Monday, November 24, 2008

UNE passings - death of Erle Robinson

My thanks to Gordon Smith for drawing my attention to the passing of Erle Robinson. Erle's death on Tuesday 18 November 2008 at the age of 84 marked the severing of another link with UNE's past.

I did not know Erle well, although he has been a familiar figure for much of my life. For that reason, the story that follows is largely drawn from the report in UNE News and Events with some additional comments.

Erle Robinson was born and educated in New Zealand, where he gained a law degree and practised law before developing – through a Master of Arts degree – his vocational interest in philosophy.

In 1954, the year the University of New England gained autonomy, he arrived in Armidale as a lecturer in Philosophy. From then until his retirement in 1989, he devoted his academic career to the education and welfare of his students and the health of the institution.

The UNE report notes that he is remembered by his former colleagues at the University of New England for his untiring pursuit of justice.

“He was the sort of ‘thorn in the side’ of Administration that every administration should be grateful to have,” said UNE’s current Professor of Philosophy, Peter Forrest.

I grinned at this. Erle could be a very serious person, although he also had a very broad smile and a characteristic shift of his glasses. Once he decided that matters of principle were involved, he could be remarkably stubborn. He also liked dissecting things. This sometimes made him a very difficult person at meetings!

Those who remember Erle will find the photo heading the story very familiar. It appears to be a student demonstration, with Erle standing there in characteristic clothes and stance.

Professor Forrest said he had encountered former students whose most vivid memory of their university days was “Erle teaching them ethics”. And Mr Robinson’s colleagues – even those who were his antagonists in one or other of his campaigns for institutional justice – all remember him with fondness and respect.

I was one of the students who studied ethics as part of my Philosophy I course. This whole course was one of the most profoundly influential courses that I did. It taught me to dissect and clarify issues. The ethics course itself with its focus on different ethical schools made me cautious about absolute external ethical values of any type - the derivation of values was central.

As a leading figure in UNE’s development of philosophy programs for external students, Erle upheld the principle that external students should be taught and examined according to the same standards as internal students. It was his “pragmatic advice” (as one former colleague put it) that “helped to shape the University’s external Bachelor of Arts degree”.

This principle of equality of standards was deeply held within the University and important in gaining broader acceptance that external degrees were as good as internal. At the time there was considerable opposition to external studies in Australia's older universities including Sydney, centred on the argument that a university education required continuing on-campus contact. The UNE approach combined external teaching with direct staff-student contact through things such as residential schools.

In 1957 Erle was elected to represent undergraduate students on the UNE Council, and he continued to serve in that role until 1960, when he took a year’s study leave. From 1976 to 1980, and then again from 1982 to 1984, he served as a member of Council elected by the academic staff. He served as President of the UNE Teachers’ Association, and was active in the Student Christian Movement, another organisation that I was a member of as a student.

Erle retained is interests (and causes!) following his retirement. He continued his interests in ethics and ethical issues, participated in forums and was a member of the Council of Civil Liberties.

In 2003 he delivered a paper at the 50th annual Australasian Association of Philosophy conference (photo), just as he had delivered a paper at the first one in 1953!

The UNE story suggests that his life-long pursuit of justice was remarkable for its integrity: his determined opposition to what he believed to be wrong was balanced by a lack of personal rancour. “He never bore malice,” one of his colleagues recalled.

I think that that's right from my own experience.

Erle Robinson’s unique contribution to UNE over 35 years was a product of that integrity.

He is survived by his wife Marcia (whom he married in 1960), their daughter Christine, and their grandchildren Timothy and Genevieve. Their son Stephen was killed in an ice avalanche on Mount Cook, New Zealand, in 1997, something that I had not known.

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