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Adjunct Associate Professor Selwyn Cornish

Adjunct Associate Professor Selwyn Cornish

Mandela, student protests and the Tjabal Centre

22 December 2016

After 20 years as Marshall for the Chancellor’s procession, Adjunct Associate Professor Selwyn Cornish is hanging-up his graduation garb. We sat down with Professor Cornish to ask him about the ANU campus over the last 20 years, what has changed and what contributions he has made.

When was your first time as Marshall of the Chancellors procession? 

It was early March 1996. ANU had a special ceremony in the School of Music to mark its 50th anniversary, and all the Vice-Chancellors, and Chancellors from other universities were there. It was a big deal. 

Newly elected Prime Minister Howard was supposed to be there, but he backed out at the last minute, and sent the education minister Amanda Vanstone.

The issue was that, during the election, part of the platform was that they were going to increase student fees, the students were really bolshy. Howard was tipped-off and told not to go.

Anyway, the ceremony got going. 20 minutes in the back doors - there was two back doors in those days - were flung open and all these rowdy students started running down the stairs. There wasn't any security, which was surprising, and they started shouting “down, down with Howard” and the whole thing came to a stop.

It took upwards of half an hour of negotiation between the registrar, head of university administration and the students, before the students agreed to move out. 

You have been the ANU’s Marshall since 1996. I bet you have seen some amazing things over the last 20 years?

I think one of my most favourite heroes from when I was a small boy was Nelson Mandela. The university awarded him with an honorary degree some years ago (2000).

I was in the robing room with one other person, I think there was only two of us in there, and suddenly in comes Mandela, on his own, striding in.

He comes straight up to us and he puts his hand out and he says, “Good morning gentlemen I’m Nelson Mandela.” I can remember thinking to myself, “As if we didn’t know the most famous man in the world. You don’t have to introduce yourself.”  It was fantastic, he was so natural and no airs

You have been at the ANU since 1964. What do you think is your biggest contribution to the ANU Campus?

In my final report to the ANU Admissions Committee as Chairman, I wrote, “If I’m remembered for anything at ANU, what I would like to be remembered for is my work introducing the special admissions scheme for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.”

I was responsible for creating the Tjabal centre.  

I consulted with the local Indigenous community and there were a couple of people on campus, a Professor of Archaeology specialising in Indigenous history, and the Head of the Academic Schools Unit. We got together and put together this program. Then I had to put it through the admissions committee and the academic board and then the council of the university and we got it through!

I was then asked to Chair the selection committee for students coming through the scheme into the University. They also set up a Tjabal Centre advisory committee, which I was asked to Chair and which I did for some years.

After that, we noticed that some other universities had a special admission scheme for students who had been disadvantaged in some way in their final year at school. Students coming from smaller country areas where there weren't good library facilities, students who were impacted by health problems during Year 11 and 12, which meant their results were lower than what they should have been. So we introduced the countrywide scheme.

Those are two things I feel really proud about, particularly the Indigenous initiatives. It’s all very well at the beginning of a ceremony to acknowledge the traditional owners – I think that is good - but another to actually do something.

You have been involved in so many different roles to do with students; why?

It all starts from my own experience at the University of Western Australian. I wasn’t particularly good at school, so I just scrapped in.

It was just fantastic for me. It was inspiring to be on this wonderful campus. Great library, great building, just a great campus. Great teachers. I liked being a student.

Several of the student speakers at the graduation ceremonies said that when they came to Canberra they didn’t know anything about Canberra or the ANU and were not confident about studying here. But by the time they completed their studies they were very confident. ANU has always been, I think anyway, much better in providing student services than other Australian universities; it was, after all, the first Australian university to appoint a Dean of Students.

The last speaker at the graduation ceremony this afternoon finished off by saying “we are ready.” It was the theme of her speech. When we came here we weren’t ready to meet the world, but thanks to all the help on campus we are ready. I enjoy being involved in that transformation.

Selwyn Cornish is an economic historian and the current official historian of the Reserve Bank of Australia.  Selwyn is planning to write a book on the extended history of the Reserve Bank.

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Updated:   14 October 2019 / Responsible Officer:  CBE Communications and Outreach / Page Contact:  College Web Team