Ian Turbott, Foundation Chancellor

British civil servant; decorated war veteran; businessman; Founding Chancellor and Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Western Sydney.

Ian Turbott AO CMG CVO, was born in Whangarei, New Zealand, and educated at Takapuna Grammar School and Auckland University, before progressing to Jesus College, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics. A decorated veteran of World War II campaigns in the Pacific, Middle East, and Italy, he was appointed by the British Colonial Service as  Administrator of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands at the end of the war. After this, he served in Fiji, Kiribati and Tuvalu, as Administrator and later Governor of Antigua and Grenada (1964-1968). In both places, he was involved in the issues surrounding forthcoming independence, later saying “I pulled down the Union Jack in three countries”. His wife Nancy was a key part of his success, ‘a warm and gracious hostess; pomp and ceremony were a regular part of her life’. On the cessation of gubernatorial duties, the Turbott family returned to Britain for two years, where Ian started a business career. In 1970, they sailed ‘across the world … to Australia, the country where they wanted their daughters to grow up.’ There, he joined the boards of a wide range of successful companies, including Triple M Broadcasting, Hoyts Entertainment, and (most importantly for the University) Penrith Lakes Development Corporation.

As a leading local figure, when the ‘Implementation Committee’ constituted by the heads of Nepean College of Advanced Education, Hawkesbury AC and Sydney University were considering a foundation Chancellor for the new university, an inquiry to Bob Debus (member for Blue Mountains) brought his name to mind once again. ‘What you need’, Debus told Graham Swain, ‘is a white knight. I’d recommend Sir Ian.’ (Swain, 2011.)  Peerlessly well connected, he was also able to bring an impeccable public profile and reputation to counterbalance the stereotyping and denigration which often faced the West and its institutions. He threw himself into the work with gusto, travelling to California to observe the UC system, and in February 1989 convening the first meeting of the Board of Governors, at which he was elected foundation Chancellor. His installation ceremony at the Hills Centre, on 10 August 1989 was in many ways the first substantial ritual of the University’s existence. ‘Never’, he suggested, reflecting the famous words of his hero, Winston Churchill, ‘was a university established so quickly, with so much goodwill among its members, and so much to be done after the legislation had been enacted.’

Turbott’s contributions were significant. He oversaw the Board, advised the chief administrators, drew people of significance to the campuses from the worlds of business and politics, and helped damp down the conflict between the three Members which was ever just under the surface. He regularly visited campuses, and made it clear that he expected them to recognise authority with proper protocol.  At an enormous cost to his personal and family time, he was almost omnipresent at graduations – by the time he retired in 2000, he had shaken the hands of more than 30,000 graduands, leaving each with a story, a moment of brief intimacy, and a sense of occasion.

When conflict between the Members broke out into attempted secession in 1995, Turbott was to the fore in handling the affair, and played an invaluable role in organising political support at both State state and Federal federal levels for the University’s continued existence. He personally played a role in the formation of the Rogers Committee which helped reshape the University in 1996-7, and in the appointment of the first three Vice-Chancellors, and all DVCs between 1993 and 2000.

After his beloved wife, Nancy, died in 1999, he began to assist the University in its movement towards finding his replacement, and in the appointment of the new VC, Janice Reid. His support for the formal unification of the University from 1999 onwards would be crucial in producing the sort of University which UWS would become in the 2000s. At the end of the year 2000, Turbott retired as Chancellor having seen the university transformed from its early start as a disconnected federation. In a public address, he noted that “UWS [had] … succeeded beyond my most optimistic hopes…’ The university’s enrolments had more than quadrupled, with more than 20 times as many research students, serving campuses all over Sydney’s Greater West. Appealing to politicians not to treat university education as an expense, but rather as an investment in the future, he made much of the university’s special mission to provide ‘first in’ families with the sort of education which would provide them with equitable, fair, and excellent educational outcomes. Not only did it serve individuals, but it advanced the nation’s social agenda, and provided “the single best way to generate economic growth and improve the working opportunities of individuals”. (Sir Ian Turbott, ‘How to advance Australia fair.’, Daily Telegraph, 19 December 2000).

To the outside world, Ian Turbott seemed to present many conundrums to the University of Western Sydney.  An ex-colonial governor, he provided guidance and status to the youngest, most future-oriented institution in Australian higher education. A private businessman, he spent a lot of his life in public service, and was the public face of one of Western Sydney’s few whole-of-region institutions.  Formal and particular, he spent significant energy and time ensuring that he was present, personal and engaged with many in the UWS community.  In the turbulent times of the University’s beginnings, he was perhaps exactly the sort of conundrum that the young institution needed. UWS’s debt to their founding Chancellor is commemorated in the Sir Ian and Nancy Turbott Auditorium on the Parramatta campus and a public lecture series co-sponsored with the Penrith City Council.  In a tribute to Sir Ian on his retirement, the Vice- Chancellor Janice Reid noted:

His courage, determination and commitment to create a world-class university in Greater Western Sydney are matched by the grace and courtesy with which he pursued his vision for UWS.

Sir Ian’s legacy to the University of Western Sydney is vast and his achievements too numerous to recount.

(J Reid, in ‘A tribute to Sir Ian Turbott’)