Kevin Marjoribanks, Vice-Chancellor: An Appreciation (1938 - 2006)
Kevin Marjoribanks was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide from 1987 to 1993. The role of Vice-Chancellors in Australian universities has changed a good deal in the last fifteen years, and many of the changes were already well underway during Kevin's period of tenure. It was the era of the so-called "Dawkins reforms," of systemic expansion, institutional merger, and greatly increased management accountability.
Kevin of course willingly and scrupulously took on the unavoidable and important responsibilities of any Vice-Chancellor for such matters as legislative compliance and strategic planning, risk management and public relations, but it never seemed to me that this was the core of the job for him, and I cannot imagine that he would ever have chosen to refer to himself, as many Vice-Chancellors now do, as a CEO. He was the head of a management team by necessity, but where his heart lay, and where he served with great distinction, was in the role of academic leader of the University community.
When I think of Kevin Marjoribanks as Vice-Chancellor, two visual images come strongly to mind. The first is of him seated at the round table of the Council room, in his preferred and symbolically resonant place directly facing the person chairing the meeting, and listening carefully to what others had to say. The second is of him sitting at the head of a dining table, a glass of red wine before him, showing all the skills of an orchestral conductor in eliciting, shaping, and bringing to a satisfying conclusion some vigorous discussion among a group of senior academics.
The two images epitomise, for me, the gracious and inclusive way in which he exercised his leadership, as a colleague among colleagues and a person who listened. Kevin had a genuine respect and appreciation for the multitude of ways in which a contribution (academic or administrative) could be made to the University, but it always seemed to me that his real constituency was the professoriate, and that he was never more in his element than in exercising his role as its leader.
Before, during, and after his term as Vice-Chancellor, Kevin Marjoribanks always strove to maintain the highest academic standards and values, both on behalf of the institution and in his unwavering commitment to his own scholarly work.
As a Vice-Chancellor, he was, I think, most strongly characterised by his extraordinary attentiveness to the intellectual life of the University community. He relished open and informed debate (and, a rarer quality, was prepared to accept from time to time being on the losing side of it). In my experience, he always remembered what you were interested in and working on, and he certainly marked every scholarly achievement of any significance (a good publication record for the year, perhaps, or an award of some kind) with a personal note of thanks and congratulation, invariably but perfectly sincerely concluding "With my warmest regards, Kevin Marjoribanks."
He ran a lively series of inaugural professorial lectures, and he and Jan would follow them up most hospitably with a relaxed and friendly dinner at their home amongst splendidly multi-disciplinary groupings of guests. He regularly held professorial dinners in the Vice-Chancellor's dining room at the university, and no matter how late they ran (and they did) or how convivial they became (and they did), those attending needed to keep their wits about them, because Kevin ran the dinner conversation like a seminar and a moment's inattention could leave you floundering when a question was suddenly flung your way. And the final demonstration that Kevin was always and above all a professorial Vice-Chancellor was, of course, that - very unusually - if perhaps not quite uniquely among modern Vice-Chancellors - at the end of his term he returned happily to teaching, research, and the leadership of his department.
In his Vice-Chancellorial Valedictory Address in November 1993, he made very clear his view that the most pressing obligation of universities and those who work in them was, in his words, "to be passionate in their efforts to contribute to scholarship and in the quality of their teaching," and that passion continued to burn brightly in him until the very end of his career.
Despite his very evident personal modesty, Kevin Marjoribanks brought great professional dignity and notable intellectual authority to his role as Vice-Chancellor. Dignified but never pompous, formal but never stuffy, reserved but never remote, he was a colleague who commanded respect and earned affection. In my personal dealings with him, I found him wonderfully courteous and unobtrusively kind. His intellectual generosity and extensive experience gave him a sympathetic understanding of the difficult decisions and choices others sometimes had to make, and, though he could be blunt if the situation demanded it, I never heard him make an angry, dismissive or unkind comment about anyone. He cared deeply about fairness and about the opportunities that education could provide for those whose social circumstances put them at a disadvantage. As a leader, he was a discreet mentor; as a colleague, he invariably offered support; as a teacher, he loved to nurture talent; and as a friend, he was warm and hospitable. He brought to all his activities an integrity and a respect for others that will continue to serve as a model for those of us who were his colleagues.
I am sure that I speak for many others at the University of Adelaide when I say that I feel privileged to have worked with Kevin Marjoribanks, and grateful for all that I learned from his great example of unstinting, unselfish commitment to the value of the intellectual life that he cherished and to the well-being of the University that he loved.
Professor Penny Boumelha
A eulogy delivered at St Peter's Cathedral on Tuesday 2 May