVID doesn’t reappear,” he said.

“In other words, if Australian universities do not have the benefit of having a substantial number of international students in the cohort, then you’ve got to look at how else you resource yourself to deliver what the society, in this case, South Australia, expects you to deliver.

“It’s through that prism… that part of your activities would be to be very open-minded about looking at the pros and cons of mergers.

“So it’s not a dead issue but my top priority issue starting now is to focus on the University of Adelaide to understand what it is that went wrong here with the ICAC thing and move that forward.

“So really the ambition is that every staff member should be proud to call the University of Adelaide its employer… and in turn, the University of Adelaide is very proud to call everyone on its payroll their employee.”

Hoj moved back to Adelaide in December after eight years away, “way, way before I knew it was a possibility that I could become Vice-Chancellor”.

“I’ve got my grandchildren here and it was just time to come back to be with them,” he said.

He was vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland for eight years and before that vice-chancellor at the University of SA for five years.

“We felt that it was a place that was great to live, it was great for our children to grow up and it was great for our grandchildren to grow up here,” he said.

“We liked the scale of it, I like to be able to walk and not necessarily have to drive a car. And (I have) a feeling that it’s very good for people to go out and get experience and then come back and contribute that to the knowledge base of SA. I think SA is a beautiful place to live and having my grandchildren here who are now 10 and 5 means it was time to come home.”

Asked what he was most looking forward to about his new job, he said “contributing in a very substantial way to what you would call the infrastructure of South Australia”.

“I’m firmly of the view that a global city and a state will fare much better if it has a strong educational infrastructure,” he said.

“One of the most important aspects of that is to give our students an education that will maximise the chances of success in life.

“That goes in three stages – obviously we would like the students to do well personally, then we would like them to do so well that they can do things for their family and their loved ones but ultimately we succeed when the students are so successful that they think of giving back to the society in which they grew up.

“That is a core, core output of the university – the graduates and their success.

“At times because it’s so easy to talk about research success we forget about that primary purpose of educating future generations.”

Hoj said guiding the university through the fraught COVID era was also a big challenge ahead.

“I very much hope there’s a return to normal – the question is when that happens,” he said.

“It’s really a decision-making for politicians about the relative risks of starting to have more students coming onshore, as opposed to the clear benefits.

“I would like to think that we can devise some ways which are safe to bring students back sooner rather than later. It has to be in a responsible way… but if you go back and look at the history I think we have probably had more introduction of virus into Australia through us, Australian citizens, coming back, rather than having international students bringing it in.”

Hoj’s term at the University of Queensland attracted some controversy, particularly the institution’s links to China.

University Chancellor Catherine Branson said Hoj was “one of Australia’s most outstanding and highly respected leaders in higher education and we are delighted to have him as our new Vice-Chancellor”.

“Peter is an inspiring leader with an outstanding track record, driving success at a national and international level, building university rankings and research output, with his focus on a high-quality, student-centred approach to the teaching and learning experience, and employer satisfaction with graduates,” she said.

“Professor Hoj has called South Australia home for more than 20 years, and he has a longstanding connection to our University dating back to 1995.”

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