'Farm' fulfils its academic promise

AT its inception, Monash University’s Clayton campus was playfully dubbed “the farm”, belying the university’s world-scale ambition.

Even so, the first graduation ceremony in 1963 was conducted in unbelievably humble circumstances: a roll-call of two graduates in a university office.

As one of those graduates, Richard Harcourt, said last week: “It was not a Wilson Hall affair”, referring to the cavernous ceremonial hall at the University of Melbourne.

Dr. Harcourt said the half-an-hour ceremony, with no guest speakers and a smattering of family and friends, was arranged because fellow graduate Richard Cashman had to travel overseas.

Dr. Harcourt joined the ceremony because he happened to have passed his Ph.D. in chemistry.

The historic pair became the subject of attention from media outlets such as The Age, The Sun, the Australian Jewish News, and television news services.

“I was a little nervous. It was not politically correct to be a tall poppy or to be a doctor in those days.

“I remember writing to the registrar to say I hoped there would be no publicity.

“He replied to the effect: ‘There will be public and you will have to wear it.”

Dr. Harcourt went on to publish more than 160 publications on chemical bonding and is now an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

He enrolled in Monash University to follow his Ph.D. supervisor, Ron Brown, AM, who signed on as Monash’s foundation head of chemistry.

Dr. Harcourt said it was the excellent professorial appointments that showed the university’s serious intentions.

The first day the campus opened in 1961 with 347 students, he watched the undergraduates come into his chemistry class.

He said he was excited to feel he was among the university’s pioneers.

At the time, the science faculties were huddled in the main administrative block, while the towering Menzies Building, which would house the economics and arts faculties, was not yet completed.

“It was called `the farm’. There was a lot of open space and the building had only just started.

“Physically, the big changes happened in the 70s. It looked different from how it started.

“Now it’s established campuses in various parts of the world like Malaysia and South Africa.”

Community Life at the university was quicker to build. During his studies, Dr. Harcourt joined the Monash Association for Research Students for picture nights and parties – “typical university student affairs”.

But some things haven’t changed, he said.

Students today still rely on buses and not a direct railway line to reach the campus.

“The university is still as accessible or inaccessible as it was then.”