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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Ellen Maev O'Collins (1929–2021)

by Colin Filer and Michelle Nayahamui Rooney

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Maev O’Collins was born in Brighton, Victoria, on 16 June 1929 and died at her home in Canberra on 2 July 2021. In a memoir edited and published by her nephew, Les Coleman, in 2013, Maev recounts a chance encounter with Michael Somare at a New York restaurant in 1972. At that moment, Somare was the Chief Minister of what was still the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, an ‘external territory’ of Australia. Maev herself was about to conclude her doctoral studies at Columbia University, having previously spent several years as a social worker at the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau in Melbourne. Somare asked Maev to establish a social work program at the newly established University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). Most of her professional and personal life beyond that moment was devoted to understanding how an Australian Catholic social worker like herself could make a meaningful contribution to the decolonisation of what had previously been an Australian colony. And that appears to explain the title of her memoir—Last of the Lands We Know.

Maev got to know PNG and its people very well during the 17 years that she worked at UPNG. During the first few years of her tenure, the university was a hotbed of political radicalism, as the expatriate staff and national students were both enthused by the prospect of dispensing with the Australian colonial legacy. Unlike some of her colleagues in the Faculty of Arts, Maev would never have thought of herself as a revolutionary activist, but she did believe that the theory and practice of ‘social work’ could be a vehicle for nation-building and social reform. The academic program that she designed placed very little emphasis on the role of social workers as counsellors to individuals and families in distress. It was all about social policies, social planning and community development.

The courses for which she took personal responsibility, and which gave her the greatest personal satisfaction, were the practical courses in which students were despatched to particular local communities—often their own communities—in order to figure out ways to deal with the social or economic problems that they were facing. Since UPNG had a generous budget for staff and student travel during the 1970s and 1980s, Maev was able to spend a few days in each of these communities in order to assess their problems for herself and help her students to do the same. And that is how she set a record for the number of Papua New Guinean communities in which an individual social scientist has managed to conduct some sort of fieldwork, even if only for a few days at a time.

While Maev was designing her social work program, she managed to convince the university’s governing body that students majoring in this discipline should be awarded a special degree—the Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BASW). This was a source of some irritation to colleagues in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology who were teaching courses in sociology, anthropology or archaeology. The students majoring in their disciplines, like most of the other students graduating from the arts faculty, were simply awarded a common or garden BA. And their irritation was compounded by the greater popularity of the social work program amongst the student body.

The popularity of the social work program with its component courses was not simply due to the pedagogical talents of Maev and her fellow social workers. It was also a political matter. Maev knew perfectly well why her students were not so keen to take courses in ‘Melanesian societies’, which lay at the heart of the major in anthropology and sociology. Why would they want to know what foreign anthropologists had written about the diversity of Melanesian customs and cultures when they could be planning the future of their nation and finding out ways to make it a better country? Most of them wanted to look forward, not backwards.

When Maev was appointed Professor and head of the department in 1979, she set about healing such disciplinary divisions by throwing regular parties at her modest apartment on campus. These parties became a legend in their own right, as the national staff who were slowly but steadily replacing the expatriates were set the task of figuring out where Maev had hidden the last carton of beer that was not immediately on offer. Eventually, despite the fun and games, it was the up-and-coming national staff who persuaded Maev that it was time to move on, since she was fast approaching the age of 60, at which expatriates were expected to go home. So, she spent her last two years at UPNG as head of the Staff Development Unit, hastening the process of localisation that she had actively supported for more than a decade.

But if there had been a battle between the social workers and the anthropologists-cum- sociologists, then Maev had already won it. By the time she left the university in 1989, the core courses in the anthropology and sociology program were no longer courses dealing with the diversity of traditional Melanesian cultures; they were courses in social mapping and social impact assessment. The latter subject, in particular, was one in which Maev took a great interest, since she had come to think that social work, in this national context, was just a form of applied anthropology. But she was gracious enough to let the anthropologists-cum-sociologists take ownership of a course that might just as well have been a key component of the social work program that she had designed.

By the time that Maev retired from UPNG as an Emeritus Professor in 1989, she had already forged a relationship with The Australian National University (ANU). In 1983, while on study leave from UPNG, she had been appointed to a Visiting Fellowship in the Department of Political and Social Change in what was then the Research School of Pacific Studies. In that capacity, she produced three books in the department’s monograph series. The first, published in 1984, was a study of youth in Papua New Guinea. The second, published in 1986, was an edited collection of papers on youth and society. The third, published in 1993, after she had become a full-time resident of Canberra, was a collection of papers that she had written while still at UPNG, entitled Social Development in Papua New Guinea.

Most of the papers in this last volume had not previously been published because Maev never cared for the academic rat race. If she ever encountered the concept of an impact factor, she would instantly have dismissed it. She wanted to have an impact on the lives of ordinary Papua New Guineans, not an impact on her own academic reputation. Maev states in her own memoir that she spent so much time trying to understand what was going on in the many communities that she visited, as well as what was going on in the hearts and minds of her students, that she barely had any time left to devote to the production of academic publications.

Maev was one of the founding members of the University’s Emeritus Faculty in 2000. But before that, in 1996, she had been appointed as an Adjunct Professor at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), with a mandate to use her experience at UPNG to inform the development of a new social work program. During the period of her association with the ACU, she established a social work scholarship fund, and her lifelong contribution to the discipline was finally recognised through the award of an honorary doctorate in 2019.

Maev’s last book, An Uneasy Relationship, was published in 2002. Since this book dealt with the history of Australia’s relationship with Norfolk Island, one might suppose that Maev had finally lost interest in PNG. But nothing could be further from the truth. There is a multitude of Papua New Guineans who loved and respected Maev as their former teacher at UPNG, many of whom have since walked the corridors of power and influence, and some of whom sadly died before she did. But even after she moved to Canberra, Maev kept up a remarkably wide variety of close relationships with PNG and its citizens—as expert adviser, academic supervisor, counsellor, friend and host. It was the relationship between Australia and PNG that was by far the most ‘uneasy’ relationship in her life, but that was just because, as a devout Catholic and devoted social worker, Maev felt that it was her duty to dissolve the colonial legacy in new bonds of love and friendship.

Other Obituaries for Ellen Maev O'Collins

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Citation details

Colin Filer and Michelle Nayahamui Rooney, 'O'Collins, Ellen Maev (1929–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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