Interview conducted by Catia Rizio and Mish Khan.
In Monsoon’s new series we will be sitting down with academics from College of Asia and the Pacific to discuss their life as an academic and to get to know them a bit better. This week we sat down with Professor Hugh White for an engaging discussion about his experiences as a student, working for the government and to talk about his academic work.
Hugh spoke about his interesting life that spans from an education at Oxford to a staffer for Kim Beazley and Bob Hawke to a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald all before becoming a professor at ANU.
For those of you that don’t know Hugh is a Professor of Strategic studies in the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs with College of Asia and the Pacific. Previously he was the head of the Strategic Studies Centre but is no longer in that role. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses whilst conducting his own research. Hugh’s main research consists around Australian strategic policy, therefore his interest in our region and the relationships within it is strong. He particularly is interested in areas where Australia is deploying armed forces but does not regard himself as an expert on the Middle East. We were surprised to learn that Hugh does not have a PhD himself but did begin one in the 1980s at ANU which he never finished.
As such, Hugh is not a career academic. He has never formally studied political science or strategic studies as his undergraduate and graduate degrees are in philosophy. An ambition to work in government, particularly in foreign affairs, was formed early on through the influence of his father working in government. His professional career began with work at the Office of National Assessments before becoming a foreign affairs correspondant at the Sydney Morning Herald. He spoke warmly of his time as a staffer for Kim Beazley and Bob Hawke as he was able to gain great experiences in this work. A move back to the ONA and Department of Defence occurred before he was offered a job at ANU in 2004.
We began to speak more about his teaching and in particular what he found most memorable as a student. His reply was “the really great teachers” particularly those who “made the hair on the back of your neck stand up.” Their sense of energy encouraged and inspired him throughout his studies.
Hugh believes that he adopts a rather “gloomy position” in his research as his main interest lies in the circumstances where Australia might find itself at war. “Conditions of peace in the Asian Century have changed very sharply” and this is an immense “mega-development.” With the contest of primacy in the Asia now being hotly contested Hugh believes that his research matters now more than ever despite him appearing “sometimes quite gloomy.” But his strong belief in how important his work is becomes immediately apparent upon talking to him. His passion and interest in the field are very strong and goes back a very long way.
Hugh’s main advice that he felt we should take from his varied career pathway is that career planning is difficult and it is often best to “do whatever seems like most fun.” This will engage you a lot better and normally leads to you being quite good at it! He elaborated on the importance of working hard and obtaining good marks at university. And for those interested in government or foreign affairs, an understanding and appreciation of history is extremely beneficial.
Hugh’s work is often quite publicly criticised and he has had to repeatedly deal with this. He emphasised the need to not “take it personally” and to be thick skinned. An early career amongst politicans helped him develop this view. He feels most of his readers are more engaged in the issue itself rather than the person who is writing them anyway.
Hugh White was extremely warm and easy to talk to. A clear leader in his field who is passionate about his work. He concluded by letting us know that he was kicked out of law school in his undergraduate degree due to unstatisfactory progress! A very humanising element of an extremely interesting ANU academic.
For more information about Hugh please go to: https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/white-hj