Deputy Vice-Chancellor urges students to become leaders

Wednesday 12 March, 2014

The Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) at UNSW Professor Iain Martin urged students residents at Warrane to work towards becoming community leaders after they graduate from university.

Speaking at the College on 5 March, 2014, Professor Martin explained that before he moved into a leadership role by becoming a university administrator, he forged a successful career as a surgeon. He said leadership was important, whatever one’s discipline.

“We see developing leaders as a key part of the role of this institution,” he told a packed Warrane common room, which included many new residents just beginning their university careers.

“It’s not holding leadership titles, it’s leadership with a small 'l'," he said. "It’s how you take what you can do and use it to exert influence for the better in whatever environment you are into.”

Professor Martin said there were two things students should be aware of when they went out and began to lead -- understanding people, and understanding the history of their own discipline.

“Firstly, you need to know about the people you are dealing with. It’s all about people. You can’t escape it, it’s all about people. And secondly, whatever your discipline, whatever your speciality, understand the history… because if you don’t understand the history you won’t make sense of the future.”

Referring to his personal history, he explained that he grew up in the United Kingdom where he attended a state school before going on to study medicine at the University of Leeds. He trained as a surgeon and went into clinical practice, but after 18 years in Leeds he moved to New Zealand, firstly as Professor of Surgery, Head of School, Dean and finally Deputy VC. Expanding on his message about the importance of focussing on people, he said that while university students should rightly focus on their own degree, they should also seek to learn from people not working in their own area.

“Bringing a wide range of knowledge and experience from a whole range of professional backgrounds into what you do is really important,” he said. “I bring a lot of what I learnt in medicine into my day-to-day life and what I have learnt from other experiences into my day-to-day life.”

Professor Martin said in the half century that had passed since his birth there had been many great changes in the world. Taking computing as an example, he pointed out that in 1964 the first of the modern computers “that can do many different things” were being pioneered by IBM.

They ran at a speed of one eighty thousandth of today’s standard laptop computers and had a mere eight kilobytes of memory. Memory was selling at $50,000 per megabyte (having been reduced in price from $75,000 the previous year). This meant that to have access to the amount of memory in today’s iPhones would have cost a billion Australian dollars.

“My challenge to you is: what one-billion-dollar technology that we are developing now in this university or elsewhere is going to be sitting in everybody’s pocket in 2064? We don’t know what it will be. You are going to be there to make it or use it, or think about using it. But it is going to be a huge change.

“The other thing that is interesting about 1964 is that the computer mouse was invented. You probably can’t imagine the world without a computer mouse. But it actually took nearly 25 years to improve the computer mouse and make it anywhere near selling something. So some things take a long time.”

When he entered university in 1982 as a first year medical student, Professor Martin said he was taught “a scary amount of stuff”, but the thinking about many of those things had changed over the years. He offered the example of the medical view of stomach ulcer which was once thought to be due to stress, smoking too much and too much acid in the stomach. But now it is known that stomach ulcers are an infectious disease that can be cured by antibiotics.

“Fifty percent of what we are going to teach you is wrong,” he said, “but the trouble is we don’t know which 50 percent.”

Returning to the theme of leadership, Professor Martin said all leaders had to learn how to negotiate and effect change. In the process they had to use information "to shape and influence and negotiate.”

“It’s all about personality and interpersonal relationships," he said. "It’s easy to assume you start a negotiation from a point of common understanding. Never assume that. Even among professional, educated individuals, you will find that shared understanding is absolutely not to be taken as a given.”

He quoted Karl Popper’s observation that when you come into a room full of people it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

“So remember when you start to talk to people, engage with people, understand who you are engaging with, make sure you appreciate that you don’t necessarily have a shared understanding. I saw that particularly with politicians, and the interrelationship between science and politics...

“(As scientists) we understand when we talk about outcomes and what the research says, we just assume that that makes sense. But when you are a politician or a political advisor it doesn’t necessarily make sense. They’re dealing in absolutes and certainties and for you to go in and say, well the science sort of says this and there is a 50 percent chance that it is right… it doesn’t cut the mustard. You need to understand who you are dealing with.

While it was “absolutely right” that professional groups maintain standards and develop a profession, Professor Martin warned students that as their careers developed they would run the risk of picking up industry stereotypes and typical responses very, very quickly.

“So just think all the time: ‘why am I responding like this? What am I doing? Is it the evidence that is speaking or is it the club or society in which I am sitting’?”

He explained that he gave up his medical career to spend the rest of his life in the university sector because he feels passionately that “you can’t have a strong liberal democracy that champions all the values that you find important without a strong, autonomous and well-run university sector”.

He believed it was important to take the next generation of students through the university, exposing them to the latest research, the latest thought, the latest in critical thinking and to get them comfortable enough to challenge orthodoxy.

“Getting you comfortable enough to deal with uncertainty, and making sure that the university can be enough “of society” to be relevant, but enough separate from society to make sure that you, your colleagues, your peers, your teachers, can comment on and critique what is going on, is absolutely why we have universities,” he said.

“As you study, you need to think, challenge and keep a very healthy degree of scepticism about what you are being taught… We all know that what we are teaching today is likely to be altered, changed tomorrow. The peptic ulcer story is an absolute classic of that. It’s not just about the professions, it is not just about the science, it's about the unique blend that is a university - science, engineering, discovery, humanities, history and the reflection that goes with all of that.”

Professor Martin concluded by emphasising that students contribute to the university environment through “their passion, wit and talent”, but he cautioned them to recognise that everyone comes with their own particular perspective on things.

“Two different people can look on something in a different way but their views are absolutely valid,” he said. “I think that society is the poorer if we lose the sense of perspective in what we are about. Remember all of you in this room will see a challenge or a problem and bring perspective. While it is different from another, value that difference because it is where there are tensions around the difference that exists that real discoveries and progress is made.”

He finished with another quote from Karl Popper: “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

During a lively question-and-answer session, Professor Martin was asked if the university may be becoming too focussed on acquiring knowledge through computers at the expense of face-to-face interaction. He agreed that this issue presented a real challenge, but said it was important to get a blend between face-to-face teaching and online research because the evidence indicates that students do better when they do both.

Asked to comment on the tensions in universities between the need to both teach and to carry out research, he pointed out that this debate had been going on for centuries and that different university traditions had taken different approaches. Whilst the Cardinal Newman believed university was mainly about teaching and research was something tacked on the side, the German approach was that university should be “all about research and education was somewhat of an afterthought”.

“The best universities in the world,” he said, “have both. Neither is more important than the other -- you can’t have a leading university without strength in both.”

Read more news from Warrane College