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Robertson-Cuninghame, Robert Clarence (Rob) (1924–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Robert Robertson-Cuninghame, whose combined term as deputy chancellor and chancellor of the University of New England covered 22 years, incorporated the soul of the university — through his historical family associations and his commitment to the ideals of university education.

He was chancellor during the upheavals of amalgamation of 1988-89, when the small but self-contained centre of excellence was merged with what was then the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education (CAE), Lismore, and the Armidale CAE. The former senior prefect of The Armidale School lived up to the trust placed in him.

Robert Clarence Robertson-Cuninghame was born on May 31, 1924, the son of a grazier, Graham Robertson-Cuninghame, and Hilda Florence (Nancy), nee White.

His ancestors had selected land in New England in 1838 and had called their property Wellington Vale. Nancy was a granddaughter of Frederick White, who built Booloominbah, a rural homestead outside Armidale. In 1936 a family member bought and gave the property to the University of Sydney on the condition the university establish a college at Armidale, to be called the New England University College. The college was established in 1938, with Booloominbah remaining as the foundation building. In 1954 the college gained autonomy, to become the University of New England.

Robertson-Cuninghame grew up on a property, Stachan, which was part of the original selection. He started at The Armidale School in 1935 and was in the rugby First XV in 1939, '40 and '41. He was senior prefect and dux of the school, getting first-class honours in three subjects and finishing in the top 10 in the state in mathematics and chemistry. He won a scholarship to the University of Sydney.

After a year's study he applied to suspend his studies so he could do war service. The vice-chancellor declined, on the grounds that agricultural science was a reserved occupation. Robertson-Cuninghame said if he were not given permission, he would fail his first year exams. The vice-chancellor relented and Robertson-Cuninghame served in the Armoured Corps in Western Australia, then transferred to the RAAF in an unsuccessful attempt to engage in action. In 1946 he returned to the university to complete his agricultural science degree.

In 1949 Robertson-Cuninghame won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he was a member of Trinity College and developed a passion for experimental work and earned a reputation for persistence and hard work. He also met Patricia Cotton, who came from Hornsby and had gone travelling with friends. A mutual friend had said she should ''look up Rob''. He returned to Australia in 1952 and married Patricia in 1956.

Robertson-Cuninghame was invited to join the department of agricultural science at the University of Sydney and he had to choose between becoming an academic and returning to the land. He chose the latter, settling on Gartmore, which was part of the family's original property.

The academic in him did not take long to resurface. He experimented with sustainable agriculture and invited agriculture students from the University of New England to his property for field days. Then he was invited to join the university council, where he served as deputy chancellor from 1971, holding the position for 10 years, and in 1981 he became the university's fourth chancellor. In 1988 he became an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to learning.

As chancellor, Robertson-Cuninghame had to deal with the forced amalgamation. He spoke extensively on the ideals of a university education. ''The purpose of a university is to impart the ability to think rather than imparting knowledge,'' he said. The value of a university was to ''open someone's mind'', so that they would not accept information without wanting to evaluate it, and approach a problem with ''reason rather than template thinking''.

There were no pretensions about Robertson-Cuninghame, whose term as chancellor finished in 1993. Richard Torbay, who went on to become Speaker in the NSW Legislative Assembly, met Robertson-Cuninghame when he was the catering supervisor at the UNE Union. ''He came to the kitchen one day and chatted to every member of the staff,'' Torbay said. ''He came to me and we sat down and had a talk. He wanted to know what I thought about how the university was going.''

Retiring in 1994, Robertson-Cuningham and his wife bought a small holding, Auchenharvie, on the outskirts of Armidale. In 2001 Robertson-Cuninghame was awarded the Centenary Medal by the federal government for services to education. The university awarded him an honorary doctor of the university and created a Robertson-Cuninghame Honours Scholarship for honours students.

Robert Robertson-Cuninghame is survived by his wife Patricia, daughters Anna, Liz and Sue, two sons-in-law and four grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September 2010

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Robertson-Cuninghame, Robert Clarence (Rob) (1924–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/robertson-cuninghame-robert-clarence-rob-14029/text24973, accessed 26 August 2019.

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