Interview with Mrs Helen Cumpston

From the ANU Oral History Archive
Interview conducted 9 January 1991
Interviewed by Daniel Connell
Edited and transferred to web media by Nik Fominas and Peter Stewart

Biographical introduction: Mrs Helen Cumpston was born in 1910 in Hobart and was educated in state schools and the University of Tasmania. She graduated with a law degree in 1930.

She joined the Commonwealth Public Service in 1937 as a librarian with the Department of Commerce. Between 1946 and 1957 Mrs Cumpston accompanied her husband on postings to Chile, New Zealand and New Caledonia. In 1957 she returned to Canberra to take up her appointment at the Australian National University as a graduate assistant in the registrar's division.

Her first contact with Canberra universities was in 1938 when she held a temporary lectureship in modern history at the Canberra University College.

Mrs Cumpston worked in university administration for seventeen years. Her initial duties involved the provision of administrative support services for postgraduate students. She also dealt with legislative problems such as the Superannuation Statute.

In 1963 she was appointed as Assistant Registrar. She retired from the university in 1975.

After retirement Mrs Cumpston held the position of Assistant Secretary to the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

Transcript: Recoding duration: 1 hours 20 mins (2 tapes) Transcriber: Diana Nelson


          Identification: this is side one, tape one, of the interview with Mrs Helen Cumpston at her home in Aranda. The date is 9 January 1991. End of identification.

          Mrs Cumpston, if we can go back to well before your time with the ANU, if you could give me some idea of your family background please?

I was a Tasmanian of the genteel poor variety. My father lost all his money trying to be an orchardist, which wasn't suitable for an English scholar. I went through school and university on scholarships. I graduated in law just before I was twenty-one but in the depression years couldn't be accepted in the law office and I taught for a while and hated it. I became a librarian and came to Canberra to a government library job in 1937.

          If we could just double back a little bit. First of all, if you could talk about your father very briefly, just to give us an idea. You hinted at some contradictory aspects.

He was a schoolmaster in England, with very bad health. Came to Australia on the theory that a long sea voyage would be good for his eyesight which was failing at that stage. He put what money he had into buying an orchard with the vague idea, I think, that you just planted trees and then sat back and waited for the money to come in. He was a very nice person but completely impractical. He couldn't mend or fix or do anything with his hands. He just wasn't that sort of person. It all went bankrupt and he went back to teaching in the government service in Tasmania in a remote part of the country in the south in a sort of mining/milling area where my mother was the only civilised person for sixty miles and coped with all the problems of all the poor.

          Your mother, tell me about your mother.

My mother was the daughter of a terribly Victorian-type solicitor in Adelaide, or in Kapunda. She was a member of a large family with very dominating parent. The eldest sister went to Germany to a convent education in languages and art, the second sister was the first graduate in science, certainly in Botany, in the University of Adelaide. And then my mother who was the next one - my grandfather had been speculating and there was a depression and there wasn't enough money for her to go to university so she went to Western Australia to housekeep for an uncle who was a mine manager in Kalgoorlie in the days before there was any water in Kalgoorlie. She then went from there and became a teacher in Western Australia. She was actually a brilliant teacher although never fully qualified. She met and married my father who was also teaching in Western Australia at that stage. And then they went to Tasmania to the orchard.

          You studied law and you graduated in 1930-31.

Yes, finished at the end of 1930.

          There wouldn't have been very many women studying law in Tasmania.

I was in fact Tasmania's first woman graduate in law, but every year the professor would tell me that he'd had a woman once before but she hadn't made it and he was sure I wouldn't (laughs).

          Why did you choose law?

Because I knew at the age of twelve that that was what I wanted to do and I'm still a frustrated family solicitor at the age of eighty.

          So you came to Canberra in 1937, and what did you do here?

I was librarian to the Department of Commerce. Commerce has changed its name from time to time. It's been Trade and Commerce and one thing and another, but it was the Department of Commerce in my day, and Murphy was the head of the Department. John Burton and I were the only two Protestants in the Department.

          John Burton who subsequently went to Foreign Affairs?


          The only two Protestants.

And Murphy was a very enthusiastic, devoted Roman Catholic and he believed in the duty of Roman Catholics to save the government, and to save Australia. It was a sort of Messiah like approach he had. He was a very nice person. I liked him very much.

          At that stage the CUC was operating in Canberra, wasn't it?

Yes, I arrived in September. In the following year I lectured in modern history for the students in Canberra who were working for a degree of the University of Melbourne.

          And what sort of place was it, back there before the second world war?

I lectured in a room in the Acton House, Acton buildings, that had originally been residential and then were government buildings. I only had three students and they were all theological students and all taught at the Grammar school, Boys' Grammar School. Occasionally I went and lectured in a room in the Boys' Grammar School instead because it was easier.

          And the University of Melbourne, that was the distant parent. Did you have any personal contact at all with Melbourne?

Very little. I had a little bit of correspondence with a professor whose name I can't remember, but I remember having a picnic with him under the bridge over the Murrumbidgee at the Cotter during the Science Congress at the end of '38. Is that right? Or '39. Early '39, when they had the Science Congress in Canberra and it was frightfully hot and there were wild bushfires and that was the occasion when Lindsay Pryor saved Canberra; that historic moment. I was secretary of the History Section of ANZAAS. I took it over at a late stage 'cause things had gone wrong. Our prize guest was H.G. Wells who was an extremely difficult and rude person to deal with.

          Could you elaborate on that?

He was a guest at Government House and we were told that they found him trying, and the hostesses had to find occupation for him at lunch to keep him so that they could have other people at Government House. I went to lunch one day because he liked them young and red-headed. I sat next to him at lunch and he told me scandalous stories of Aberystwyth in Wales, that's all. And he also made himself a nuisance by wanting to go out and watching the bushfires, and was a problem to the firefighters because here you had this elderly and extremely self-opinionated Englishman trying to get in the way of what was a strenuous exercise in firefighting.

          You only taught for a very short period at the CUC.

Only one year, yes.

          Why did you stop?

Well, I don't know whether they didn't have any students, or they didn't like me, but anyway that was that. I was just filling in a gap.

          What, that was through 1939, or 1938?

That was 1938 I did that. Then '39 I think I went skiing with my husband and we got engaged. I was booked on a German liner to ski in Garmischpartenkirschen with a ski tutor all arranged for me and I'd paid my fare and the war broke out. So I stayed home and got married which was terribly dull.

          And how did you spend the war?

Having twins and living alone in a house with two tiny babies while my husband was in the Middle East.

          In Canberra?

In Canberra, yes.

          And after the war, what happened then?

After the war - we went to Chile in 1946 and came back ...

          In what capacity?

John was in Foreign Affairs. It was then Foreign Affairs. At least I think it was - External Affairs. I keep forgetting how they keep changing the name of the place. We came back in '49 and went to New Zealand in 1950. Came back in '54 for a few weeks and then went to New Caledonia. And by that stage we had two children in boarding school and a third that would have to go to boarding school and we couldn't afford Foreign Affairs any longer. So I said I've got to go home and get a job. So that's how I came to the university, to get money to pay for expensive schooling for children who had started in boarding schools and had to stay there.

          And your husband continued with Foreign Affairs?

Yes, he stayed in Foreign Affairs and he retired early, he was pretty sick. I liked the university so much that I stayed on even after we'd finished with the school bills. But it was schooling that took me to ANU. I had realised while we were in New Caledonia that I was going to have to come back and get a job. And the only possible thing seemed to be - jobs advertised - seemed to be in accounting. So I solemnly bought a book on accounting and tried to learn that but it bored me to tears and then suddenly this job was advertised at ANU and for some reason they decided that though I was much too old they wanted me.

          It was advertised where?

Australian papers, I think. I mean, we got all the Australian papers. I'm sure I only saw about it in a routine thing, nobody told me, or asked me or anything.

          What sort of job was it? How was it described?

It was described as a graduate assistant and I didn't have much notion what that meant, but at least it was a university job and likely to be more interesting than the public service and certainly better than accounting.

          Were you interviewed?

Yes, they flew me over to be interviewed. Then they still took quite a long time to make up their minds.

          Could you describe the interview?

Can't remember anything about it now. The people were Hodgkin and Hohnen, the great H's. But I don't remember much about it.

          So when you were employed what were your conditions of employment? When you got that letter that said you've been successful.

Graduate assistant. I was not at that stage entitled to superannuation because that was one of the points of contention between the college and the university, that women in the college had superannuation rights and women in the university didn't. That's one of the things I remember about it, but otherwise it was just an ordinary job with the ordinary three weeks' annual leave and that sort of thing.

          So you'd known Canberra before the war. You'd presumably visited it a number of times because of your husband's job in Foreign Affairs.

Yes, we sold our house when we went to Chile because it was just after the war and we had no money, but we came back from˙- we had nearly a year here, '49-50, and a few weeks in '54. So I knew Canberra, had seen the university growing a bit but hadn't really had anything much to do with it.

          Your first day at work.

It was the day of the famous Council meeting.

          What was happening at the Council meeting?

This was the day they were deciding that whatever they did to Lindsay, you know, the sort of the end of the Lindsay affair. I don't know the details of it but there was a very tense sort of feeling. But I was just put in a little room with a lot of files to try and find out what I could about anything. It was all very confusing.

          And what were your initial duties?

Nursemaiding PhD students in the sense of interviewing them when they first came, explaining the administrative and pay arrangements to them, anything else that they wanted to know about the university that I could provide. Explain to them that their academic life was the affair of their supervisor, that we had nothing to do with academic things, but that their physical and personal things we might be able to help with. My feeling of the university administration at that stage was that everybody was trying terribly hard to be helpful to everybody; that the administration's job was to help.

          You mentioned earlier that one of the first things that happened to you when you arrived was that you were given a copy of the Murray Report.

Yes, which I took home and studied very carefully and tried to work out what they were doing.

          Why were you given it? What were you told when you were given it?

I think that Ross Hohnen wanted me to see the university scene as a whole. I think it was an education thing. I don't think they really wanted my views on it at all. I think I was just being educated in universities.

          So when you went through it and you saw what it had to say about universities all over the country and also universities here in Canberra, there being two, what were your feelings about the description that you read?

I felt that it was an enormously hopeful document. I mean, Tasmania was a very poor university in my day and remained so for many years. I had an enormous sense of excitement about it, particularly about ANU. I thought that ANU was an exciting experiment in education. I didn't have any feeling that there was any reason why they shouldn't have the CUC involved. I didn't know enough about that. But I just had this feeling that it was marvellous to be in a university world that was expanding.

          Was there much discussion going on about you about the Murray Report, I mean that you were hearing?

No, I didn't hear very much. You see, I was too junior at this stage to know what people were thinking or doing.

          Just before we press ahead and enter the area of amalgamation. Relationships between administration and academics, you've already mentioned it to some degree talking about PhD students, but generally how did you see the dividing line in terms of their responsibilities and activities within the university?

Well again, it was the sense that the administration was there to make academic work possible and fruitful. I always saw myself as a service person anyway, but this was very much the atmosphere of the administration I thought at that stage; that you did what you could to make it possible for people to use their brains so that they wouldn't be dealing with all sorts of trivia.

          What did you see of people like Sir Leslie Melville? How much did you see of them?

The administration gathered for coffee in the registrar's office and the registrar's secretary served the coffee, and one saw him there and ...

          That was every day?

Well, everybody wouldn't be there every day but that was the sort of thing that happened. This was in the old air force buildings where the law school is now. There were these sort of great long white buildings that they'd bought from one of the air force stations somewhere. There were long corridors and it was all on one level and much more democratic than it was when they moved into the administration building.

          How do you mean more democratic?

That the clerical and what you might describe as the lower orders, if you were being snobby, didn't feel themselves so isolated. You see in the new building you got all this layering and you lost some of that feeling that the administration worked together to serve the university. There was more feeling about it: that lay up there.

          What sort of impression did you have of Sir Leslie?

Of Sir Leslie? A very austere person of enormous integrity, and quite brilliant in his own field.

          Did you see much of people like Sir Mark Oliphant?

In my very early stages, one of my duties was taking visitors round the university. I mean, afterwards we had a whole section whose job it was to do this but the registrar's section did provide this sort of guiding thing. And there were various occasions when I took people. It was a very difficult business because visitors wanted to see the great man and the great man had other things to do of course. But when you could organise him and arrange for him to see visitors he was the most marvellous public relations man I have ever had anything to do with. With no scientific background whatsoever. I mean, I went to a church school where science simply wasn't taught. I could take people in, Sir Mark would sit and talk to them. For a few minutes I really understood (laughs) particle physics. It all disappeared the moment I went out the door. But he had that absolutely marvellous gift of making it intelligible to people. The other person whom I remember most as being good at this was Bart Bok in astronomy. He maybe wasn't such a super astronomer as some other people but he was marvellous at public relations and explaining things.

          What about people like Professor Hancock?

Professor Hancock came in later. I never had a great deal to do with him, and I'm one of the people who didn't in fact admire him enormously. I found him a bit old womanish.

          Why? What sort of things?

Of course whis is one of my complaints about the whole thing, the whole Social Science and Pacific Studies area seemed to me to spend too much time looking at its navel and not enough doing things. They were always so terribly looking at themselves.

          What? Internal disputes?

Not so much internal disputes as internal surveys and what should they be doing and what shouldn't they be doing. That they were so busy talking about this that they didn't really have much time left over to do things. But I'm probably a bit unfair about that.

          Just talking about some other people in those two schools. Professor Spate? Oskar Spate?

I knew him and admired him as a scholar. He could be a prickly and difficult person to deal with if he didn't get exactly what he wanted at the moment when he wanted it. But he was one of the very interesting people in it, and of course he's gone on to do such interesting things since. I found him a lot more interesting than Hancock.

          What about Professor Geoffrey Sawer, someone that you subsequently at least, saw quite a bit of?

I admired him. I saw quite a lot of him all along because one of the things I was involved with was the university legislation and he was always on the committee that dealt with university legislation. I had a great admiration for Geoffrey and liked him immensely - still do.

          Nugget Coombs, a very important but slightly shadowy figure?

Is he shadowy?

          Shadowy to me in the sense that I wasn't there but everybody mentions him and they stress his importance but there's a certain lack of precision defining actually what he did. I mean, I know he did enormous things, but I'm just wondering what you can remember.

He was a superb chairman of Council. He was chairman of Council for many years. I remember disagreeing with him enormously - he got this thing, 'must have women' exercise˙...

          And this is later, what, in the '70s?

It was in the '70s, I think. And I felt terribly anti the token woman notion and said that .... Because we already had a couple - we had Professor Hanna Neumann who was a superb woman mathematician; she was a woman but she was a superb mathematician in her own right. And I was inclined to the view that women had to prove that they were good, and that you appointed a woman because she was the best person available.

          Did you feel they had adequate opportunities to prove that they were good in general terms?

Well, the trouble with them began, was not the fault of the university but very largely of their own backgrounds and traditions. That women started along way back and that they had to make their way through those lower levels. I think all this women's lib business is nonsense, perhaps mainly because I'd been appointed to a job that was traditionally a man's job because they couldn't find anybody else. And I felt that if I could do it from a background that had been out of the workforce for years that it was just a matter of women doing their thing.

          And this disagreement that you had with Dr Coombs, how did you discuss it? Where did you discuss it?

Well, never of course in Council because I was a non-existent person in Council. I merely made the record. But sometimes at lunches or at meetings before the Council I could make my point that I didn't think .... That it was an insult to some women to appoint other people because they were women if they weren't the best person.

          How receptive?

Not a bit (laughs). I was a woman and therefore he didn't have to accept my views at all.

          So you're suggesting that he was advocating this as a principle but in practice on a personal level he wasn't really implementing it?

No, he wasn't. He was always reasonably polite but that was all.

          It wasn't because you were an administration person that he was rejecting of you?

I don't know. I don't know more about it than that.

          But your initial feeling was that it was because you were a woman.

Yes. My feeling was that he had got it into his head that there must be these token women and he must have women everywhere. And he was ignoring the fact that when you have a job you need to have the best person you can get for the job and that sex is not important.



          Identification: this is side two, tape one, the interview with Mrs Helen Cumpston.

          These figures, I mean you've already suggested a slight discrepancy between Dr Coombs' approach in principle to the question of the role of women, and his personal style. What were your meetings with wives of academics, of male academics, what sort of impression did you get of that side of university life?

I didn't have a great deal to do with it. Lady Melville was a superb hostess, although I was never in her house, and she was an enormous help on the social side of life. Lady Huxley also worked very hard and I saw far more of her. Because one of the problems at ANU was importing staff from overseas that the wives felt abandoned in the deserts of Australia and a great deal of effort was put into women's clubs and women's meetings and things, to try and make them feel at home. And that was one of the things that both Lady Melville and Lady Huxley were very good at, and worked hard at.

          Were you expected, as a woman in the administration, to be involved in those efforts - keeping the wives happy?

No, I had very little to do with that. We were much too busy trying to keep the husbands happy (laughs). I remember some vague trouble about the women's club in which senior administrative staff were invited to join and the others were not, and some of my staff were very upset about this - that there were social barriers. But I don't remember the details of it very much, and I never had time for that sort of thing anyway. Other wives - professors' wives I didn't see much of. I'm not a social person anyway. I know Lady Crawford was not interested in social life and found any of that extremely difficult and trying. Who else was there?

          You've just mentioned that you didn't lead an active social life in that sense, but who did you, if anyone, associate with socially at the university? I guess we're talking of the 1960s now.

If you mean outside ...

          On a personal level where you chose to invite them and they chose to invite you.

Not very much because for one thing I had a family life of my own and I kept the university and the family fairly separate. I remember running a farewell party for David Hodgkin when he retired, just after we moved into this house. And all the senior administrative and various people came to say goodbye to David here. But I didn't do a great deal of socialising with anybody. I used to have a sandwich lunch with the housing officer every now and again - Dorothy Harvey. She and I saw a bit of one another to discuss the problems of keeping people happy. I saw a little bit of Ross and David but not a great deal.

          Ross and David?

Ross Hohnen and David Hodgkin were the .... You see, Ross was Registrar when I went there and then he moved on to be something else - I've forgotten what they called him - Secretary, I think at some stage, and David Hodgkin became Registrar. And then after him, Bill Hamilton, the Bursar, moved over to be Registrar, so I had three registrars in my time there.

          If we could go back a little bit. If we could go back to amalgamation, because we haven't really got on to it. We diverted just as we were approaching it. Do you remember the sequence of events, the actual direction, as I understand it, was from Menzies that basically the two places were going to be amalgamated? Do you remember that being delivered?

I don't remember a dramatic moment of it being delivered but I remember it happening, and the enormous flurry of committees that followed it. There seemed to be committees gone berserk, as it were. Committees in both places working out their own viewpoint and then joint committees to try and get agreement between the two separate lots.

          What was your role?

Practically nothing. I wasn't directly involved in it other than an odd committee or two.

          I think your personal file says that you were given higher duties because of extra responsibilities related to amalgamation.

Yes, but that was because Ross became sick at this stage, you see. It was the first of his major circulation crises and he was in hospital in Sydney - it felt like months. And David was coping as registrar and I was helping run the academic Board for him, and various other things, but nothing very serious. But there was certainly an enormous amount of pressure on all of us with all these committees and meetings.

          On the academic Board, would you have been dealing with things like, for example, the decision that for the first ten years only the Institute would grant PhDs and not the CUC. And also the academic salaries, there was a difference I understand between the two places.

Yes. I don't remember very much about any of those trying details. I just have this blurred picture of an enormous amount of fuss and bother going on.

          What about the library? That was another cause of fuss and bother.

That was a cause of fuss and bother, not only which library and how but the librarian had a heart attack and withdrew from the university quite suddenly in the middle of all this. What was his name?

          Which librarian was that?

The one whose son was a cricketer. That's all I remember about ....

          The Institute's librarian?

Yes. The Institute's librarian, who was he? [A.L.G. McDonald. Ed.] I ought to know. But it is so, I don't remember things. There were problems about building a library. You see, neither place had adequate provision for a library and there was the argument of where it would be built, and how it would function. In the end they had two.

          Were you part of those discussions?

Only marginally, I don't remember much about them anyway.

          What about the physical amalgamation of the administration of the two places?

Well, that worked out pretty smoothly. Tom Owen, who had run every last detail of the College, was sort of sidetracked into buildings and grounds and did an enormously good job. Every time I go to ANU now, I think they do need Tom Owen to keep things clean and tidy. He was essentially a clean and tidy and organised person. And of course admittedly there was more money then than there is now. But he did have the place functioning properly.

          Professor Burton from the CUC, did you see anything of him?

Yes, he was on the Council and I saw him regularly there, and on various committees. But I can't remember ...

          Do you remember him very much at all? What sort of person he was?

He was a pleasant, but there's something in the back of my mind where I had some bother with him but I can't remember what it was about or anything about it now. He wasn't, shall we say, one of my favourite .... I know, he found it very hard to accept a decision that had been made and would try to undermine it after it was made. That's the one thing I remember about him as being difficult.

          That was a persistent personality pattern, was it?

Yes. If a thing wasn't decided the way he wanted it to be, he found it awfully hard to accept a different decision and would sort of keep going back at it.

          Well, just talking about Council. Who was on Council?

You mean as people, or as ...?

          The sorts of people, not a list of names, but what sort of people.

There were the Members of Parliament - the government appointees; there were the academics from both sides; there were representatives of the non-professorial staff as well as professors; there were members elected by convocation, and there were student representatives. And of course they changed from time to time, and there were good and bad in all of them.

          You were talking before about Dr Coombs wanting to get more women on to Council. How were people selected for Council? Was that a mysterious process and you just suddenly found an announcement in the paper, or did you see a bit more of it before that?

No, most of them were elections. And it wasn't only women on Council that he was interested in. In fact rather less about that. He wanted more women on convocation and he wanted women to be appointed to the university wherever possible.

          How did he go about that? I mean, in terms of making it actually happen, that appointments ...

Well, he didn't. Not very much of it happened in my time. Now, they have all sorts of committees but I don't know whether they're getting any - they ought to be doing better because there ought to be more qualified women available. The objection in my time was that there were so very few qualified women, and we did appoint them, like Hanna Neumann, when they were available. But Coombs had really nothing to do with academic appointments. Council finally appointed them, but on the advice of the academic bodies, and certainly it was very difficult for Council to express much of a view about it. I gather that in the early days there'd been odd moments of communism where Council had tried to interfere because someone was considered to be a communist. But that had gone by my time and I wasn't involved in that.

          How were the meetings conducted? The meetings of Council?

Well, we sent out agenda papers a week before. There was 'hell Friday', the first Friday of the month, when the papers had to go out and people kept on - it was my job to assemble the papers, you see - having last minute thoughts that they wanted to go to Council. So that it was often five, six, or even later before we finally got everything put to bed. Then you'd probably have a supplementary agenda. That was one Friday, the Council meeting would be the next Friday at ten o'clock, and in winter it was nearly always a fog and people didn't arrive till late. And the night before there would be a meeting of Coombs and the registrar and a few other people to go through the papers so that the chairman knew what was happening and was in touch with things, and even perhaps to decide what line they were going to take on ....

          You attended those meetings?

Generally, yes, because they might want to change something or to put something extra in, or to make certain that the right papers were available. You would end up probably with a great mass of files in case people wanted to look at things at the Council meeting. They were very seldom used but it was one of the jobs that had to be done, to work out what possible information might be wanted for a Council meeting.

          When they'd discuss what sort of line they should take, how would that be approached? I mean, how would they go about, say, we'll talk about Dr Coombs. How would he go about achieving what he'd regard as a desirable result on a given question?

Well, it always had to be thrown open for debate but he would introduce the subject, and if you know anything about meetings you know that introducing a subject presents a viewpoint, as a rule, and it would go from there. He wouldn't always get his way. Council very seldom went to votes - to narrow decisions. Occasionally it would but generally if there was a vast difference of opinion, a clearly marked difference of opinion, what you did was appoint a committee.

          Did there tend to be factions on Council?

No, I don't think you would say there were factions. There were differences of opinion.

          But there weren't consistent groups that you could recognise over a period of time?

No. Occasionally you would find the academic staff of one side or the other agreeing and disagreeing with the others. You would have differences between the academic staff but I don't think I would say that there were factions. And of course the parliamentarians were wild cards.

          Who do you remember in particular among the parliamentarians?

Lionel Murphy was one of the most spectacular ones, with a passion for lost causes, well, for underdogs, with an enormous enthusiasm for creating underdogs so that he could support them.

          Any particular things stand out in your mind?

No, I can't remember any particular occasion but just a general frame of mind. I remember Senator Rae from Tasmania as an extremely sensible person, who usually had done his homework. Of course the trouble about them was that they were so busy that they hadn't always had time to do their homework and would come up with some odd viewpoint because they hadn't read the papers, or would have to be directed to the papers, all the information they wanted had already been presented to them but they hadn't read it.

          When you were talking about academics sometimes on Council, sometimes forming a bit of a group, did you mean vis-...-vis, like the Institute vis-...-vis the CUC, or did you mean academics unified as a group against non-academics?

You would sometimes have all the academics on one side, and you could have them differing in opinions. Very often they didn't say much anyway. I can't remember any specific instances now. I can't even remember which were the things that we fought longest about. There were some meetings that went on and on and on.

          What about the question of student representation?

Well, there were always student representatives, from the beginning, I think, and some of them were very good, some of them were not. Professor Aitken who is now Vice-Chancellor of the other place ...

          University of Canberra.

Is that what they call it now (laughs). Was a student representative - a PhD student representative - on Council. I remember him. I remember young - no, I can't remember his name. Some of them got very pompous, some of them didn't.

          Thinking of the period of the late '60s, early '70s, which was a time of student unrest. How did that affect you in your work at the university?

I had some very dramatic moments with this. The most dramatic was the protest - what were they protesting about at this stage? Yes, wanting women's studies, I think. They had invaded the place but they were out of it. And then they came en masse to the front door of the chancelry and the Vice-Chancellor, who at this stage was Williams I think - the New Zealander - had said that he would receive a deputation but that he wasn't interviewing a mob. And at that stage I was acting registrar, and it was my job to convey the vice-chancellor's message.

They were all very nervous about the thought that it wasn't fair to put this on to a woman, but I said, 'Nonsense, I'll do it', and so they produced a megaphone for me. And I'm like my father, quite hopeless with gadgets. And there was I standing in front of these vast glass doors of the chancelry with a seething mob of students in front and this megaphone to give the vice-chancellor's .... The trouble was that I couldn't make the thing work so the student leader had to come and show me how to work it which helped defuse the thing. And then I gave the vice-chancellor's message and there was a very rude young woman in the group who said something rude about vice-chancellor hiding behind a woman's skirts. And I suddenly got indignant and said, 'That's nonsense. I was a woman's libber before you were born, and this is my job and I'm doing it'. And the student leader got more and more upset about my being there as this group got angrier and angrier. And one young man did actually push past me and pushed the door open behind me and pushed his foot in. And they pushed him out. And that afternoon there was a suggestion of a legal case that he had been badly treated. But eventually they gave up, and I think we all went over to the student union, which was then - not the union they have now - but the original ones. The building that's now student admin. And I remember sitting on the steps and talking to a student who felt that they ought to decide what chemistry they should do in their courses. And I was sort of tactfully trying to explain that perhaps the staff knew more about chemistry than they did, and that maybe there was some things they ought to learn before they learnt the things they wanted to learn. Anyway, that went off reasonably peaceably.

And then there was another occasion when we came back, I think from a degree conferring ceremony, and found the admin block, our block, occupied by students. And they'd managed to shut off .... See, there was the top floor which was the Council room and my office and the pantry. And then the next floor was the vice-chancellor and the registrar and the secretary and so on. And they'd managed to shut off, lock that off, and they had a guard inside there. And the rest of the building was occupied by students.

This was the night before a Council meeting and I was very busy with papers and paperwork and working late, and I had a secretary with me. And when she'd finished, about half-past seven or so, I took her down our stairs to the front room and saw her safely out of the building because she was petrified to go through a mob of students. Then I went back to my room to go on to get organised for the Council next day. And then I had a phone call from the buildings and grounds committee that their man had to be - who was in this locked part - relieved and how were they going to do it? I remember going down the stairs and along the ...

          Were you still acting as Registrar at this stage?

No, this was a different occasion. No, I was just in my own job. I went down one flight of stairs and along the interior passage and down. And I told them to come to the back door. There were no students there. So I let someone in and he went up and let his man out who also went down and out the back stairs and they had a different person there. The next morning they sent him his breakfast on a string. It was all so silly. I felt I was playing cops and robbers with the students on that occasion.

          What? It was let down from the top of the building?

From the vice-chancellor's level, on a string so that he could get some food up there. They wouldn't let him up. You better not record this ...

          Actually, could we record it, then we'll work out what we'll do with it after?

Yes. For some reason the vice-chancellor's own suite was locked and so was the only other one on that floor that had a bathroom, and here they had this security guard with no access to a bathroom, and that was why he had to be relieved, you see. But the buildings and grounds man who took over himself, who felt that it was his duty to be there, he had the keys and he was all right for toilets and things. There are weird things that happened.

          The registrar's division, how many assistant registrars were there?

There was myself and Molly Bouquet. I think in the registrar's division we were the only ones. They had senior graduate assistants. There may have been someone else at the later part of it. My memory's not what it was.

          Under Professor Crawford there was quite a significant reorganisation of the university in terms of the administrative structure, bringing together what had been the CUC and the Institute much more, wasn't there? This is in 1967-68.



          Identification: this is side one, tape two of the interview with Mrs Helen Cumpston.

          Just talking about Professor Crawford for the moment. You were mentioning a little bit about his relationship with what had been the CUC - the School of General Studies.

He believed that senior staff should lecture to students. And he himself, even as Vice-Chancellor, would lecture in economics or some version of economics in the School of General Studies. And he encouraged other people to do it. But by that time most of the feeling, I think, had gone anyway.

          You don't have any particular clear memories of his reorganisation of the administration?

No, I don't. I just kept on doing what I did.

          We've mentioned him before, but someone whom you had quite a lot to do with, was Professor Geoffrey Sawer. Could you talk about his role a little bit more, and the way you worked with him?

I worked with him chiefly in legislation, which was a technical job, and he was always on the committee that tried to turn what people wanted to do into the formal legislation that was needed. And he was always a very pleasant and cooperative person. He was, I think, a generally sound and soothing influence in the university, that he didn't get uptight about things. Beyond that I don't know very much about his own activities in the Social Sciences school. But he did see the university as a whole, he always had.

          You came to the university with a law background, was that, in a sense, incidental or had you been employed with the idea that they would use those talents systematically?

No, I don't think so. I think that at that stage people were hard to find and I was the most intelligent person they could find and they were prepared to put up with my sex and age because they thought they could get something out of me. I originally only undertook to stay for three years, and I stayed for seventeen.

          But the legal side of your work, how big a proportion was that, say in the latter stages - the last ten years after you went on to Council?

Quite a lot. There were these ghastly problems, which we never solved, and I served as ...

          What sort of problems?

One of the first things that I was involved with was the superannuation statute which was complicated enough to begin with but it got much more and more complicated as the years went by. As Commonwealth legislation changed, the university had to change its superannuation arrangements and we were always in strife and could never get agreement finally. I expect they have by now, but not in my time. Then we had troubles with establishing the residential colleges on university land. The university didn't have the right kind of title to give the right title to the colleges, all sorts of legal problems there. And I served as a liaison between the university and its solicitors and was involved in all the legal problems. And some of the minor things I could solve myself for them. So they said that after I left it cost them a lot more in legal fees than it had during my time.

          The university colleges, did you have very much to do with them, apart from the relationship you just described?

Not, other than in helping get their documentation right, and just the usual social things. I was never a fellow or anything like that. Never had any formal thing. In the beginning of the amalgamation everybody was very keen on pastoral care of students, and Vice-Chancellor Huxley had committees about this; how people would be encouraged to look after a small group of students. The trouble was that the students very seldom wanted to be looked after by the people who were supposed to be looking after them. But there was an enormous amount of thought and effort went into trying to make students feel that they were wanted and cared for.

          What about University House? Did you have much to do with that?

Again in a .... I helped run its elections for its fellows and helped with its legislation, and was a member, used it quite a lot, found it a very useful place where I could occasionally cope with my social obligations without having any domesticity involved.

          Study tours, you went on at least one to New Zealand.

I went once. I still think that Ross really thought I needed a holiday. No, actually I was sent on ...

          Why would he have thought that?

Because apart from the one thing that I did, which was interviewing a possible member of staff in Fiji, I didn't really do anything terribly worthwhile. Had a lovely time, enjoyed it very much. But I do think that it would have been cheaper to bring the person over to Australia to interview him in Australia rather than to send me.

          How did you feel about the ANU? Did you feel on those occasions when you had dealings with other universities or organisations outside the university, perhaps, organisations like the CSIRO where you might see some parallel in activities, what sort of feeling did you have about the ANU?

I was terribly proud of ANU, and also slightly maternal, I think. In fact, I still do feel faintly responsible for when anything goes wrong even after all these years.

          When you retired you didn't stay out of academic life completely - the administration of it - you became an assistant secretary for the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

Rushed around to meetings of the Vice-Chancellors' committees and found that all quite entertaining. It was interesting to see a lot of prima donnas together.

          What was most of their time taken up with? What was their activity, as you observed it?

At that stage there was an enormous amount of trouble with staff associations and relations with staff and superannuation and things of that sort. Also bits of bother with the government, of course. Government trying to dictate things, I can't remember what about. Most of that's a bit faint. There was - I can't remember his name - the chairman, had been vice-chancellor, and he was Jewish and he would talk about the view of the brethren when he was assembling a consensus, and the brethren hated him.


Yeah. I ought to know who it is. He was Governor-General afterwards.

          Sir Zelman Cowen?

Sir Zelman Cowen, that's right. He was a very nice person really but his Jewishness upset his colleagues.

          Let's see, are there any other major topics that we haven't discussed that perhaps we should discuss?

I feel I've told you much too much rubbish.

          Right. Well, thank you very much on behalf of the ANU. Thank you very much, Mrs Cumpston, for taking part.