Farewell to Jim Lewis, Chair of the AMSI Board

Jim talks to Emma Bland about his time at AMSI, and looks toward the future.

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As the Foundation Chairman of the Board, Jim Lewis has guided AMSI through its first 10 years with the vigour and expertise that comes only from experience. A BHP executive, a successful businessman, a chemical engineer and a distinguished university lecturer, Jim was exactly the sort of over-achiever that AMSI's architects wanted as independent chair of the board. Jim laid the foundations for many of AMSI’s successes, including negotiating the contract with BlueScope Steel to support the ICE-EM program, appointing and mentoring a series of AMSI Directors, and bringing substantial amounts of funding to AMSI through tireless negotiations with government and industry.

 

Jim talks to Emma Bland about his time at AMSI, and looks toward the future.

Has your background in engineering been useful in your role as Chair of the Board?

I have degrees in Chemical Engineering, so I have done a modest amount of mathematics in my academic training, but what gave me a broader ability to provide AMSI with advice and guidance was what I did after leaving university. I did some post-doctoral work, including a placement at the University of Waterloo in Canada. This was when I decided to go into industry, and I joined BHP while I was in Canada. They brought me back to Australia and I worked as a research scientist for a couple of years before I started my career in management. So it was a combination of having a technical discipline as primary training and then having a long career in management that equipped me for the sort of role that AMSI was looking for when they approached me back in 2001.

It sounds like you’ve moved around a bit...

Well I’ve lived in 23 houses in 12 cities, as my wife keeps reminding me. She keeps count!

What are some of your interests outside engineering and management?

I enjoy reading and have an interest in English Literature. I did an Arts degree in English Literature out of general interest, which makes me a slightly unusual engineer! When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s I had 36 contact hours per week, including 7-hour practical laboratories that went until 9 o’clock at night. So there was no time to indulge in Milton, Shakespeare, or George Eliot and her compatriots. At the end of the day I felt that I had an excellent vocational education, but not an education for life, and that’s what prompted me to indulge myself studying English Literature. I also enjoy golf, am interested in current affairs and education policy issues, and enjoy supporting the Swans.

Let’s talk about AMSI now. You’re leaving the board just as it is about to be restructured following recommendations from the AMSI review. How is the board going to change?

Currently the board consists of two external directors and a range of other members who represent the interests of the different classes of AMSI members. The Review recommended that we increase the number of external Directors. We have accepted this and intend to recruit a number of independent Board Members in the near future. We are also going to double the representation of the different classes of membership, allowing us to spread the breadth of input from our members.

The board has not been reconstituted at this stage because I felt that it was important that the expansion of the external Directors occurred under the oversight of the new chairman. So we have delayed this until Dr Ron Sandland arrives as the new Chairman of the Board.

What do you see as AMSIs major achievements over the past year?

The review of AMSI was a very significant event for AMSI this year. It was a major exercise in its own right, and it produced 23 recommendations. The board has accepted all of these recommendations, with some modification on one or two of them in terms of emphasis. The review process normally occurs every five years, so it was long overdue.

This year was also the second and final year of the TIMES Project. This project was a great successor to the ICE-EM program, and it has been fabulous. What AMSI has done in the secondary education arena in developing the content for the ICE-EM textbooks and the teacher content modules is superb. They are world-class efforts, and they are principally due to Michael Evans, Janine McIntosh and the project officers, who gave us a critical mass to be able to do a whole range of additional professional development. The writing team did a really outstanding job initially and have saddled up and done a repeat with a thorough rewriting of the texts for the new Australian Curriculum. So the TIMES project has been a major success, and it gives a strong foundation to build upon for schools interested in delivering a soundly-based, mathematically-correct curriculum.

Incidentally, Michael and Janine were invited to be part of the writers’ panel for the Australian Curriculum. The panel consists of 10 people, so to have two people from the one organisation is extremely unusual, and simply reflects the calibre of the people who work with us.

The other significant achievement of Geoff Prince, Michael Evans and Dick Barker has been to negotiate the deal with Cambridge University Press to publish the ICE-EM textbooks. This is an important arrangement that will stand AMSI in good stead into the future.

Finally, the Intern Program is an excellent initiative and getting this underway has been another significant achievement.

And what are some of AMSI’s biggest challenges for the future?

The major challenge for AMSI is maintaining a stable funding base, and we have some ways in which this is being addressed. The internship program and the deal with Cambridge University Press will both generate income into the future, which will supplement the Members’ annual subscriptions significantly. These are a big step forward in terms of achieving stable funding, in addition to any government project funding we receive.

In terms of broader issues for AMSI, I think the issue of a national research institute is a major challenge, which we’re trying to persuade the government to assist with. The ability to influence government with sound policy decisions via advocacy is crucial, and this will be an ongoing critical activity for AMSI. This is something that AMSI can do well because it speaks with the authority that comes with having 28 universities as members.

The revision of the Joint Venture agreement as recommended by the Review is an important issue currently being worked on, as is the discussions around a revision of the fee structure to more appropriately recognise the relative capacity to participate and benefit from AMSI membership.

Finally, we have had several experienced staff and board members retire or leave AMSI for various reasons over the past year, and we need to make sure that the breadth of experience these people brought to AMSI continues to grow as we take on new personnel. I have been Chair of the Board for almost 10 years now, and I believe that it is time that a new person takes on this important role. New staff bring fresh ideas, which AMSI will benefit from immensely over the coming years. AMSI is very fortunate to have Ron Sandland as its new Chairman and I am confident that the governance and management of AMSI is in good hands.