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Cecil Austin (Cec) Gibb (1913–1994)

by Michael Cook

Cecil Gibb, foundation Professor of Psychology at the ANU and a major force in the administration of the University during the 1960s and early '70s, died in Canberra on 1 May at the age of 80. He was Head of the Psychology Department for 21 years and the first Deputy Chairman of the School of General Studies (equivalent to the present Chair of The Faculties) for two successive terms between 1966 and 1971. He retired officially in 1978, but continued research for several years as Visiting Fellow in the Office for Research in Academic Methods (now CEDAM), producing an important report on entry scores and selection in universities for the Tertiary Education Commission. He was awarded an OBE for services to education in 1970 and he was elected to Fellowships of the Academy of Social Sciences and of the psychological associations of Britain and the United States.

Cec was educated at Fort Street Boys High and Sydney University, where he graduated in both Arts and Economics, earning two University Medals. After a brief period as Lecturer in Psychology at Sydney University he joined the Australian Army Psychology Service in 1942, becoming Head of the Psychology Section and eventually Assistant to the Director of Psychological Services. At the end of the war he resumed his Sydney lectureship briefly before leaving with his wife, Margaret, for the University of Illinois, where he completed a PhD with Raymond Cattell. During this early part of his career, Cec was responsible for one of the earliest applications of factor analysis (a statistical technique previously confined largely to the study of intelligence) to the investigation of personality differences, and his doctoral work on leadership was both ground-breaking and extremely influential. These experiences provided the foundation for his lifelong interest in group processes and his commitment to multivariate statistical methods in psychological research. He subsequently moved to Dartmouth College to coordinate its Interdisciplinary Program in Human Relations. He returned to Australia in 1955 to the new Chair of Psychology at the then Canberra University College. Cec's intention was to build a department emphasising social psychology (most Australian departments were then dominated by "experimental" psychology). However, he insisted that psychology was a biological science, encouraged the development of biological interests within his department, and lobbied effectively to locate it in the University's Science Faculty. This was a most unusual arrangement at the time, and one which sat unhappily with many of our Arts departments (and, indeed, some Science ones). The psychology curriculum developed under Cec's leadership placed a strong emphasis upon the need to teach basic scientific psychology at the undergraduate level as a preliminary to applied training at a postgraduate level. Our present psychology courses still reflect this philosophy strongly.

Cec engaged himself in University administration from the time of his appointment. As a member of the College Council, he was intimately involved in the negotiations preceding the amalgamation with the old "ANU" in 1960. He was elected to the newly created position of Deputy Chairman of the School of General Studies in 1966 on the death of the College Principal, Joe Burton, making him de facto head of the undergraduate teaching section of the university during its critical formation period. Cec was an effective senior administrator, able to push through his ideas in the face of opposition, and many present features of The Faculties reflect the decisions taken during his chairmanship. His period of office spanned the student revolution of the early 1970s and he was substantially involved in the negotiations which followed the occupation of the Chancelry. Cec was very active in the wider community. He was a member of the Australian UNESCO Advisory Committee during 1960-64 and was a delegate to UNESCO in 1962. He chaired the Gibb Committee, which reported to the Gorton government on the conditions of aborigines on pastoral properties in the Northern Territory. The recommendations of the 1971 Gibb Report constituted an early landmark in the recognition of aboriginal land rights. He was President of Rotary during 1973- 74 and active in the Australian-American Association and the American Field Service Scholarship Scheme in addition to associations with a number of Canberra institutions.

Cec was a shy and modest man, seemingly conservative, but often adopting unexpectedly radical positions. He had considerable moral strength and was quite prepared to take unpopular stands on matters of principle. He took a keen interest in teaching and made great efforts to encourage promising undergraduate students. He enjoyed face-to-face classes, where he delighted in taking provocative stances on controversial issues. He was a devoted husband and he and Margaret were happily married for more than 54 years. They were both always concerned about the welfare of the Psychology staff and postgraduates. They were hospitable, generous in their attention to the needs of new Department members and their families, and supportive in times of difficulty. Cec will be remembered with great affection.

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Michael Cook, 'Gibb, Cecil Austin (Cec) (1913–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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