The appointment in 1966 of Zelman Cowen to replace Robert Madgwick as the University of New England's vice-chancellor was seen, rightly, as a considerable coup. Why, some of his colleagues at Melbourne University asked, had he not gone to Harvard or Cambridge?
After the hard early days, Madgwick had overseen very rapid growth at UNE. This growth is worth recording, for it was during the final Madgwick period that the university moved from a significant to dominant driver in the local economy.
Internal student numbers had grown from 249 in 1955 to 1,396 in 1965. External student numbers had grown from a zero base to 2,568.
Academic staff had grown from 63 in 1953 to 360 in 1966, while general staff had increased from around 100 to 693. Construction work had boomed.
Madgwick was worried about the speed of growth.
How might the university preserve its collegiate nature and special culture, its outreach? How might it overcome the tendency to become more inward looking, more fragmented, as it grew?
By 1966, Madgwick had formed the view that it might be necessary to cap the size of UNE to preserve its character and the standard of teaching and student experience. Madgwick was right to be worried.
He did not foresee the social changes that were just getting underway, the proliferation of new universities, the constant changes that would come in policy, the rise of corporatism, managerialism and the mega-university.
However, Madgwick did identify weaknesses within UNE that would later impede its ability to manage change. As the university grew it became comfortable, turned inward, reduced its regional role opening the way for new competitors, and forgot that it had to be better just to survive.
These changes and challenges still lay just ahead when Zelman Cowen arrived in 1967.
Upon arrival, Cowen maintained his role as a public intellectual. In 1967 he prepared the case for the ABC supporting a yes vote on the Aboriginal constitutional referendum, then in 1969 he delivered the ABC Boyer Lectures.
Cowen had long been interested in civil liberties and individual freedoms. His Boyer Lectures, the Private Man, focused on the erosion of privacy, on the challenges presented to society by new technology and the need for law reform to keep pace.
These have become even more pressing topics today.
Cowen's public activities did increase the public prominence of UNE. His internal influence as VC is more difficult to measure.
Jim Belshaw's email is firstname.lastname@example.org . His New England life blog is
http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com/ : his New England history blog