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Ken Campbell - Emeritus Professor, geologist and evolutionist

The Australian National University, Emeritus Faculty Inc.

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CollectionsANU Emeritus Faculty Oral History Project
Title: Ken Campbell - Emeritus Professor, geologist and evolutionist
Author(s): Campbell, Ken
Stewart, Peter
Keywords: Ken Campbell
Emeritus Faculty
oral history
Publisher: The Australian National University, Emeritus Faculty Inc.
This interview, with Emeritus Professor Ken Campbell, is part of the Emeritus Faculty's Oral History Program, involving retired staff members of ANU who were part of the university in the early decades of its life. The Oral History Program was initiated and developed by ANU Emeritus Faculty as a contribution to university and community understanding of the beginnings and development of ANU over the past six decades. Emeritus Faculty has a special interest in this era, since the Faculty's membership includes many of the people who helped shape ANU in its early days, to make it the pre-eminent university it is today. Ken Campbell is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Earth and Marine Sciences at ANU. Born in Ipswich, Queensland in 1927, he is a graduate of the University of Queensland. After completing his PhD there, he spent 10 years in New England University College (predecessor of UNE) researching and teaching in paleontology and stratigraphy. Ken was then invited to apply for a lectureship at ANU by David Brown, founding professor of the Department of Geology in the School of General Studies, and arrived in Canberra with his family in 1962. He was appointed Dean of Science in 1978, and became Professor in Geology in 1982. Ken has been a visiting scientist at Harvard University, the Field Museum in Chicago, and Guy's Hospital in London. He has been honoured by a number of scientific societies, is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (since 1983), and member of its Council 1990-93. Ken was awarded the Mawson Medal of the Academy of Science in 1986, and the W R Browne Prize of the Geological Society of Australia in 2007. Ken is an Elder of the Presbyterian Church. Ken Campbell's field of expertise is evolutionary paleontology and continental dynamics. His recent special interest has been the evolution of the lungfish group, and understanding the processes of rapid design changes in structure at various times in the fossil record. Interview abstract: After undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Queensland, Ken Campbell was appointed in 1951 to the academic staff of New England University College, Armidale, NSW (later to become the University of New England). He spent 1958 on a Nuffield Fellowship at Cambridge University. In 1961, Ken was recruited from Armidale by David Brown to become part of his new Department of Geology in the School of General Studies at ANU. Professor Brown's department provided Ken with new opportunities in research and undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, strong technical facilities, the possibility of postgraduate scholarships, and funding support from both internal and external sources. Canberra was surrounded by areas of considerable geological interest, ideal for field work. The Commonwealth Government's Bureau of Mineral Resources, an organisation with strong interests in paleontology (Ken's specialty), was located nearby. Students came from all over Australia to ANU, including a healthy leavening of mature age students. There was also a steady flow of international visitors through the university and the surrounding scientific community. ANU was ideally suited to Ken Campbell and his interests. Professor Brown and ANU gave Ken and his family a warm welcome. They soon had a block of land in Campbell, in the inner north of the city, where they built a house. School facilities for his children were excellent. Forty-five years on, Ken and his wife Daphne still live in their original house. David Brown gave Ken considerable freedom in what he taught, which Ken soon directed into paleobiology, with an emphasis on evolution. His graduate students were of national and international origin, and importantly often provided him with intellectual stimulus, expanding his interests and sharpening his skills. Many of his postgraduate students have gone on to occupy senior university, museum, survey, and business positions throughout the world. This ideal academic environment was perturbed, in Ken's view, in the late 1970s by his elevation (as Reader) to headship of the Geology Department, and soon after this, to Dean of Science. Ken found the new management responsibilities upsetting to his health and distracting from his teaching and research, though soon after (1982) a certain soothing came by way of his promotion to Professor, followed a year later by his election to the Australian Academy of Science. Despite his distaste for university administration, Ken was asked in 1991, shortly before retirement, to be part of a review of the ANU administration, an experience which largely confirmed his view that the university was not sensibly structured and managed. Despite his views, and without great surprise to Ken, the review recommended an expansion of managerial positions. With this has come increased disconnection between administration and the essential functions of the university - those concerned with teaching and research. Overseas study leave was an important element of Ken's life at ANU. At Harvard in 1965, on Fulbright and NSF Fellowships, he was introduced to trilobite fossils. From this came important publications, and three graduate students to work at ANU. On study leave at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1981, Ken was introduced to fossil lungfish, an important evolutionary group which would feature prominently in his later research. Interestingly, his next study leave in 1985 was in the Department of Anatomy in the Dental School at Guy's Hospital in London, where Ken studied lungfish dentition, providing him with taxonomic skills for his work on these organisms. Such unexpected affinities between scientists illustrates how ostensibly unrelated skills and knowledge can become important tools in research and teaching. On his return from study leave visits, Ken's colleagues and students often commented on the changes in Ken's style of teaching and approach to research. Ken reflects on a number of seemingly unrelated issues in the course of this interview, but these cohere when the listener remembers that scientists do not work in ivory towers, and the best of them are always sampling experience and information from disparate pools of skills and knowledge. Administrative and pedagogic interference are highlighted too. Particularly problematic are: • administrators deciding course structures on the basis of organisational and institutional needs, rather than disciplinary coherence; • understanding the need for science students to have sufficient time in practical classes to learn the observational skills necessary to complement adequately the theory developed in lectures; • the trivialisation of disciplines by external influences - Ken cites 'environmental science' for special attention in this regard. Ken Campbell observes that technical support for the field and laboratory sciences in ANU has been seriously eroded in the past decade or so. One consequence of this is that the technical skills which in the past might have been exercised by individuals who had little theoretical understanding of their subject are now more likely to be practiced by researchers themselves, that is, by postgraduate scholars and academic staff. Ken believes it is important that this new breed of technical experts be given the same access to academic career pathways as those who have a more theoretical bent. Furthermore, the tendency for administrators (in pursuit of managerial "efficiency") to interfere in how scientists organise their work is to be resisted - for example managers who believe that 'ethanol is ethanol', then purchase in bulk and expect the scientific end-user to make do with what is supplied. This is the sort of retrograde attitude and practice which frustrates and distracts working scientists. Outside of his department and laboratory, Ken was involved in the oversight of ANU Press for several years. The demise of this press in its original form reduced publishing options for ANU staff, and the university lost important commercial and professional opportunities and exposure. Ken found that corporate managerial practices at ANU Press required skills that were foreign to academics. The importance of ANU Press publications to the university should be emphasised, in his view, though it is now somewhat late in the day. From 1984-91 Ken was the ANU Council appointee, and from 1994-2001 the Presbyterian Church representative, on the Burgmann College Council. It was not always a happy experience for him. While many student members of the college Council impressed him with their intelligence and skills in promoting a lively and stimulating community life for the college, other students seemed more intent on using the Council as an arena for the exercise of egotism and power, often taking advantage of their numbers to outvote college staff and university appointees on issues of enduring importance for the College. Nevertheless, Ken's loyalty to Burgmann remained strong enough for him to take on the task of editing a history of the college - The Place to Be - in 2001, before resigning in some disappointment in 2005. Since retirement in 1993, Ken has been appointed Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow (honorary) in the Department of Earth and Marine Sciences in the Faculty of Science (his original department, now renamed). Ken notes how generously ANU has treated him in his emeritus years, providing an office and communication facilities, access to laboratories and libraries, and continuing collegiate opportunities in the ANU community. He remains active in the supervision of graduate students (his own and others') and is still actively involved with the Academy of Science. Over the past decade or more, Ken has developed a productive collaboration with Dick Barwick, a zoologist renowned for his photographic and illustrative skills. Ken continues to publish prolifically. Ken recalls with special warmth his working relationships with eminent ANU leaders of the past - Len Huxley, John Crawford, Tony Low, Dick Johnson, and with university administrative staff - George Dicker, Mollie Bouquet, Pat White, Jane Flecknoe, among others. While his tenure as Dean of Science was seen by Ken as something of a mixed blessing, it brought him into close contact with these stalwarts of ANU, and taught him much about the vagaries and challenges of university management. His membership of ANU Emeritus Faculty now provides him with the opportunity to continue pressing for changes in the university which he believes are important for its students and staff, and for their success as scholars or as practitioners of their professions. Of particular importance currently to Ken is the securing of collections of field materials gathered by working scientists and others, often accumulated over many decades. Ken's own loss of such a collection to a fire in Armidale early in his career makes him particularly sensitive to this issue.


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