THE HERALD'S OPINION: Caroline McMillen sets a departure date

HAVING held the post since October 2011, University of Newcastle Vice-Chancellor Caroline McMillen has announced she will step down in October next year, marking seven years in a demanding and high-profile role.

In a letter to staff on Tuesday, Professor McMillen said she held the view that “for Vice-Chancellors, a five year term is a tad short for the delivery of  meaningful goals – and that 10 years is a tad long, as sometimes organisations and their leaders can become just a little comfortable with each other”. 

If that is the case, then Professor McMillen is timing her exit at more or less the midway point between the two. She is also, effectively, leaving early, given the announcement in February last year that her contract had been extended until 2019. While the 11-month gap between her announcement and next year’s intended departure may seem a long one, she was announced as Newcastle university’s first female vice-chancellor in December 2010, well before she took up the reins in October 2011, replacing Professor Nicholas Saunders.

There is no doubt that under Professor McMillen, the university has embarked on a program of substantial change. The most prominent example of this is the NeW Space building, conceived by the previous administration but brought to fruition in June this year by Professor McMillen and her team.

NeW Space has quickly become one of the university’s most identifiable symbols, and if the institution proceeds with its building plans on nearby Honeysuckle and rail corridor land, then the CBD campus will indeed become a sizeable entity. Even so, the Callaghan campus will surely always be the university’s main location, and it should not be forgotten in the push to build new learning centres in the city.

Professor McMillen noted the university’s “consistently strong operating surpluses” in her letter to staff, and with after tax results of $83 million in 2016 and $61 million in 2015, the institution is indeed on solid financial footings. She also acknowledged Newcastle’s place this year among the top 1 per cent of universities, although, as she said in her letter, “world university ranking systems fluctuate rather like the stock market”.

The University of Newcastle is one of this region’s most important bodies, and its peak Council has an onerous role in choosing a new university leader. The Newcastle Herald wishes Professor McMillen well in her retirement, in whatever form it takes.

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