IT’S not an ivory tower that Australian Catholic University’s new vice-chancellor Professor Greg Craven is seeking to create for his leadership role but one that is transparent and highly amplified.
That much is quickly obvious talking to the professor as he outlines his vision for ACU National within both the Catholic and secular communities.
Prof Craven has a passionate belief that a Catholic university is more relevant today than ever.
Not just for such obvious reasons as providing a forum to debate the usual secular positions on abortion, stem-cell treatments, atheism and the like.
The professor has a more expansive vision.
He sees ACU National with its campuses in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and the ACT as “the only university network to truly reflect Australia’s federal character”.
And he sees this as “a very good thing for ACU students”.
“They get the big picture of Australia at the same time as being part of an organisation that is deeply committed to Catholic heritage,” he said.
Such matters are close to the heart of a man who is one of Australia’s most noted authorities on constitutional and public law.
Prof Craven’s expertise in this field led to his selection for the statutory committee directing the “Yes” case in the 1999 republican referendum.
He has also published numerous journal articles and books including “Conversations with the Constitution”, and is a columnist for various media outlets including The Australian Financial Review and The Australian’s Higher Education Supplement.
So under the professor’s leadership, ACU National is set to become an increasingly active participant in the national discourse.
“It’s an interesting time for a university that is Catholic, with the resurgence of atheistic and materialistic critiques of religion – the appearance of professional atheists like Richard Dawkins,” he said.
What makes a “good” Catholic university?
“It’s both simple and complex,” the professor explains.
“My motto for ACU is ‘Faithful and Clever’.
“It’s both. Not one or the other.
“The goal is to be true to Catholic values within the context of an institute of higher education.
“In a world that rejects the idea that you can be clever and spiritual, it’s immensely important that society has beacons like a Catholic university.”
Among the highlights of Prof Craven’s distinguished career have been the receipt of a Masters degree in law from the University of Melbourne in 1985.
This was awarded for his thesis published by the university press as “Secession: the Ultimate State Right” in 1986.
Around this time, he was also appointed a lecturer in law at the University of Melbourne Law School.
Prof Craven next went on leave until 1987 to serve as director of research to the Legal and Constitutional Committee of the Victorian Parliament, conducting an inquiry into the legislative protection of human rights.
From 1992 to 1995 he served as Crown Counsel for Victoria, in this capacity overseeing major legal policy reforms for this government.
Eventually Prof Craven went on to become Foundation Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle, Western Australia.
The professor took an increasingly prominent role in national constitutional affairs during his tenure at Notre Dame.
He was appointed by the Commonwealth Government as a delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention to consider whether Australia should become a republic.
In 2001, he was awarded the Centenary of Federation Medal for services to federation.
Prior to the professor’s appointment to ACU, he had spent several years in management at Western Australia’s Curtin University culminating in his appointment to the role of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Planning).
In 2005, Professor Craven’s book “Conversations with the Constitution” was awarded the Western Australian Premier’s literary prize for non-fiction.
Clearly the ACU is fortunate to gain a leader with such a broad vision and pro-active social agenda at this stage of its evolution.
In his first week as ACU National’s third vice-chancellor in 17 years, Prof Craven said the university could “stand alongside the world’s great Catholic universities and reference a rich intellectual tradition spanning 2000 years”.
He also paid tribute to his predecessor Prof Peter Sheehan, whom he said had laid a solid foundation for the institution’s ongoing evolution.
Prof Craven spent part of February touring ACU’s six national campuses, meeting with staff, students and partners of the university.
“Once the research is in and we get clear focus on the uni’s role, we’ll be able to grab ball and run with it,” he said.
He believes the times are right for the ACU network.
“At the moment the Federal Government, as part of its tertiary funding deliberations, is asking all universities to go away and think about what makes them different and special,” he said.
“To me the ACU is a bit like cricket’s Michael Clarke – up and coming in a big sort of a way. The Queensland campus is a case in point.
“Queensland along with WA is one of the nation’s energy powerhouses.
“I would like to see ACU engaged in deep public and private partnerships to help supply the intellectual grunt this society requires.
“For me there’s not much more important than clever Catholic teachers and health professionals in this significant state.
“In fact, the ACU’s success is crucial to the prosperity of Queensland and the nation.”
So what are some key differences between the ACU network and other universities?
“A major one is our passionate commitment to community engagement – supporting the disadvantaged, poor and homeless,” Prof Craven said.
“This is something our selfish, materialistic society desperately needs.
“ACU students are frequently engaging with the indigenous, homeless, refugees – actually an extraordinary raft of engagement.
“There is evidence that this produces graduates of extraordinary quality – not only morally better but better ‘people’ people.
“After all, why would you want a nurse who has never engaged with anyone in the broader community; a teacher who’s not interested in the broader issues of education?”
The professor said this emphasis on community engagement, a combination of good works with faith, was intrinsically Catholic.
“It’s what gives ACU its educational edge,” he said.
“And it also happens to fit perfectly with Christ’s gospel message.”
The ACU structure also enables a “more intimate” style of education.
Student numbers of around 13,000 spread across the ACU network keep campuses smaller, allowing more opportunity for individual attention.
This focus on excellence at all levels should ensure the ACU becomes the natural destination for Catholic students from Catholic schools, according to Prof Craven.
“Not only because it is Catholic, but from a basic perception in the community of its high quality,” he said.
“I want to get the Australian Catholic University network to the point that people will say not only: ‘Gee it’s a wonderfully Catholic university’ but also that it’s a ‘wonderful university’ full stop.
“If I can lead the university to that point, it will be a very good educational institution indeed.”