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Frederick John Willett (1922–1993)

by Patricia Noad

This article was published:

Frederick John Willett (1922–1993), university vice-chancellor, was born on 26 February 1922 at Fulham, London, son of Edward Willett, accountant, and his wife Moya Loveday, formerly Guthrie, née Madge Cecilia Champion. This was the third marriage of his unconventional actress mother, who left his father during the 1920s but remarried him in 1945. During World War II John served as an observer officer in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. He participated in the operation in which Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers disabled the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, and was mentioned in despatches in 1942. Promoted to temporary lieutenant on 28 September 1943, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 for his part in Operation Meridian (bombing oil refineries in Sumatra).

After being demobilised Willett studied social anthropology at the University of Cambridge (BA, 1948; MA, 1957). He embarked on a PhD investigating ‘Social Factors Affecting Productivity in a Scottish Coal Mine’; he met his future wife Jane (Jean) Cunningham Westwater, the nurse at the mine pit, during this research. They married on 3 September 1949 in the Church of Scotland at Pittenweem, Fife, Scotland. In the event, the thesis was never submitted.

Following six years as production manager with Turner’s Asbestos Cement Co., Manchester, in 1957 Willett joined the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge as assistant director of research in industrial management. There he researched and established Britain’s first postgraduate management education course. Backed by the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, the project was bitterly opposed by the traditionalists of Cambridge, who believed that ‘a “business” course was definitely infra dig for Oxbridge’ (Quirke 1996, 8). It commenced in 1959.

In 1962 Willett accepted the foundation Sidney Myer chair of commerce and business administration at the University of Melbourne, with a mandate to develop the university’s graduate school of business administration. As well as graduating himself with an MBA (1963), he became heavily involved in university management: he served as head of the department of commerce and business administration, principal of the summer school of business administration, vice-chairman and chairman of the professorial board, and assistant vice-chancellor. He also played a key role in reorganising the finances of the university. On his resignation in 1972 the professorial board described his contribution as ‘invaluable, and well nigh incredible,’ while the university council recorded ‘a permanent debt of gratitude’ to him. On his departure he was awarded the title of professor emeritus and an honorary doctorate of laws.

Sir Theodor Bray, the founding chancellor of Griffith University, Brisbane, wrote that Willett accepted appointment as the university’s inaugural vice-chancellor in 1971 ‘with a joyful shout’: ‘he took up the challenge with enthusiasm and infectious optimism’ (Bray 1994, 11). The parameters of the new university had already been set by the interim council; these included the remits of the first four schools, and the principles of interdisciplinarity and ‘no God professors.’ The new vice-chancellor was handed a monumental task: to establish a truly alternative university based on radical principles, in a State noted for its deep conservatism. His job of selling this vision to Queenslanders was made harder by the university’s location in bushland in an outer suburb with minimal public transport.

Arriving early in 1972, Willett initiated a building program, appointed the first senior staff, and developed a decentralised organisational structure which devolved a high level of autonomy and, controversially, eschewed a professorial board and engaged general staff and students in decision making. As early as 1973 he was planning additional schools, among them the school of social and industrial administration and, to no immediate avail, a medical school. He also found time to become involved in the city’s cultural life, including as chair of Brisbane’s Twelfth Night Theatre.

Willett embraced the planners’ innovative ideas and concepts and added his own, fleshing them out to give them ‘academic substance and integrity’ (Bray 1994, 11). At the opening ceremony he announced that Griffith must not be a ‘slavish handmaid of the status quo’ (Quirke 1996, 17). He rapidly established relationships with all levels of government, the University of Queensland, and community and union leaders, as well as initiating links with Asia, and funding and promoting exchanges with Asian universities. Under his leadership the university had a strong commitment to gender equality; besides recruiting women to senior posts, he ensured that the terms of the university banking franchise guaranteed them housing loans, at a time when women had little access to housing finance in their own right.

A commanding presence, Willett was a tall man with a ready laugh, a deep voice, and eyebrows that could be marshalled into a fierce frown when the occasion demanded. His complex persona was captured in a portrait by Lawrence Daws, which hangs in the Willett Centre on the Nathan campus. Staff close to him saw a painfully shy man who could be tongue-tied at social events. Yet he was a familiar and popular figure on the egalitarian campus, often lunching with students and staff, and a great party-giver, inviting staff from all levels and areas to his many parties, which frequently marked milestones. He and his wife worked as a team. Jean Willett was energetic, charming, and practical. During the early years she entertained almost nightly (catering for up to forty people at their home), contributing to the strong sense of belonging which was a hallmark of the university’s first decade.

Despite his prodigious workload, Willett regularly wrote short personal notes of appreciation for tough jobs well done. A strong, proactive leader, for a decade he swept the university along with his vision and drive. Many awards came his way: he received an honorary doctorate in economics from the University of Queensland (1983), was appointed AO for service to education and learning in 1984, and became professor emeritus on his retirement in 1984. In 1993 he was awarded the degree of doctor of the university (Griffith), the citation recognising that he had ‘shown a true scholar’s comprehension of the essence of a university’ (Griffith Gazette 1994, 3).

Willett left the university with a well-developed campus and academic offerings, around 3,500 students, a cohesive staff, a climate of lively debate, and a record of research achievement. He was a powerful figure with a dominant intellect, tempered by a sense of fun. In all aspects of the university’s life, it was said, ‘not a sparrow fell but he shot it’ (Quirke 1996, 45). He subsequently undertook a range of national and international consultancies, including three years as academic director of the graduate school of Bangkok University (1986–89). Survived by his wife, two daughters, and a son, he died on 3 September 1993 in Hobart. The John Willett Scholarship Fund was established in 1994 to support postgraduate students from developing countries to study at Griffith.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bray, Sir Theodor. ‘Founding Father of Griffith.’ Australian, 6 January 1994, 11
  • Griffith Gazette. ‘Scholarship Honours Founding Vice-Chancellor.’ 9, no. 9 (26 October 1994): 3
  • Poynter, John, and Carolyn Rasmussen. A Place Apart: The University of Melbourne: Decades of Challenge. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1996
  • Quirke, Noel. Preparing for the Future: A History of Griffith University 1971–1996. Nathan, Qld: Boolarong Press with Griffith University, 1996
  • University of Melbourne Council. Minute of Appreciation, 26 May 1972. Private collection
  • University of Melbourne Professorial Board. Minute of Appreciation, 18 April 1972. Private collection
  • Willett, Frederick John. Papers. Private collection

Citation details

Patricia Noad, 'Willett, Frederick John (1922–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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