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A Place Apart - The University of Melbourne: Decades of Challenge

A Place Apart - The University of Melbourne: Decades of Challenge

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By John Riddoch Poynter & Carolyn Rasmussen

When Raymond Priestley, former Antarctic explorer, arrived from Cambridge in 1935 to become the first salaried Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, he found a small institution 'admirable in many respects', with outstanding personalities and distinguished teachers and research workers, but financially starved, underhoused, ill-equipped and understaffed. It enrolled a tiny proportion of the population of the State, in which it was the only university.

Sixty years later it is one of Australia's largest and strongest universities, a conglomeration of teaching and research faculties, departments, institutes and centres with many purposes, spread over many locations,

A Place Apart charts the fortunes of the University of Melbourne during a period of great change, when Australia's older universities had to respond to the demands of a changing Australian society, and of the evolving policies of governments. concentrates on the central decades between 1935 and 1975, in which the challenges multiplied. After successful improvisation in the years of post-war reconstruction in which it built a branch at Mildura, as well as more than doubling its numbers the University's ill co-ordinated expansion in the 1950s brought financial and administrative catastrophe in the 1960s. After a long period of reform, complicated by the student and staff agitation for radical change in the early 1970s, the University emerged better managed and much stronger, in both teaching and research, readier than most for the new challenges of the 1980s.

 

Implicit in academic thinking throughout the century has been the idea that a university is a special institution, a place apart', providing social experience for its students, and with obligations that stretch beyond its local society to the international world of intellectual discovery and critical thinking. That ideal has survived in the University of Melbourne, though with difficulty among the many other purposes it has acquired in responding so positively to decades of challenge.

 

The authors tell this story largely through the leading individuals involved. It is enlivened by some dramatic episodes, and by the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities always to be found in a university inhabited by extremely able staff and students.