The Australian National University
Emeritus Faculty Oral History

Interview with Emerita Professor Beryl Rawson, classicist and historian

Interview recorded 23 July 2008, Emeritus Faculty office
Producer, Interviewer and Editor - Peter Stewart
Engineer - Nik Fominas

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Biographical introduction: This interview, with Emerita Professor Beryl Rawson, is part of the Emeritus Faculty's Oral History Program, involving retired staff members of the A-N-U- who were part of the university in the early decades of its life. The 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 sixty years. Emeritus Faculty has a special interest in this era, since the Faculty's membership includes or included many of the people who helped shape ANU in its early days, to make it the pre-eminent university it is today.

Born in Innisfail in Queensland in 1933, Beryl Rawson is a graduate of the University of Queensland and has a PhD from Bryn Mawr College, in the USA. Beryl first came to ANU in 1964, as a senior lecturer in classics in the Faculty of Arts. She was elected Dean of Arts in 1981, and appointed Professor of Classics in 1989. Since retiring as professor in 1998 she has been a Visiting Fellow, then Adjunct Professor, in the Faculty of Arts, from where she continues her research and writing, and engaging actively with university life.

In the past, Beryl has been an appointed member of the Australian Research Council, and President of the Australian Historical Association and the Australian Society for Classical Studies.

Beryl has written a number of multi-edition books on the general topic of family life in ancient Rome. She has organised three international meetings on this aspect of classical studies over the past 20 years, and has actively promoted and supported the teaching of classics, history, and languages in Australian secondary schools.

Interview abstract: After a childhood spent in Queensland country towns (her father was a schoolteacher) and at high school in Rockhampton, Beryl studied languages, literature and history at the University of Queensland. On graduation, she was appointed Junior Lecturer in Classics there, then three years later began a PhD Scholarship and Fulbright grant to study classics at Bryn Mawr College, USA. Beryl's work there, on life in the ancient Roman family, was to become her lifelong interest and a field in which she became an internationally acclaimed expert. Beryl returned to the University of Queensland as a Lecturer in Classics in 1961.

In 1964, she was encouraged by Richard Johnson, then founding Professor of Classics in the School of General Studies at ANU, to apply for a senior lectureship in his department. This she successfully did, and moved to ANU. Her initial impressions of ANU at that time were of a university dominated by its research schools, and the eminence of its senior academic staff. Around her in the teaching faculties were such charismatic and able scholars as Finn Crisp, Alec Hope, and Manning Clark, and many others who would one day achieve similar eminence and become Beryl's colleagues and friends. Dick Johnson gave her the freedom to pursue her own interests in his department. These initially were in the development of new teaching programs in classics and Greco-Roman society, and the encouragement of classics and language teaching in secondary schools around Australia.

In the 1980s, after writing a book on Roman politics, Beryl's interests swung back to her earlier studies on the life of the ancient Roman family, which she described in a series of books (a number of which were reprinted) over the next 25 years. This work has made ANU a significant centre for classical studies, and Beryl has initiated and run three major international conferences at ANU in the past 20 years.

Beryl was promoted to Reader in 1977 and soon became involved in the academic administration of the Faculty of Arts. She was elected Dean in 1981, serving two terms in that position. During that time, the university had begun its evolution into a more corporatised organisation, with consequent general discomfort and frustration amongst academic staff more accustomed to a collegial style of management. A sometimes uncomfortable competition for resources among staff and departments was one outcome. Beryl instituted an external review of the Faculty of Arts, a review which she was then required to implement, another challenge for her. That review was one of the first of its kind in Australian universities.

In 1989, Beryl was appointed Professor of Classics, replacing Dick Johnson who had left the university to become an adviser in education to the federal government. Since that appointment, through the time where she became emerita in 1998 to the present, Beryl has continued to pursue her research and teaching interests unencumbered by management responsibilities. Beryl was appointed to the Australian Research Council (1991-94) by the federal government, and has been president of the Australian Historical Association and the Australian Society for Classical Studies. Her active involvement with secondary school teachers and with others teaching at university level has been a continuing and characteristic feature of her professional career.

Beryl noted that she had not been subject to any overt discrimination as a woman scholar and senior functionary in her years at ANU, even though there were many fewer women serving in senior positions in the university in her time than is the case now. Indeed, she felt that senior officers of the university two or three decades ago were commendably friendly, helpful, and when necessary, frank, in their dealings with her. This reflects what Beryl now sees as an important element of difference in ANU then and now - the loss of collegiality as the basis for interaction between members of the university community, senior or junior. The more remote, corporate style of university management which has developed in the past decade or so has hindered getting the best from the university, particularly given the fact of ebbing governmental support. Beryl has hopes for a return to the less formal, more trusting, collegial style of management.

Perhaps the one instance of discrimination Beryl experienced was on her initial appointment to ANU - the failure of the university to assist her with finding housing when she arrived from Queensland. This would have been automatic for a married appointee. No doubt this was an inheritance by the university of a public service foible, but perhaps more might have been expected of a university even in those less enlightened days.