with Emeritus Professor Ken Campbell, geologist and evolutionist
conducted 30 Oct & 6 Nov 2008 at Emeritus Faculty
Producer, Interviewer and Editor - Peter Stewart
Engineer - Nik Fominas
Biographical introduction: 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.
was appointed Dean of Science in 1978, and became Professor in Geology in 1982.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.