John M. Ward, inaugurating Acting Vice-Chancellor

Imperial and Australian Historian, university administrator; Challis Professor of History (1948-1979); Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney (1981-1990); member, Chifley University Interim Council (1987-8), UWS Planning and Implementation Committees (August-January, 1989), Acting Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Sydney, 1 January-1 October, 1989.

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By the time he became Acting Vice-Chancellor of the newly-formed University of Western Sydney in 1989, John Manning Ward was not only an internationally-known scholar, but was Vice-Chancellor of one of the southern hemisphere’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of learning. Born in Strathfield in 1919, many of Ward’s attitudes to relationships between University and State, and the humanising value of knowledge, were rooted in his childhood socially-active liberal Presbyterianism. Educated at Fort Street Boys High School, in 1936 he entered the University of Sydney intending to enter Law. He was, however, too young, and so enrolled in a first year in Arts, a life track he would maintain with high distinction. He graduated from the BA with first-class honours and the University Medal in 1939, and again (with the Fraser Scholarship) from his MA program in 1945 ‘quite the most promising student, graduate or undergraduate, then studying History in Sydney.’ [R. M. Crawford.]

Ward’s hearing problems disallowed him from active service in the War, so he became administrative assistant to Sir Bertram Stevens, Premier of NSW (1939-1943). He was then invited by Stephen Roberts to become a teaching member of the University of Sydney (as a temporary lecturer) in 1944, in a period of ‘crisis’ over teaching loads. Ward quickly demonstrated his administrative skills on the University’s Extension Board, passed the NSW Bar examinations, and began research work on British policy in the South Pacific, and international relations. His first book emerged in 1945 under the title The Development of British Policy in the Islands of the Southern Pacific to 1893 (Sydney: 1948). At only 29 he was the first Sydney graduate to be made Challis Professor of History at Sydney (1948-1979), and he would spend considerable energy attempting to correct the problems related to sources so following generations of historians would not be faced with the same problems. He was also active in school history and was one of those involved in overhauling the Leaving Certificate. His research interests were increasingly in the areas of political history, particularly colonial conservatism. In 1951, he met Patricia Bruce Webb, a Sydney Arts graduate (and descendant of the Fabian Webbs) and later a prominent library activist in her own right. They married later that year. Her influence and his strong daughters would encourage Ward to think in the direction of Equal Opportunity both in the Department and as Vice-Chancellor: “it is no chance that his tenure as Vice-Chancellor saw the establishment of the new Women’s Centre.”

With the rapid expansion of the University, Ward's senior position and administrative aptitude ensured plenty of distractions from scholarly work: he was elected Fellow of University of Sydney Senate (1974–1977, 1981- 1990) and was Chairman both of the Professorial Board (1974-1975) and of its replacement, the Academic Board (1975-1977). In 1979, he was made Deputy Vice-Chancellor, in which role he continued the close working relationship he had formed over the years with the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Bruce Williams (1967-1981). His biography of James Macarthur, Colonial Conservative 1798-1867 (1981), with its famous opening sentence: “Most people are conservative most of the time”, was meant as the first volume of a trilogy. Tragically, it would remain incomplete at his accidental death in 1990 (though his colleagues Deryck Schreuder and Brian Fletcher posthumously released related papers, prepared for the second volume, as The State and the People in 2010). Both the conservative tradition and religion had, for somewhat different reasons, been marginalised in Australian historiography. John Ward’s case for studying the former opened the way for a revisionism about Australian culture which encouraged researches into the latter.

It was, however, as a University leader that he would make his largest contributions in the difficult 1980s. In 1981, after serving for some years as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Acting Vice-Chancellor during Bruce Williams’ regular overseas commitments, Ward was appointed Sydney’s fifth Vice-Chancellor and Principal (the 21st to bear the title since foundation), the only University of Sydney graduate to have held that post since the University’s foundation. He came to the CEO’s position during a time of financial restraint, when the Lynch ‘Razor Gang’ was commencing the stark reforms of Commonwealth to higher education funding and organisation which would continue to roll (in one form or another) through the sector right up until the present time. Ward was repeatedly required to defend the university’s interests against government, and to introduce economies and staff reductions in order to make the large, unruly university’s budget serve the interests of maintaining a ‘good university.’ As the NSW government began to think about expanding university services in Sydney, the University of Sydney’s $1.5m deficit was uppermost in his mind.

With this background, when the Parry Report emerged in 1985 providing ‘ways and means’ to support the Wran Government’s commitment to a new university in Western Sydney, Ward proposed caution. There would be many difficulties in establishing such an institution: the University of Sydney should not respond to the report unless requested to do so. He became rather more alarmed at the Committee’s supplementary report (1986) which insisted on pursuing a fourth Sydney university with or without Commonwealth support even if this meant redistributing the limited pool of funding available to the existing institutions. If he had not done so before (and there is every reason to assume that he had) Ward set off to speak in more vigorous tones to State and Commonwealth authorities. Sydney, he noted, had ‘activities in the Region’—and wanted to be involved, if only to protect its own interests. Disengaged, Sydney could only await outcomes decided by others; engaged, the debate might become messy, but at least Sydney would have a seat at the table. His terms were simple: the new university must not be funded at the expense of the existing universities, any work done for it must be paid for, and Sydney must have control over the process. He would regard any attempt to absorb University of Sydney interests into the new University as an “aggressive action”.  His aim was to ensure the ‘harmonisation’ of the growth of the new university with the ‘continued growth of Sydney.’ Over the ups and downs of the next four years, he achieved two of the three objectives.

In 1987, the NSW Minister for Education, Rodney Cavalier, approached Ward to become a member of the Chifley University Interim Council. Cavalier, a Sydney graduate, had sat on Ward’s selection committee and held him in high esteem. He considered that Ward’s help would be critical to the project of establishing a new university in Western Sydney. With the passing of the University of Western Sydney Act in 1988, Ward was made (as the representative of the University of Sydney) the academic sponsor of the new university, sitting upon the Planning Committee established to ensure the launch of the new entity in January 1989. Opinions as to his attitude to the potential new competitor in the West varied. According to Graham Swain, the Hawkesbury representative on the committee, Ward was ’extremely helpful‘ when it came to establishing a network university based on the existing Colleges of Advanced Education (CAE). He provided academic respectability, key advice, and most importantly the freedom to develop in the direction that the CAEs desired. ’There’s no point in the University of Sydney trying to impose itself upon the system at all,’ he said, ’The University of Western Sydney should not be a pale shadow of University of Sydney.’ It was, however, ’enormously expensive to be innovative’, and there was little prospect that the new university would have the money that it needed. Nevertheless, he was not against innovation per se, nor necessarily against a network model: he had a warm relationship with John Galbraith (who had visited Sydney), and visited Berkeley a number of times (indeed, working there in the Doe Library during his study leave in 1978). The challenge to the incoming Vice-Chancellor would be guiding this ‘federated network’ in the exploration of ‘the problems of its own nature’. His job was to provide a framework of ‘academic and administrative reality’ to the ‘instant university’ into which the constituent CAEs had been suddenly projected, so that they could realise their own visions of how to serve the West. He oversaw all meetings of the UWS Academic Board prior to the inauguration of Brian Smith in October 1989.

On the other hand, his relationships with university planners before the advent of the Liberal government in 1988 were tense and often conflicted. Ralph Rawlinson, Planning Vice-Chancellor for the projected Chifley University, found Ward polite but not actively helpful. Something of the feeling at Sydney can be garnered in a personal note to Ward from Sydney’s Chancellor, Hermann Black, in July 1987. After passing on some advice relating to Ward’s recovery from a recent hernia operation, he thanked the Vice-Chancellor for a bottle that he had been sent. ‘I am using it to comfort me as a consequence of Wilenski being tipped out of his job as Public Service boss!! He’ll probably be more mischievous than ever with Chifleyites!’ These tensions should not be overstated. Observations– such as those of James Guthrie, that Ward ‘didn’t want [UWS] to happen… he was so full of disdain that he could barely tolerate talking to me about it’ –may well have been fuelled by the fact that Ward suffered from significant hearing loss, and had some of the social characteristics that often follow such an affliction. (He was quite deaf in the right ear, and impeded in the left, and ‘an experienced hearing aid user’.) Some of his colleagues, indeed, were left to wonder whether conversations he did not recall resulted from inability or a more deliberate selectivity. He did see the new university as a competitor, but mainly as a threat to existing University of Sydney assets and programs in the West, and (in a period when Sydney was regularly running a deficit) as a competitor for funds in a relatively static government ‘pie’. He was a one-university man, concerned for defending the tradition, proper (though not unlimited) autonomy and the particularity of universities, the establishment of good, adequately-resourced institutions by ‘enlightened international standards’, and the protection of their rights across the sector.

The advent of a history-trained Sydney alumnus (Terry Metherell) as Minister for Education after the March 1988 elections, provided Ward with both a solution and a problem. Metherell was keen not only to drop the Labor attachments entrenched in the Chifley proposal, but to reform the city-based University of Sydney into a truly city-wide, multicampus institution along the lines of CUNY in New York. Ward was not totally opposed to the idea, but thought it unlikely to pass through Sydney’s traditionalist constituency, and was personally keen to avoid more overt government tinkering with Sydney than could possibly be avoided. Metherell, however, thought there was a brief window of opportunity and wrote to Ward, encouraging him to ‘move quickly before the Commonwealth [ie. the looming Dawkins White Paper] gets in first.’ Metherell certainly considered himself close to Ward, and the latter reciprocated to some extent, inviting him to dine at his home on 15 January 1988, just before the launch of UWS two weeks later. Moreover, the government’s decision to dissolve Chifley University Interim Council and (after the release of the White Paper) legislate for a new form of University in the West solved the problems related to the division of resources, ensured Sydney would be paid for its efforts, and provided Ward with a convenient, short-term way out of responsibility for the institution. Where they did not agree was on Metherell’s ‘forceful’ methods with universities, applying the principles of business boards to the University Senate in 1989 in ways which were ‘much heralded and never explained.’ Moving ‘quickly’ (in the opportunistic sense) was neither in his character, in his view of the relationship between universities and the state, nor in his politics. “The true strength of a university or any other institution’, he considered, perhaps with an oblique reference to the colonial ‘liberal conservatives’ whose works he had read extensively, ‘is best measured by its capacity to make necessary changes from within and of its own volition.” The untrammeled emphasis on change, without respect for the achievements of universities, was not something he could support.

At the foundation meeting of the new university (30 January 1989), Ward was appointed Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney until a selection committee could produce nominations for a permanent foundation Vice-Chancellor. He would work at the Werrington campus one day a week, supported by a secretary (Helen Johnson), and a driver who would assist in bridging the distance from his Vice-Chancellor’s residence in Vaucluse, overlooking the Harbour. After the first meeting, he was given responsibility for connecting the University to the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee overseeing submissions for recurrent funding and capital projects (particularly as related to Werrington), overseeing the meetings of the working parties, and producing proposals for community relations contacts. The former was immediately frustrating. AVCC suggested that it would grant membership as a matter of course, but only on a provisional basis until the university had ‘progressed’. AVCC was not, after all, a voluntary society: it was a trades union for the educationally established. He had a particular interest in connecting UWS to the larger university world (through, for example, membership of the Association of Commonwealth Universities), and in development of the University library. (Minutes, BOG, 20 Feb 1989.)

Ward was a great believer in the centrality of libraries to the life of the university. His wife, Patricia, was a teacher-librarian, and active in the larger related disciplines (President, NSW LAA 1978-9, and at various other times; member, NSW Action Committee on Local Government Records). Ward himself was a member of the Library Association of Australia (made a Fellow in 1988), and was chairman of the State Archives Commission, and active with regard to the State Library collections. He thus took an interest in the work being done by Sydney staff in preparation first for the Chifley Library and then its successor at the University of Western Sydney. As early as 1987 he wrote to Rodney Cavalier that ‘it is critical that the College open with an adequate library and associated systems – it cannot be simply a Branch Library of [the University of Sydney]‘. When NSW Government, under its Bicentennial scheme, offered a $1 million gift to initiate the Chifley Library collection, Ward was quick to put the grant agreements in place so the gift would not be lost. Suitably, when a specialist Library building was built to serve the UWS Kingswood-Werrington sites, it was named after J. M. Ward.