Prof Geoff Crisp - UNSW’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor on making a difference

Wednesday 18 April, 2018

Prof Geoff Crisp - UNSW’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor on making a difference
On Wednesday 11 April 2018, the boys of Warrane College heard from UNSW’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) himself – Professor Geoff Crisp. A distinguished chemist, he has been in the role since 2016, where he plays a leadership part in the development and implementation of the educational components of the UNSW 2025 Strategy. With numerous awards to his name, Crisp spoke to the boys about making a difference in whatever careers they were to undertake, and despite where they come from. 


“It actually doesn’t matter where you start from,” Crisp said, telling the boys that he came from a low socioeconomic background; with parents who never finished school. “It’s where you set your sights, on where you want to go...”


Crisp’s journey to academia
It might have come as a surprise to the boys that Crisp had no real idea what he wanted to do after school. “I was lucky in one sense; I found school relatively easy... but that was partly because I was happy to work hard,” he told the boys. “The reason I went to university was not actually because I was thinking about what job I’d get afterwards, because I had absolutely no idea...  In fact, getting a job wasn’t really a thing I was particularly interested in, and going to university. I went to university because I loved chemistry...”


Crisp attended the University of QLD for his undergraduate – a Bachelor of Science majoring in Chemistry and Pure Maths. “I loved doing chemistry because it enabled me to look around at the world and think about how things work and why things work – why things are the way they are, and why they aren’t some other way. And probably then is when I started thinking, well it’s all very nice being interested in chemistry, but what difference is that going to make to the world? ... And I must say at that stage I really did not know how I was going to make a difference. I didn’t know how I was going to join my passion for chemistry with how I might end up making a difference in the world.” 


As he studied, he learnt to be open to trying new things and saying yes to things – he found this was a way to meet new people, and be presented with new opportunities. After doing his Honours, he wasn’t sure what was next, and his supervisor suggested doing a PhD next at ANU in Canberra, which he completed over the following three years. Still unsure what he wanted after this but passionate about research, he applied for a fellowship which took him to Germany. At age 28 he was back in Australia with his wife and three kids, and had to think about what job to settle into – he didn’t plan on being an academic but that’s where he ended up.


“One of the key lessons I learnt there was first off, have a goal, but make sure you’ve got a Plan B because not everything is going to work out exactly the way you think it will. Other opportunities will come up... Even if it doesn’t work out as you want, you’re going to learn something from it , you’re going to meet new people, you’re going to do other things, and it is actually going to open up other doors for you,” said Crisp. 


Planning to make a difference
It soon became clear to the boys that Crisp’s main passion was making a difference. “I didn’t plan out everything in my life,” he said, “but one of the things I absolutely planned out was to make a difference... I think that’s what everyone has to do with their life: think about how you’re going to make a difference. This world should be a better place because you’ve been in it – and you’ve got to think about, what’s your part to make this world a better place. And look, even at 15 or 16, that’s what I was thinking...”


He went on: “When I was young...I used to read a lot. And I was quite an eclectic reader, so I used to read all sorts of things. And the thing that struck me about a lot of the classical writers was that they were writing to often change society or challenge society about some of the ways things are. And that had a big influence on me. So even though I ended up going down a science path, I was a very avid reader of art, of history, of social science – I loved all that... I still read a lot of history now, because I’m interested in why things ended up the way they are. So I guess...I was inspired by some of the relatively well-known classic writers who I thought were trying to put a mirror up to us sometimes, to say well, what am I doing to make a difference – what are we doing to make a difference?”


As for whether Crisp felt he could make a difference as an academic, the answer is yes. “To me universities are unique places,” he said. “They are unique places because they are places where people are given the permission to think; they’re given the permission to think big; but they’re also places where we can contest ideas - where we can contest the way things are. It’s where we can ask that question ‘why?’ Why do we do things this way? Why aren’t we doing it some other way? And that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do throughout my career; is to continually contest the way we do it. Now you can’t change everything, all the time, overnight. But what you can do is keep making those differences and keep contesting the way we do things...” 


Crisp went on: “So what happened was, even though I started out in chemistry, I wanted to make a difference to my students and I wanted to teach better... So the path I’m on now is the path to actually try and make a difference to the whole university by making a difference to how we do things. So that’s really my job if you wonder what a Pro-Vice-Chancellor does – they just sit there working out how can we teach better, how can we have better facilities around the university for teaching, how can we put things in place that make it better for our students and our staff...”
In fact, it is UNSW’s zeal for making a difference that makes Crisp so happy to be there. “One of the really key things for me is that there are three platforms to our [UNSW’s] strategic plan. One is academic excellence, which is around teaching and research... Second one is about global impact. So this university doesn’t just see itself as Australian...this university sees itself as a world university and working on the world stage. So we actually want to make a difference to the world, not just to Sydney or not just to Australia... And the third thing, which is the particular thing that attracted me to UNSW, is the social responsibility...”

(Photographs from the evening are available here)

Read more news from Warrane College