On Sandra Harding’s first day as vice-chancellor of James Cook University in far north Queensland she saw what looked like a tombstone of Eddie Mabo. The famous Torres Strait Islander was behind the Australian High Court decision in 1992 that overturned 200 years of “terra nullius” — the notion that Australia was uninhabited when it was first discovered and settled by white colonisers.
Asking about the memorial, Harding found out the entire years-long legal campaign that had such enormous ramifications for Australian land ownership began over a lunch in the early 1970s between a couple of university academics and Mabo, then a gardener on campus.
Mabo had said something that implied he and his people had ownership rights over Murray Island in the Torres Strait. One of the academics told him that according to Australian law, he and his people had no such rights.
Mabo, who said he could trace his people’s ownership of the island through 16 generations, began to use the university library to look at the relevant law and the anthropological resources he could bring to bear. In 1981, one of Australia’s first land rights conferences was held on campus, and it was decided that the Mabo case would be taken to the High Court to test terra nullius.
Impressed by this story, Harding conferred with the university’s chancellor and council. Eventually it was decided the library on the Townsville campus would be renamed and called the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library.
“Libraries are repositories of Western knowledge and here’s the case when Western knowledge was confronted by traditional knowledge and Western knowledge was found wanting,” Harding says.
“Every time I go through those doors, I feel humbled by that.”
A social scientist, who arrived at the field by way of a science degree, and then a master’s degree in public administration, Harding has studied markets and the way they work.
Now, as vice-chancellor of a university based in steamy northern Queensland, she remains focused on regional economic development, particularly in the tropics.
The institution’s act of parliament specifies that the university concentrate on the tropics, and it’s a natural fit for all manner of disciplines, from science to medicine to law.
“When I came to the university it struck me that this could be amplified,” she says, adding that a university-wide consultation firms the value of this strategic direction, so the university is concerned with everything above the Tropic of Capricorn and below the Tropic of Cancer.
“Our university is about delivering a brighter future for life in the tropics worldwide, through graduates and discoveries that make a difference,” Harding says.
“We have four strategic themes: people and societies in the tropics, industries and economies in the tropics, tropical ecosystems and environments, tropical health medicine and biosecurity. Everything we do must line up with one or more of those themes or else we don’t do it.”
Harding says the university has been lucky to have a mission set in stone from the very beginning.
“This was laid out for us and we’ve given it a fresh contemporary feel and a focus that I think has delivered, and is delivering, very well for our university,” she says.
Nevertheless, JCU last week announced a revamp of sorts to take into account shrinking student numbers and increased competition.
After extensive consultation, it has been determined that 29 positions will be made redundant, and 11 new positions created.
On a personal level, Harding divides her time between Townsville, where she and her husband have a house; Cairns, where they own an apartment; and the Atherton tablelands, where they own a 44.5ha rural property.
“So that’s my little triangle and up in the tablelands it’s really a very beautiful, rich agricultural area, an absolutely a stunning part of the world,” she says.
As well as the two tropical campuses in Cairns and Townsville, James Cook University has a thriving campus in Singapore, with 3700 students.
Most are categorised as international students from an Australian perspective, and for a regional institution the university does have a substantial international student cohort at 12 per cent.
Yet, unusually, the home nation of the largest proportion of international students on the Australian campuses is the US.
“People come here to do what we’re very good at, marine and tropical biology, tropical health in medicine, earth and environmental sciences, archeology and anthropology, and linguistics,” Harding says.
“And that’s what you hope, that international students come to a university because you’re actually world-class in that.”
The adjacent Great Barrier Reef, of course, is a huge draw for students interested in the marine sciences, and the tropical rainforest is a lure for botanists and biologists.
The university runs a cattle station at Charters Towers; maintains a research station on Orpheus Island, not far from a luxury resort; and a facility on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait; as well as an observatory with a canopy crane in the Daintree rainforest.
“Some of the best in the world come there to study rainforest ecology, in particular climate change effects,” Harding says. Supporting this broader infrastructure, in keeping with the university’s mission, costs a lot of money, she says, but unfortunately the government’s financial support doesn’t take that into account — the science student at a metropolitan university who spends much of their time in a lab is funded to the same extent as the student who can take advantage of exotic research facilities.
“It’s a great challenge for us but it’s one that we will not give away because it goes to the heart of our uniqueness and who we are and what we do,” Harding says.
The entire university has conducted curriculum refreshers to look at how particular courses relate to the tropics.
In banking and finance, for example, it was recognised that Islamic banking looms large in many tropical nations.
Law has relevance, too, in the building of government and judicial structures in tropical developing nations more broadly, and particularly in Australia’s Asian neighbours.
The rich indigenous culture of Australia’s tropics — the Top End that stretches across the continent from east to west — also has become a key study area at James Cook University.
A refurbished indigenous education research centre recently has been opened at the Townsville campus, and there’s another such centre on the Cairns campus.
Harding says there has been a great deal of collaboration with the indigenous communities near the university in Cairns and Townsville, and more broadly across the north.
“This university has so much that it stands for and so much that it does, and it’s deeply meaningful for the people who choose to be here,” Harding says, adding: “and so indigenous culture is absolutely an integral part of what we do.”