Dr Peter Tannock is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame. He is a former chairman of the National Catholic Education Commission and earlier than that could arguably be described as one of the chief architects of the model of modern Catholic Education that was set up by the Bishops of this nation beginning in about 1971. In some respects he could also be described as being influential in framing aspects of national education policy in this country. Despite the enormous influence he has had in the Church and in educational policy he is also a very private man not given to blowing his own trumpet. Brian Coyne set out to gain some insight into what makes Peter Tannock "tick" as an educational entrepreneur and as a lay Catholic facing the struggles we all face.
Brian Coyne : Peter, when did you first become involved in Catholic Education?
Peter Tannock: I've been involved in Catholic Education virtually all my life. I was educated by the Christian Brothers and went on to become a student at St Thomas More College (the Catholic residential college run until recently by the Jesuits situated at the University of Western Australia). But I became actively involved in what could be called Catholic Education policy in the 1960s. That was partly because I had done a lot of academic work looking at Government policy - the role of governments at the State and Federal level in education. I also looked at it cross-nationally. I got to understand the philosophical underpinnings of policy as well as the practicalities of what's possible and how it happens.
That was at a time when the Church was in desperate trouble with its school system. The school system was teetering on the brink. The religious orders, in terms of both numbers and leaders, were in sharp decline. There was virtually no economic and no training base to replace them. So it was a really interesting point, a "tipping point", for the Church and its involvement in education in Australia. The broad questions that were being asked by some of the bishops were: "do we go on, or do we wind up?"
BC: That wasn't public knowledge at the time was it?
PT: There was some public knowledge about it. For example in Victoria in the 1960s there was a Director of Catholic Education, Fr Crudden, who led an investigation into the situation in Victoria and the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I'm a bit hazy on the detail now but they recommended that the Church get out of secondary education. They felt the Church couldn't afford the involvement in both primary and secondary education and they recommended that the Church re-direct resources into primary education. They even considered the concept of closing down the whole show and shifting what resources were available into adult education, parish education programs and the State school apostolate. All that was on the table when I became involved in the 1960s.
I was asked by the Church in Western Australia to have a look at the future of the school system here. The trigger for that was the Commonwealth Government. The States had been hammering the Commonwealth to provide more money for education. Finally Malcolm Fraser, the Commonwealth Minister for Education, agreed to receive this survey of needs among the government school systems in Australia.
To his great credit, Fraser said he wasn't just prepared to look at the needs of government schools alone. He wanted a parallel survey of needs in the non-government sector. Father James Nestor was Director of Catholic Education here at the time. He contacted me and said "what about you doing that for us" and I did.
BC: How old were you then?
PT: I would have been 28 or 29…
BC: So this has been a life-time's work then?
PT: Yes. But what I've been saying is that I was involved in looking at the policy side of things even before my first formal involvement with Catholic Education. I had done my Masters at the University of Western Australia and my Doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in the States in those big policy areas. I think the academic training was important. It gave an intellectual underpinning to my work. So, to cut a long story short, I became involved in the 1960s then I took an academic position at the University of Western Australia as a Lecturer and then a Professor and that was an important academic base for what I was doing. I was also still involved with James Nestor who should get an enormous amount of credit for what happened at that time. He's a very special person. He and I were very much a team. Our work led to the establishment of the Catholic Education Commission of Western Australia in 1971, which was the first in Australia.
BC: Was what happened here some sort of model for what happened elsewhere in Australia?
PT: Yes. It was. Underpinning it was the policy decision that was made here, in contrast to the thinking that was going on in some quarters in Victoria at the time. The decision that was made here was that "we're going to really fight for this - we're going to fight to retain the school system. It's going to have to become a lay school system - it will have to be lay led, lay staffed and lay managed. The religious involvement would be quite different. We'd continue to rely on it for as long as we could. In essence, the direction that was set was that "unless we get organised and pull our resources together, and speak with one voice, deal with governments in a united fashion on both sides of the political spectrum - unless we do that we'll go under." That was the start of it.
BC: Looking back on those 35 years since the new Catholic Education system was formed in 1971, how do you see the outcome now? Some of the conservative elements in the community for example feel that it has been a disaster because people are not continuing to practice in adulthood. What's your position?
PT: It's still evolving of course. I think that the Catholic Education system in Australia today is magnificent. I think it is the heart of the Church. Everyday in Australia there are 650,000 young people who go to a Catholic school and everyday they are presented with the witness to the faith. It's fantastic. It's the engine for the Church. And yes, we all know, that large numbers of their parents don't go to Mass every Sunday, we know that large numbers of their parents have all sorts of personal difficulties and problems in their lives - who hasn't? But there are wonderful schools with their forty or fifty thousand teachers who are giving witness to the Church and to Jesus. I'm not saying I wouldn't like to have 650,000 daily communicants, I would. I'd love to have fifty thousand teachers as committed, lifetime, traditional, practising Catholics. I'd like to see that but it's not going to happen. It's not the real world.
What I'm saying is that if you have a look at the world - this increasingly secular society - Catholic Education is a phenomenon. It is amazing. There are all sorts of oddities -for example gradients of the demand for places in Catholic schools and Mass attendance figures are going in opposite directions at the moment. Where would the Church be, though, as an entity - where would its mission be - without Catholic Education?
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…
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.
BC: Peter, when one surveys the American Catholic University scene it seems to be very politicised - you have very conservative institutions like Steubenville through the very middle-of-the-road, mainstream universities, like Notre Dame, across to others that are perceived to be liberal. When you set out to set up Notre Dame in Australia did you have a vision of what you were trying to set up? You seem to have established an institution that is characterised as neither overtly conservative nor noticeably liberal but has a very "balanced" face that it presents to the world. Has this been a deliberate strategy or something that has just evolved?
PT: We were very influenced by Notre Dame in the United States and their philosophy that you can't be a great Catholic University unless you are a great University! We wanted to be "mainstream"; faithful to the Church; servant to the Church; also servant to the wider community; welcoming people of all faiths, and, at the same time, presenting our faith to them.
Something that we did, from the beginning, which is very important for the future of this university and its mission and goals was to make it a requirement for undergraduates to take core units in theology, philosophy and ethics. It's not confronting, but it is demanding. And everybody comes together in that melting pot of this core curriculum. I think that is a very distinctive feature of this university and it symbolises what we are about.
We have had a clear mission and set of goals, and a broad plan. However, we have evolved, adapted and developed to meet need and take advantage of circumstance and opportunity. We couldn't have survived without that approach. We wanted to be a mainstream Catholic University but we also wanted to be adaptive to the market and what people want.
BC: It was pragmatic in a sense…
PT: … it was very pragmatic BUT with a philosophy, and a set of goals and a mission statement - a very good mission statement: "the advancement of learning, knowledge and the professions and the provision of university education within the context of Catholic faith and values."
We've tried to create the Catholic faith and values context and we've pursued the advancement of the professions. One of the things we are becoming known for is the excellence of our professional training. We focused on professional training because we see it as so much part of our mission in this society. If people are to take a particular set of values, attitudes and perspectives into society at large, whatever their faith background, they need to be influenced by what they get here. Excellence of professional training is what the market wants today. This is a private, fee-paying university. Only about 25% of the places at this university are partially government funded. People who come here want a return on their investment. And the best return most of them can see is a job at the end of it. Anybody who ignores that or who says "jobs don't matter - we're going to offer you a very substantial theological and academic education, and don't worry about the job market" is bound to fail. People want to know that if they send their children here, or they come here themselves, they will be very well prepared for the job market.
BC: One of the surprises to a lot of people in what you have done has been the Broome campus initiative. People have wondered how could a fledgling university like this afford a campus in that remote area of Australia. Was it bravery, or a folly, or…
PT: No! That's been one of the best things we've done. The Broome Campus was a product originally of discussions between Bishop John Jobst, Sr Pat Rhatigan SJG and myself. Pat Rhatigan was the foundation director of the Campus and John Jobst was the founding Bishop. I'd had a long association with the Kimberley region through Catholic Education. It's a magnificent region and there are great people up there. Education is the key to their future. When we were establishing Notre Dame, Bishop Jobst said, "I strongly support the establishment of this university AND WE NEED A PRESENCE HERE! There's got to be something for these people to head for in this world of the 21st Century. Getting through school these days is just not enough."
Bishop Jobst made the offer that if we established a presence in Broome he'd give us the old Nulungu Girls Boarding College. He said, "I can't give you any money but I can give you the campus".
Broome has been a defining initiative for Notre Dame. I think doing something for a remote region, and for people who have great needs, is a very positive cultural and mission experience for the University. It's also been an important symbol for the community at large, including governments, that we're not just on about a private effort here in the West-end of Fremantle. We - the university and the Church - are genuinely committed to service to the wider community and to those most in need. I think it has been very influential, not only on us internally but how people see the University at large. Has it been foolhardy financially? Well it has certainly cost us a lot of money, but we've also received a lot of support - particularly from the Commonwealth and State governments, and from private sources. We've had generous benefactors for the work at our Broome campus.
BC: In my last interview with you, you mentioned the importance in the American higher education system of building up endowments. How's your progress going in establishing an endowment fund to further the future work of Notre Dame?
PT: In some respects very well and people have been very generous to us, and in some respects we are still a long way from where we need to be. But we've had successes and they're quite significant. I'll give you a few examples…
Take the Prindiville Family — Bernie and Mary Prindiville and their children — they have endowed Notre Dame with two separate one million dollar cash gifts for chairs in theology and education. Very few universities could find individuals who would give you a million dollars let alone to do it twice to endow two chairs.
Wesfarmers has given us a million dollars to endow a chair in the School of Medicine.
Bevis Smith, another of our benefactors, has also given us a million dollars to fund a chair in the School of Medicine.
The Galvin Family recently gave us a million dollars to fund the establishment of the Roy and Amy Galvin Medical Library.
And of course the Church itself — the Archbishop, the Catholic Education Commission and the Sisters of St John of God — they were extraordinarily generous to us in a time of great need and, certainly in the case of the Archdiocese, when it could least afford it.
We have had great support from the community at large, which we are deeply grateful for. It wouldn't have been possible without our many benefactors in and beyond the Church. I've mentioned just a few but there have been lots of other people that I should have mentioned - individuals, religious orders, parishes. The Parish of City Beach for example, gave us two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to build our chapel on the campus. That was an extraordinary gift - and from a parish. Just imagine how difficult it must have been for a parish to raise that sort of money. Fr Phelan, the parish priest, came down to see me one day and said "this is what we'd like to do … you HAVE to have a chapel". So, there's a lot of reason for us to be very grateful to many people.
BC: Thank you for these insights, Peter. Next week I'd like to continue the conversation with you to explore your personal views on some of the challenges the Church is facing in the world today and the challenges we are all facing individually as lay men and women.
This interview was published in OnLine Catholics in August 2004.
All photographs by Brian Coyne
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