Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

History revisited - changes at the helm of UNE

I was in Armidale for a board meeting of the New England Writers’ Centre the day the news of Jim Barber’s resignation broke. That cast my mind back.

There have been twelve wardens, vice chancellors since 1938, thirteen if you count Jim Belshaw Snr who was acting warden for some three years with a break in the middle. If you add in the principals of the Armidale campuses during the short period of the networked university, you get to fifteen.

I suppose that I have known them all in some way. Mind you, known is a somewhat elastic concept. I was one day old when the first warden, Edgar Booth, came to visit my mother in hospital to inspect the new addition!

Later that year, Dr Booth left Armidale to become Chairman of the International Wool Secretariat. My memories of him, and they are clear memories, are actually an amalgam of things told to me later. He exercised a powerful influence on people.

Being head of an institution such as UNE is sometimes difficult. You only have to talk to people in Armidale about particular VCs to get a feeling for that!

The period from the establishment of the University College in 1938 to the early 1980s saw great changes, but was also marked by continuity. The first twenty years under Booth (1938-1945), Belshaw (1945-1947) and Madgwick (1947-1966) was the institution building phase, including the initial establishment of distance education.

The next twenty years under Madgwick, Cowan (1966-1970) and Lazenby (1970-1977) saw rapid growth.

From 1958, student numbers grew rapidly, as did the building program. ArmidaleRobert Madgwick boomed.

By 1966, Madgwick (photo) was expressing serious concerns about UNE’s capacity to maintain its character and to deliver good education. The University, he thought, was in danger of becoming too large.

There were particular challenges during this period, including the student unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, something that affected all Armidale schools and colleges. Both Zelman Cowan and Alec Lazenby had the personalities to manage this. Lazenby, the only internal appointment to the VC position in the University’s history, understood the student body very well indeed.

But beyond these particular challenges, the central concern was simply managing growth. This created strains at all levels across the campus.

Ron Gates (1977-1985) provided a steadying pair of hands. By the time Gates was appointed, the rapid growth phase was over, cut backs in funding had begun, as had the Canberra pressure to get big or get out. Gates focused on consolidating and conserving, on protecting the institution. .

Years later, the Gates period is seen (rightly) as the end of a University golden era. Now came a time of troubles that brought UNE to the point of extinction, that broke its continuity with the past, that left all those who loved the institution adrift.

I will look at this period in my next column. 

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 February 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for2014.

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