Speech presented by the Provost, Prof John Dewar

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.