50th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Geography at the University of Melbourne
Thursday October 7, 2010, University House
- Dean of the Melb School of Land and Environment, Prof Rick Roush,
- Head of Dept of Resource Management and Geography, Prof Nigel Stork,
- Head of the School of Geography and Environmental Science at Monash University, Prof David Dunkerley,
- Past students and staff of the Geography Department,
- Present students and staff, and other friends of Geography:
On behalf of the University, I welcome everyone here tonight to mark the establishment of the Geography Department at this University, 50 years ago in 1960. It’s great to see so many happy faces, and so many friends of the University as well as of the Department. I congratulate you all on the past 50 years of a successful Geography program and successful Geography graduates, and I hope there will be many more such anniversaries.
Many of you who are past students and staff of the Department will be catching up with friends you have not seen for many years – always an interesting experience! I hope you have some memorable meetings here tonight.
Those of you who are present-day students and staff of the Geography program are here tonight showing your support for the important discipline of Geography, and for its place in this University. It’s wonderful that you have come to demonstrate how this discipline and this Department is important to you.
I would like to make some remarks about the University (and Geography) at the time at which the Department was established, and then move on to say something about how Geography is seen in the University today.
The Geography Department at the University of Melbourne offered its first three-year degree course in 1960, 50 years ago. The fledgling department offered a pass degree in Arts, Science and Commerce, and an honours degree in Arts. Before 1960, single subjects in economic geography and physical geography were offered to students as a part of undergraduate studies, but 1960 saw the first cohort of Geography students, doing what we now call majors, at the University.
There had been discussion about the University needing a Geography program for a couple of decades before this. In 1943, then Vice Chancellor Sir John Dudley Gibbs Medley wrote a memorandum stating that in his view the Faculties of Arts, Science and Commerce needed to be strengthened so that the University wasn’t dominated by professional courses (like Law!!!). (What a visionary he was to be suggesting this even at a time of world war). He wanted to introduce ‘connecting’ subjects like Psychology and Geography – subjects that crossed borders between different parts of the University’s disciplines. Indeed such connecting subjects formed their own disciplines which were well-developed in universities elsewhere in Australia and overseas, but not at Melbourne (from Poynter and Rasmussen 1966 A Place Apart. The University of Melbourne: Decades of Challenge, MUP, p. 78).
Then in 1954, an Inter-Faculty Committee on Geography was formed, recommending that a department be established as soon as possible, to keep Melbourne up to date with international universities (even then we had an eye on the overseas competition!). The committee’s recommendation was also based on the growing need for qualified geography teachers in schools to meet the demands of secondary student interest. At this time, geography was the second most popular subject for matriculation and leaving certificate students, with only the compulsory English subject having higher enrollment numbers.
Finally Professor John Andrews was appointed to the Chair in Geography in 1958, to establish a Department on January 1, 1960. In the to-ing and fro-ing about appointing academic staff to the Department, one topic is recorded at some length in the University archives – the request of newly appointed staff member Victor Prescott (who is here in the audience tonight, of course) to bring his car to Melbourne from Nigeria where he then was, and the pros and cons of doing this – apparently the state of the public transport system in Melbourne was the same in 1960, and the benefits of having a car outweighed the hassle of shipping! Professor Prescott did bring his car here – I hope it was worth it!
In 1961, the Department moved in to the Redmond Barry Building, and grew from then. Through the 1980s and 90s, in the Faculty of Arts, it changed its Departmental name and its colleagues varied accordingly – it was the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies in the late 1980s; then in the 1990s “SAGES” - the School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies; and in the mid 2000s, very briefly, the School of Social and Environmental Enquiry. In 2008, Geography and Environmental Studies staff, a core unit bearing the disciplinary identification from the late 1980s, moved out of the Faculty of Arts and into what became the University’s first environmental Faculty – the Melbourne School of Land and Environment. Those staff helped form the Department of Resource Management and Geography, of today. Across the years, holders of the Chair in Geography, following Professor John Andrews as the founding Professor, have been Professor Harold Brookfield from 1979, Professor Michael Webber from 1985, and Professor Ruth Fincher from 2007.
How is Geography, the discipline and Department, seen in the University today? Today in this University we have almost 50,000 students, compared to the 10,000 of so of the early 1960s. We also have more Faculties and Departments – and are an altogether bigger and more complex operation (though the University was never not-complex and contested, I am sure!). Within this bigger institution, Geography has held its own remarkably well, due particularly to its able leadership over the past couple of decades.
In the University more broadly we now know Geography for these things:
- It is a strong and able player in the University teaching programs, now offering majors in 3 of the University’s 6 Melbourne Model degrees (Arts, Science and Environments), a breadth of offerings to students that is similar to what it offered at the time of the Department’s foundation.
- It has an enduring presence in the University’s research achievements - these days particularly in questions of international development and the environment (including climate change). (I note that at the day-long Research Forum to be held tomorrow, in continued celebration of this 50th anniversary, 12 of the Department’s past PhD students will talk about their current and past work, reflecting the research strengths of the Department over many years).
- Geography is an important player in the University’s interdisciplinary initiatives –both in our new interdisciplinary research institutes, and in our interdisciplinary teaching in the Melbourne Model degrees. Being a discipline one of whose strengths is to connect the natural sciences and social sciences around research questions, geographers know more about the doing of interdisciplinary research and learning than those in many other disciplines.
- This quite small Department has given the University a number of its academic leaders, over the years. Professor Andrews’s obituary notes that ‘while establishing a new Department, he became in rapid succession Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Chairman of the Professorial Board (now the Academic Board), and Assistant Vice Chancellor’ (from Australian Geographer, 1986). Professor Prescott was President of the Academic Board. Professor Webber chaired the University’s important Academic Programs Committee and was Provost of Melbourne University Private. Professor Fincher is Vice President of the Academic Board, and has been a Dean in the University. These are important contributions to the University, signs of fine citizenship, for which the Department is to be commended.
Let me conclude by expressing the University’s appreciation for the continued presence of the Geography Department in its midst. Geography has long produced skilled and engaged students, for the many professions that value a knowledge of environmental and social change. It has been a success in its research, teaching and leadership in the University. I congratulate its students and staff, past and present, and its many friends, on the occasion of this 50th anniversary of its establishment.