Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Bolton celebrates the Murdoch memories of Emeritus Professor Arthur Beacham, who served as Deputy Vice Chancellor and Acting Vice Chancellor (1976-79). He passed away on June 4 at the age of 98.
Arthur Beacham, who died in Brisbane on 4 June a few weeks short of his 99th birthday, served as deputy vice chancellor and acting vice chancellor of Murdoch University for only four years (1976-79), but his impact was profound.
In 1975 Stephen Griew, the founding vice-chancellor who had presided over Murdoch’s glad confident morning, was confronted by gathering storm-clouds. Student numbers had not met expectations. Some of Murdoch’s more adventurous academic experiments seemed ill suited to Western Australians who valued university education as a road to job security. The Commonwealth government, after a brief interlude of innovative daring under the Whitlam government, was reverting to the ways of pragmatic financial prudence, heralding nearly forty years of tight budgeting for universities, especially new universities without financial reserves.
Griew needed an experienced deputy who could discover the mechanisms for Murdoch’s survival. He found one in Arthur Beacham, who had been his vice chancellor when Griew was professor of psychology at the University of Otago.
Consulting Who’s Who one found that the newcomer was an economist, who had served on a formidable number of advisory committees to the British government as a leading authority on industrial organisation. He and his wife had planned retirement to Cyprus, but the Turkish invasion of 1974 rendered their holiday home uninhabitable, and the promise of a Mediterranean climate clinched his acceptance of Perth.
Murdoch’s ever-active rumour machine threw out dark hints about his coming. They said he was the hatchet man despatched by the authorities (Malcolm Fraser? Sir Charles Court? The CIA? Nobody was quite specific.) to pull Murdoch into line from its radical unorthodoxies and make it as unimaginatively conventional as the University of Elsewhere.
The reality was otherwise. What Murdoch got was a nuggety, combative Welshman with a sharp eye for bulldust, a good head for accounts, and a passion for good scholarship. He professed a practical-minded Toryism, but was strongly sympathetic to Murdoch’s environmental vocation and established good relations with the Marxists in social sciences, whom he could respect for aiming at intellectual rigour even if he disagreed totally with their findings. He was less comfortable with some of the new trends from the America of the 1970s, but he was never heavy-handed.
Stephen Griew left to pursue his pioneering vocation at the University of Athobasca in Canada, and for two years Beacham filled the vice chancellor’s role.
He knew that it wasn’t his job to impose a template on the Murdoch of the future, but to ensure the university’s survival.
He made a good impression on the professional and business communities in Perth, convincing many that Murdoch was a place to take seriously. It was just as important that he got his colleagues on the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee to take Murdoch seriously, although those of us on campus scarcely realised it at the time.
He streamlined administrative procedures at Murdoch, aided by Dan Dunn, the secretary and Ray Campbell, the chief financial officer; they were uneasy yokemates, but he got the best out of both of them.
He and his wife Peg, to whom he was devoted, knew that there is a pastoral side to a good vice chancellor’s role. They were accessible and fostered Murdoch’s sense of community.
A permanent vice chancellor could not be appointed pending an official inquiry into the future viability of Murdoch. This was chaired by (Sir) Bruce Williams, the vice chancellor of the University of Sydney, an old ally of Beacham’s.
The inquiry recommended a common administration for Murdoch and The University of Western Australia. At the time this was seen as a perception of Murdoch’s weakness; Williams later told me that it was thought that Murdoch’s vigour and creativity would serve as a necessary stimulus to what he saw as the ‘unconstructive, smug and vacuous’ environment at Crawley. But the premier, Sir Charles Court, said ‘No’. He believed rightly that Murdoch had the public credibility to stand alone. Beacham did much to build up that credibility.
A valued consultant to the State government, he left his mark on the national university scene as creator of an improved scheme of academic superannuation.
He handed over to a new vice chancellor in 1979, intending to retire at the end of that year and stay in Perth. Unhappily his wife succumbed to lung cancer, and he moved to Brisbane where his daughter and son lived.
There he spent his long retirement, an astute and at times acerbic observer of public affairs and a staunch Anglican churchman, warmly welcoming the visits of old friends from Perth.
Having strengthened Murdoch University’s foundations, he took a lasting pleasure in hearing of its sustained growth and progress.
To most of the present generation at Murdoch Arthur Beacham will be no more than a name, but those of us who worked with him remember him – and Peg – with warmth and affection.