Gavin Brown

The Australian obituary

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Canny Scot Gavin Brown invigorated Sydney University

AMERICAN educationalist Clark Kerr pointed out a few decades ago that the growth of knowledge-based national economies was forcing governments and industry to become heavily involved in universities, leading to a loss of a sense of purpose and community on campuses. The search for truth and knowledge was in danger of being displaced by training grounds for vocational preparation. Kerr saw that the task was to explore the means of bringing the various essential kinds of specialist knowledge and training into effective relation with informed general intelligence, humane culture, social conscience and political will.

There was a need for vice-chancellors with exceptional talents who could mesh discordant elements on campus into a productive entity capable of reaching these goals. Gavin Brown was such a VC.

Brown was made professor of pure mathematics at the University of NSW in 1976, and subsequently dean of the faculty of science, before becoming deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Adelaide in 1992 and then vice-chancellor in 1994.

In 1996 he was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, at a time when it was in decline. He guided the university over 12 years from a very low ranking on international scales to a significant position once more, and from a low to a top ranking among Australia's Group of Eight leading universities.

He oversaw a sixfold increase in research income, a far greater increase than that of any other sandstone university, and was responsible for the largest capital works program at any university. The Eastern Avenue Mall was built, stretching from a new information technology building at one end to the magnificent new architecture-award-winning law school building at the other.

The Brain and Mind Research Institute was established. Plans for a new obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease research building were put in operation and a 650-bed village for students was erected.

Brown had very significant impact at national and international levels on tertiary education and research. Andrew Norton, adviser to education minister David Kemp during the Howard years, commented that Brown, like Alan Gilbert at Melbourne, stood out among the vice-chancellors.

This reputation was gained through many contributions: as a member of the Australian Research Council (1992-93) and chairman of its advisory committees (1988-93), vice-president of the Australian Academy of Science (1993-94); foundation chairman of Go8 (2000), president of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (2006-08), Australian representative at the UN Global Colloquium of University Presidents in Princeton (2006) and inaugural director of the Royal Institution of Australia (2008-10).

For these and other contributions, he received honorary doctorates from universities as far afield as Japan and Scotland, as well as from Australian universities. In 2006 he was made a corresponding fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an Officer in the Order of Australia.

Brown had gravitas, but it was leavened with a wonderful Scottish sense of humour. He had a first-rate analytical mind. This is evident in his appointment to the chair of pure mathematics at 34, the Australian Mathematical Society Medal he was awarded at 40 and his election to the Australian Academy of Science at 39. The last of his more than 135 papers, principally in the areas of algebraic geometry, measure theory and harmonic analysis, was published last year on the subject Symmetric Cantor Measure, Coin-Tossing and Sum Sets.

It was an inspiration to scholars in the universities he led to know that he was engaged in research, with his own ARC grants and PhD students -- and also to know, as one dean of science recently remarked, that he was probably the cleverest person on campus.

Brown had an uncanny ability to back unconventional people and projects that became successful, as Andrew Potter, spokesman for present Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence, commented last week.

I count myself fortunate to have been one of these unconventional people as founder of the Brain and Mind Research Institute. Brown supported this initiative because of his concern for the 10 per cent of the Australian community at any one time that suffers from severe mental health problems.

In my experience, his uncanny ability was not just luck. If I went to him to obtain permission, advice or support for further development of the institute, he would push his glasses up on to his forehead, lean back in his chair, close his eyes and appear to go to sleep as I launched into my proposal. Part way into my presentation he would suddenly open his eyes, sit up, succinctly summarise my points, and say: "Yes, you can do that" or "No, you cannot", or "You had better go away and think that through more carefully". His strategic thinking was guided by a powerful analytical intelligence.

Brown was a great university man who could not have achieved what he did without the loving support of his first wife, Barbara, whose tragic death in 2001 nearly felled him, and from his second wife Diane. He is survived by Diane, his children Janet and Colin, and stepchildren Benjamin and Oliver.

A memorial fund for cardiac research at the Flinders University school of medicine has been set up in honour of Gavin Brown.

Gavin Brown. Academic. Born Lundin Links, Scotland, February 26, 1942. Died Adelaide, December 25, 2010.

Max Bennett
Max Bennett is professor of neuroscience, university chair and founding director of the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Sydney.

12 January 2011 © The Australian