Billion Dollar Bruce: Grapeshot sits down with Macquarie Uni’s Fifth Vice Chancellor

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Words || Angus Dalton

It’s a short walk from the centre courtyard through the copse of eucalyptus trees that screens the Chancellery from student view. But by the time I reach the building that houses Macquarie University’s head honchos my back is slick with sweat, courtesy of the early January heat rebounding off concrete planes of brutalist architecture. Stepping through sliding doors, my sweat turns icy; the Chancellery has the controlled temperature of a museum and the death-quiet to match.

A receptionist directs me to a chair that faces one of several huge, desert-coloured artworks. I wait for thirty minutes. Then a large, bespectacled man I recognise from headshots splashed across the university website is striding towards me. I was ready for the bald head, hooded eyes, wire-rimmed glasses and that signature bow-tie (today it’s striped a vaguely patriotic yellow, green and white). But I didn’t expect to be eye-to-eye with Macquarie University’s fifth Vice Chancellor – at 6’7, I’m usually looking down, not straight ahead, when I shake someone’s hand – nor did I imagine the rumbling timbre of Professor S Bruce Dowton’s voice as he apologises for keeping me waiting. It’s low, quiet, resounding, and – if I may indulge myself for a second – a bitch to transcribe.

Dowton’s office isn’t overly ostentatious. It’s about half the size of your average tute room, filled by a large desk, a glass lunch table, and some shelves lined with hardcover books and a few polished fossils. It is, however, one of the only offices on campus with a waterfront view; beyond a small balcony, the lake gleams dully in the sun.

When Professor Dowton gestures to four identical chairs facing each other over a small coffee table and tells me to take a seat, I pick one at random and begin to pull my notebook out of my bag. I’m excited for the strict 30 minutes of interview time I’ve been allotted with Professor Dowton, and to experience a slice of the “highly engaging personal style” that has apparently hallmarked his Vice Chancellorship so far.

“Why don’t you sit somewhere else,” he says, frowning at his phone. “That’s where I sit.”

*

Macquarie University’s founding Vice Chancellor, English lit graduate Alexander Mitchell, ran the University for its opening decade. Under his leadership, Macquarie became the first university to send students their exams results privately rather than printing them in the newspaper (god, the horror) and began production of the Macquarie Dictionary. In 1986, he handed the reins to biochemist Edwin Webb. On Macquarie’s website, Webb is remembered as a “down-to-earth, approachable” leader who shepherded the university through dark, defunded years. But according to a member of staff who worked in the Council Building during his time, the second Vice Chancellor had an egocentric streak. Webb apparently signed all of his official documents in green ink, and didn’t want his underlings to be afforded the same choice – he instructed his secretary to march through the entire building and confiscate every other green pen. Webb summarised his decade of leadership grimly in 1986 with, “We survived”.

Australia’s first female Vice Chancellor, Professor Di Yerbury, spent the next 19 years rapidly improving Macquarie’s rankings and enrolments until it became the least dependent public university on government funding. But when Steven Schwartz succeeded Yerbury in Macquarie University’s top spot in 2006, things got ugly.

Fairfax Media reported that Professor Yerbury demanded another $500,000 on top of her $1 million departing settlement. The university had due reason to withhold further payment: Yerbury had accrued nearly $50,000 on her university credit card after stepping down as Vice Chancellor. She continued to employ a University driver and a weekend secretary, and, according to Schwartz, dissolved into tears when she wasn’t able to book her own travel using University money. It’s an allegation she fiercely rebutted in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald: “I would rather die than cry in front of Steven Schwartz”.

Her departure was further complicated when $13 million worth of university art – including a nude by artist Clifton Pugh that Yerbury herself had modelled for – was seized by Schwartz, who alleged that Yerbury had unethically combined the University’s art collection with her own.

After publicly lambasting Professor Yerbury for her misuse of university funds, Steven Schwartz ran into unwanted national attention when it was reported that he was receiving the highest salary of any Vice Chancellor in Australia. In 2012 alone, Schwartz received a $1,184,661 salary plus another two bonuses worth a combined $462,240. This followed a controversy that sprung up when the media caught wind of a rumour that staff who worked under Schwartz when he was Vice Chancellor of London’s Brunel University nominated him for a reality TV show called Britain’s Worst Boss.

After he was succeeded by S Bruce Dowton in September 2012 one sentiment of Schwartz prevailed, summarised here by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul Sheehan:

“Schwartz, 51, has become associated with the trend of treating universities as the last bastion of socialism and turning them into University Inc.”

*

“We are now, for the first time, over one billion dollars a year turnover as a university,” S Bruce Dowton says, now seated in his preferred chair, the lake’s fountain spurting over his shoulder. “So I am the CEO of a billion dollar a year corporation. Essentially.”

He announces it in a way that I read as somewhat smug – legs crossed, slight smile, slow blink – but if he’s trying to impress me, he’s failed. I’m baffled trying to even comprehend that amount of money. Even considering that the man in front of me received a salary of $880,000 in 2015 – admittedly, a whittled-down sum since Schwartz’s era, yet still double what the Prime Minister receives – is a little brain-boggling for a student who feels baller on the odd occasion he’s able to coax $50 out of an ATM. But considering the Professor’s humble beginnings, perhaps he has every right to be pleased about his current position of power.

Stephen Bruce Dowton was born in 1956 to a surveyor and the daughter of a grazier in the tiny outback town of Ivanhoe, NSW, which according to the 2011 census had a population of 200. A year and a half later his family moved to Dubbo to access better schooling and services.

“It was a great town to grow up in,” he says. “Safe, clean, easy to live. Bit sedate, bit quiet. But moving to Sydney was wonderful. Suddenly my eyes were wide open to a much wider world than I had appreciation for when I was growing up in Dubbo. I think I’d been to Sydney maybe twice before I moved here – I came from a working-class family, so there wasn’t a lot of to-and-fro.”

At 18 he became the first in his family to attend university. Dowton graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery (with Honours) in 1980. As a geneticist and paediatrician, he has published over 80 academic papers, watched children succumb to genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis (and helped save the lives of many others) and worked all over the world, most significantly in the US. He’s held high-profile leadership roles at Washington University in St. Louis and at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. He reviewed a national health system in the Caribbean and launched a medical school in Kazakhstan. He partnered with an oil company to develop a national response to chronic diabetes in Libya; over a three-year period, Dowton was in and out of the North African nation 18 times.

“Myself and the chairman of a New York oil company flew on a private jet from New York to Tripoli to meet the oil minister and the health minister,” he recalls. “I was in Libya up until just before the Gaddafi overthrow. It was a very interesting country to work in.”

Gaddafi had seized power over Libya in a military coup during 1969. As Gaddafi neared his demise decades later, Libya became a volatile workplace for an outsider.

“Everything was bugged – including the hotel rooms – so you couldn’t have conversations with your office and talk about individuals without talking in code,” says Dowton. “One man with whom I had a lot to do, a senior officer in the Libyan Jamahiriya, ended up assassinated. He was a Gaddafi person, so after the downfall of the government he ended up facedown in the Danube River in Vienna, where he had fled.”

This anecdote makes Professor Dowton’s life more comparable to a 007 film rather than one steeped in academe. After a world-spanning career, in 2011 he was headhunted by Macquarie University and offered the role of Vice Chancellor. What made him decide to give up his work in international health and set his roots in a Sydney university?

“This University has such potential to soar. That’s what drew me back. I think Australia very much needs to diversify universities. All universities here sort of look and feel vaguely the same. We’re on a pathway here to try to be different.”

*

Professor Dowton has preached openly about his disdain for our current obsession with the ATAR marks. Reducing two years of work into a single ranking is a “patent nonsense” as far as he’s concerned. But one thing Australia has right, he feels, is the HECS system.

“I think the HECS system in Australia is one of the fairest systems for higher education that I have seen working in the world,” he says carefully, after I ask whether he believes university should be free. Australians who holler for the free higher education of the Whitlam era (of which Dowton was a beneficiary) don’t necessarily understand the value of a university degree, he says.

“The reason why HECS is a very good system, I think, is that it’s at arm’s length. It’s deferred liability, so you don’t start paying it back until you hit a certain earning power, and it’s guarded from your taxation. You never see the cash. It’s sort of a non-monetised value. I don’t think Australians value higher education as much as they should, as an intrinsic good to the person and society. So do I think it should be free? There’s no free lunch. It’s just who pays for it, and how.”

And to what kind of “intrinsic good” does Dowton refer?

“I am very much committed to the notion that universities are good social enterprises for society,” he explains. “Societies will do well if you can make wise judgements and be well informed whenever confronted – as I was recently whether to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.”

Double take.

“You got to vote?”

He nods. “I’m a dual citizen with the United States and Australia.”

“And was that a difficult choice?”

“It was not a difficult choice at all,” he assures. “I have no hesitation in saying yes I did vote; it was quite an arduous process to get my ballot. I voted in a blue state, and I have no responsibility for what happened.”

Despite an obvious engagement with modern-day politics, Dowton wasn’t involved with student groups or activism during his time as an undergraduate at Sydney University. He quickly dispels my romanticised imaginings of campus life in the Seventies rife with hippies, long-haired folk musicians jamming in the courtyard and placard-wielding protesters bellowing chants of dissent. “Most of us had our heads down, studying hard,” he says.

Dowton actually thinks the culture of student societies and clubs is far more robust nowadays than it was in the Seventies – the problem is, no one spends all that much time on campus.

“To me, today, you try to plan your timetable so you can cram as much of your university time into three or three-and-a-half or four days a week, so you can preserve time for paid, outside work, to make money to support a party-living high lifestyle. Is that an accurate reflection?”

“Uh-”

“I think it’s a big change from the days I was a student,” he continues. “Most university students were full time students. When they worked outside work, it was really work to support themselves. Not necessarily in a high-lifestyle way, or a partying way, it was just to get by.”

There’s that phrase again. “What do you mean by ‘high lifestyle’?”

He shrugs. “Lots of eating and drinking out.”

*

The only long silence in our interview occurs immediately after I ask what students would be surprised to learn about Macquarie’s fifth Vice Chancellor.

“Well that’s a provocative question, isn’t it,” he says. Eight seconds grind by. “It’s probably obvious that I like to eat,” he says finally. “But what students may not know is that I like to cook as well. I actually love dessert. I’ve been known to construct a very decadent white chocolate mousse bomb. It’s got a homemade jam roll over the top. Brandy flavoured glaze on the outside with very rich, kirsch-flavoured white chocolate mousse on the inside. It’s quite elaborate to produce.”

Bruce regularly grabs lunch at the Campus Hub – a surprising habit given his apparent zest for fine cuisine – and butts in on conversations between unsuspecting students. “It’s where I get my best intel,” he says wryly.

Despite these frequent interactions with students, no one seems to have contradicted Dowton on his view that most of us dodge time on campus in favour of funding our party-manic lifestyles. He says he’s never been shocked by what a student has to say. As I step back out into the heat and cicada-shrieks after our interview, I think of mates working shitty jobs between classes and unpaid internships to keep their heads above Sydney’s heinous property prices and high-cost living, or kick-starting their careers to begin chipping away at already staggering HECS debts. Given the opportunity, most people I know would leap at the chance to devote more energy to university and campus life.

All things considered, Macquarie University’s fifth Vice Chancellor seems an impressive, altruistic leader, and – given his widely praised commercial savvy – a worthy man to be in command of a billion-dollar cash pot. He’s certainly less controversial than his predecessors. But if you’ve got any bones to pick – perhaps you’d like to inform Professor Dowton that university life ain’t no white chocolate mousse bomb – look out for him at lunchtime in the Campus Hub. The bow-tie’s a dead giveaway.


A Macquarie University Speaker Event & Panel is being held by Equity and Diversity. This is in response to the release of survey results regarding sexual assault on campus. It will be held during Week 1 on August 1st on Level 3 of the Campus Hub at 3:15PM.