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Breaking the mould: meet the new ANU Dean for Asia and the Pacific

Head and shoulder image of Helen Sullivan.
07 September 2021

Professor Helen Sullivan is the newest dean at ANU. She’s committed to driving the University’s vital work on Asia and the Pacific and getting colleagues to walk with her on this exciting journey – fancy sneakers or not. Michael Weaver reports.

Professor Helen Sullivan didn’t need much time to put her feet under the desk as the recently-appointed Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific; it was just a short stroll from the Crawford School to her new digs in one of her many colourful sneakers.

It was also another step in her remarkable leadership journey after a five-year stint as Director at the Crawford School.

“I like the power,” she jokes when asked why the role of Dean appealed.

“Seriously, ANU is extraordinary, but the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific is unique in its collection of academics and professional staff.

“There’s nothing like it in the rest of the world. We combine this deep knowledge of countries and issues with a focus on how that makes an impact in the world, and how we can inform government policy.”

Sullivan is known for making things happen, and while unlocking the maze of the infamous HC Coombs building is not the immediate priority, looking after the College’s huge cohort of international students during the COVID-19 pandemic is.

“Our duty of care to the students unable to study on campus is not just an intellectual duty of care, but it’s about what we can do to support them as members of our community,” Sullivan says.

“It’s challenging for their physical and mental well-being, as are the consequences of COVID for all of us. It’s going to be a long time before we properly recover from the impact it’s had on us.”

In light of the financial impact of the pandemic on the University, she says there remains a rigorous focus on the College developing the next generation of public policy thinkers, economists and other leading thinkers and expert practitioners in the region.

“We’ve been building this knowledge base well before the pandemic hit,” Sullivan says.

“As a leading university in the Asia-Pacific region, we will continue to bring in students from not only Australia, but all over the world to ensure the diversity of experience and expertise we have here.”

On a personal level, Sullivan will continue to speak out for more opportunities for women at ANU, where four of seven college deans are women.

“Having more women deans shouldn’t be unusual, but often it’s the exception rather than the norm,” she says.

“But numbers aren’t everything – you can have women in strategic positions but you also have to have an institution that is willing to see and do things differently and be willing to adapt.

“I think in Australia, our parliament is still has some catching up to do. It’s also about the degree to which we don’t accept misogyny or any kind of discrimination, and that is something that for me has been one of the biggest disappointments since coming to Australia, which advertises itself as an egalitarian society.

“ANU takes these issues very seriously, and while we also have work to do, there’s definitely progress.”

Prior to joining ANU in 2016, Sullivan was founding Director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne. She has also held roles at the University of Birmingham as Professor of Government and Society, Director of Research and Knowledge Transfer and Director of the university's inaugural Policy Commission.

At the Melbourne School of Government, Sullivan broke new ground in its engagement with the wider community through initiatives like Vote Compass, Election Watch and the Trawalla Foundation which funded the Pathways to Politics Program for Women.

Sullivan’s appointment as Dean followed an international search. At the announcement of her appointment, ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said the University was “lucky” to have Sullivan’s “experience and wisdom” to help guide the College.

"She brings a keen academic intellect, strong strategic thinking, and the ability to bring people together to create outcomes that exceed the sum of the individuals involved," Schmidt says.

As one of the world's leading political scientists, Professor Sullivan's work examines several key issues vital for Australian democracy including the theory and practice of governance and collaboration, new forms of democratic participation, and public policy and service reform.

She echoes the advice of one of her own mentors Emeritus Professor Janet Newman, who worked at a number of universities in the UK before retiring in 2010. They jointly researched what happens at the interface between activist movements and changing governance regimes in the early 2000s.

“Always bet on yourself, and learn to say no,” Sullivan says.

“You have to accept the first one before you can do the second one well. But, I have a number of wonderful female mentors who have taught me that you can’t rely on other people to see the skills that you have and the contribution you could make.”

Sullivan is now challenging all her colleagues across the College not to wait to be asked to do things, but to continually ask what their core purpose is by developing new knowledge for the next generation.

With her very unique collection of sneakers, she encourages everyone in the College to walk with her through the challenges and changes of the coming decade.

“I’m very outspoken and very direct, and that doesn’t always work. But, I put my hand up for this role because I believe I can make the changes that I thought could be made,” she says.

“I mightn’t be everybody’s idea of what a dean should be; so I’m happy to break the mould.”

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team