An insight into the enigmatic Dr Peter Tannock (continued)

BC: Let's now move on to Catholic universities. In the last interview I had with you about six years ago I remember you telling me that when you started this dream it was not to set up a university but merely to establish a good Catholic Teachers' College in Western Australia.

PT: Yes, that was the trigger for Notre Dame. For years the Catholic Education Commission had been struggling with the challenge of "how are we going to provide enough people who are trained in the Catholic tradition to teach in, and to lead, Catholic schools?" It was an immense problem. We had in place arrangements - some of them through the Catholic Institute (at Edith Cowan University as it is now) that were modestly successful - but they were, in my view, relatively token and piecemeal in comparison to the challenge we faced against the booming demand for places in Catholic schools and the number of teachers that needed to be trained. We couldn't possibly meet the need.

In Eastern Australia the Church had a network of Catholic Teachers' Colleges that had become Colleges of Advanced Education, fully funded by the Commonwealth from the mid-1970s. We had nothing on the West coast. So we looked at it and said " Well, OK, let's see if we can do something?" - because we HAD to do something. We didn't have any option. So that is what led to Notre Dame.

We started off with the idea of a Catholic Teachers' College. However, all the pressure at the time in Australia in higher education was to move away from single-purpose institutions. It was only a few years later that the Federal Education Minister, John Dawkins, turned all the CAE's into Universities. That pressure was on already. We were also strongly influenced by Notre Dame in the United States.

By the way it wasn't my initiative that led to the involvement of Notre Dame in the US. Dennis Horgan knew the brother of the former President of Notre Dame, Fr Theodore Hesburgh, and through him we heard he was coming to Fremantle on the QEII. That's how it happened…

BC: Seredipity…

PT: It was - very, very fortuitous.

BC: I want to ask you some things about the connection with Notre Dame in a moment but, when you started out, the thing that I find people who are knowledgeable of these things are in awe of is that soon after you started it was revealed that this Archdiocese was in deep financial difficulties.

PT: I honestly do not know how we did it. The only thing you can say is that it was the Holy Spirit. We shouldn't get too carried away with ourselves - I keep saying to people, and I know it's right, we're still not a mature institution by any means. We've got a long way to go and the struggle goes on. We are past the perilous "childhood" stage now though. We're into our "gangling adolescence" and it's pretty healthy and pretty promising. But it was difficult. The 90s were a particularly difficult time for us and the Archdiocese especially financially.

BC: Were the problems ever of such magnitude that they threatened what you were doing here?

PT: We have had two outstanding Archbishops who have been responsible for this place, Archbishop Foley and Archbishop Hickey. Archbishop Foley died, unfortunately, just a year after we had received legislative backing from the West Australian Parliament. Bishop Healy was the Administrator for a while and then Archbishop Hickey took over. Bishop Healy was a great supporter and gave us our canonical statute, even when the financial problems overshadowed us.

I think Archbishop Hickey has done a magnificent job for both the Archdiocese and for Notre Dame. He pulled it all together and turned everything around financially and in other ways in a relatively unsung fashion. That will be to his everlasting credit. Through it all, he has also been a magnificent supporter of this place. He never flinched…

BC: What is the actual relationship these days between the institutional Church and a Catholic University? Is there a financial connection or are you independent?

PT: We're independent but, of course, we would never be where we are without the financial and other support the institutional Church gave us and continues to give us through gifts and loans. This University had four major foundation benefactors. They were the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth, the Catholic Education Commission of Western Australia, the Sisters of St John of God and the University of Notre Dame in the US. The first three put up large sums of money in the early days to provide us with the ability to acquire the property and do the developments that enabled us to start. Without that we couldn't have done it. The University of Notre Dame in the United States was immensely important also. They provided people, intellectual property and reputation which was also part of the founding equation. Without them we would not have got off the ground or survived.

BC: Well it seems Cardinal Pell is attracted to the name Notre Dame and he's invited you to Sydney. This is what has come out of left field and blown everybody's mind and is what has led to this interview. What is happening here?

PT: About 18 months or two years ago in our strategic planning for the future we came to the view that a study centre in Sydney would be an interesting thing for us to do. We got the idea from Notre Dame in the United States. They have study centres in London, Dublin, Rome and various places which provide their students with "study abroad" experiences. This adds to the value, the quality and diversity of their education.

We thought that would be an interesting thing for us to do. But not in another country. In Sydney. Why Sydney? Because it's "the big smoke"; because a lot of our students finish up working there - our lawyers and business students and so on; because we thought it would be a good opportunity for students acquiring practical experience during a degree in schools, hospitals, law firms, accounting firms and so on. It would add value to what they were doing here. We thought it would be quite attractive to our international students, particularly the American students who come here, to have a "Sydney experience" as part of their time at Notre Dame. So that's what was behind the idea initially.

We talked to Cardinal Pell and his senior people about the idea. He came back to us and said, "I can see it would be good for you but I would like you to go one step further. I'd like you to consider establishing a campus in Sydney. And if you will do that I have a site in mind that could be used for this purpose." He said, "My motivation is that you are doing things in some areas that I am particularly interested in. I do hear continuing good reports of your university but I am particularly interested in some things that you are doing that probably only you can do."

BC: And what are they?

PT: Medicine is one. We take our first medical students in Fremantle next year - He said he would be keen to have a Catholic Medical School on the East coast of Australia.

BC: Well Catholic Health is the other significant part of the Church in Australia today, besides Catholic Education, experiencing phenomenal growth…

PT: The other thing he said he was very interested in was the Notre Dame Law School. The great profession of Law produces leaders and all sorts of other people who are very influential in society. He thought a Catholic Law School would be a wonderful thing for Sydney.

BC: So, as you would see it the Cardinal has a vision for a diversity of Catholic higher educational institutions - after all he's come in for some veiled criticism of this invitation to you - he's already committed to Campion College - a more conservative, liberal-arts institution…

PT: Campion is in the Parramatta Diocese. We're also very supportive of them. My view, and I think the Cardinal's view, on Catholic Higher Education can be summed as "let a thousand flowers bloom". He has the same attitude to Catholic higher education as we've long had in this country to Catholic primary and secondary education: The more the better!

Just look at the diversity fostered by all the different religious orders across this country with their different charisms. The only problem with Catholic higher education is that we've taken a long, long time to get going in Australia. Basically, the Church in Australia - for good reason - put all of its eggs in the primary and secondary education basket for 150 years except for the few religious orders who established teachers' colleges on the East coast. The assumption for much of that time was that the religious orders would go on forever and that they would look after their own training needs.

Having said that, we should remember that the idea of a Catholic University in Australia is not new. Cardinal Gilroy tried very hard to establish a University as a branch of Notre Dame in Indiana, in Sydney in 1946. Between 1946 and 1954 he spent eight years pushing it. He had the priests from Notre Dame out here in Sydney but eventually it fell over for various political reasons including, probably, the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry.

CONTINUED [use navigation below]...

This interview was published in OnLine Catholics under the pen name Tom Scott.

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Published: 5Aug2004