Having witnessed a striking transformation of Flinders University, retiring Chancellor Stephen Gerlach AM reflects on his 13-year tenure as a memorable era of growth and prosperity.
Mr Gerlach led an extremely busy corporate life from the 1980s – initially as a lawyer and Managing Partner of legal firm Finlaysons, then as a board member and chair of prominent companies including Santos, Elders and Southcorp. He says he was greatly surprised in 2010 to be invited by Flinders University to replace retiring Chancellor Sir Eric Neal, and admits he initially couldn’t imagine himself in the role.
“I was flattered but it did take some consideration,” he says.
“Then I realised it was comparable, in many ways, to what I had been dealing with in corporate life. Flinders was a growing organisation, and therefore it had challenges ahead. I could see that Australia’s tertiary sector was becoming more internationalised, and while Flinders had a strong reputation and a good culture, it had to grow and expand – which meant it had to change if it was going to realise the emerging opportunities.
“This not only meant growing the number of students attending the University, but also reviewing the student experience, the teaching quality and growing our research output, to show that we were investing in the communities we work within.”
Mr Gerlach says that his strategy and planning skills across a broad range of national and international businesses – from resources, wine, manufacturing, finance and banking – are attributes that a good Chancellor needs, in addition to building strong relationships with people at all levels of the University, supporting freedom of speech and academic freedom, and ensuring good governance.
“There were challenges to face for Flinders to realise its ambitions as a leading international university and it has been a privilege to be a part of that journey,” says Mr Gerlach.
Reflecting on significant changes that have occurred during his almost 14 years at the helm, Mr Gerlach says he is especially proud of Flinders’ key role in developing the Tonsley innovation precinct – “a statement that Flinders stands tall in pivotal areas of industry and science” – and its recent surge in research success, with annual research income growing 140% over the past five years to some $114 million.
He also highlights the continuing work in rural and remote parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory to improve Indigenous health, especially through teaching more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors. “We built it up from modest beginnings and now it continues to grow stronger.”
As Chancellor, Mr Gerlach found it especially rewarding to be involved in so many Flinders University graduation ceremonies.
“I am so happy and proud to have shaken the hand of so many Flinders graduates, who stand as proof of our outstanding teaching results. I loved witnessing the joy surrounding the first in a family to graduate, and the great celebrations of people from so many different cultures.”
Now, as he steps back from the Chancellor’s role, Mr Gerlach notes that the new Health and Medical Research Building and city campus at Festival Plaza on North Terrace represent powerful symbols of Flinders University’s ambition to continue its trajectory of success. “With its focus on quality in everything it does, Flinders will continue to have a leading role to play in South Australia and the Northern Territory, across Australia and on the international stage.”