Bondies’ ‘godfather’ to retire with Honorary Doctorate after 32 years

October 15, 2019

Alan Finch tried to walk away from Bond University once before. Like Homecoming, it pulled him back.

“I had too much of a personal investment in the place,” he says.

“When I used to come back to Gold Coast after my first stint at Bond I would strenuously avoid going anywhere near the campus because seeing it needled me. It was unfinished business.”

There’s no more unfinished business for the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Students and Support Services).

After 32 years broken only by that 3 ½ year stint away, he will retire in November with a freshly bestowed Honorary Doctorate in recognition of his role in the establishment of the university.

Alan has been at Bond from the beginning.

You’ll spot him in a photo of the first staff members; in another when the university finalised the purchase of the campus.

He was behind Bond’s trademark three-semester system and fought to see the Nyombil Indigenous Centre realised.

He’s been called the godfather of the student body, shepherding Bondies through their most difficult times and celebrating their successes long after they’ve graduated.

Alan was born in Ararat in the foothills of the Grampians and attended the University of Melbourne.

He studied to become a high school teacher but his first job was at General Motors before a move to Monash University as an administrative assistant to the Registrar.

Rising through the ranks over the ensuing years, the Registrar’s position at Monash became vacant and he applied.

“Didn't get anywhere with it,” Alan says wryly. “The retiring Registrar said to me, `Surely you didn't think your own university would appoint you?’ His theory being, you had to go around the sector and work in different places. So this (Bond) came up and I applied.”

After lunch with Bond Corporation representative Brian Orr and Secretary to the Advisory Council, John Ford – “I had a very nice piece of sweetlip and three glasses of chardonnay at Oskars” – he was offered the job of assistant registrar. But his first glimpse of campus in on the way to the interview was sobering.

“John Ford and I drove out to University Drive and it was tar for the first 100m and then a sand track. 

“There was clearly construction work going on -- a few cranes and two or three dredges out on the swamp, which became the lake.

“John turned around and made this expansive gesture and said, `This is the campus’. I thought to myself, `This is an act of faith’.”

Any doubts were soon drowned under the massive workload of starting a university from scratch.

“When (founding Vice Chancellor) Don Watts arrived in 1988 we started to plan in earnest, talking about curriculum, academic structures, looking at appointing staff and working out the grading systems -- all the nuts and bolts that universities have to have in place. It was mind-boggling stuff.”

Alan’s first enduring contribution to Bond came during this period – the three-semester system.

He had worked on a similar proposal to Monash during his time there, as there was a view that Monash could make better use of campus infrastructure that sat idle while students were on lengthy breaks.

It was too much to contemplate for a public university but just the sort of mould-breaking idea Australia’s first private university was looking for.

“I was able to come up with a model which people accepted,” Alan says.

“It was a double-edged sword, though. A lot of institutions, particularly in the early days, took the view that if you're doing a degree in two years, you're not a genuine university. So it took a while to convince people that a Bond degree contained as much curriculum content as any other .”

The first cohort of students in 1989 didn’t need convincing – they were the true believers.

“We got 322 and they were excellent students, which was good given that we were starting from scratch and trying to 'sell' a completely unknown entity with no reputation,” Alan says.

The university was up and running, but the pressure on Alan, now secretary of the University Council and Registrar, would only intensify.

The companies behind the University’s founders in Alan Bond and Harunori Takahashi struck trouble, in turn exposing Bond University to its own financial problems.

“I remember I walked around and gave pink slips to about 80 people,” Alan says.

“Some employees were so traumatised by the experience of being here through all of that stress that they were disappointed if they weren't getting a farewell envelope.”

The first undergraduate class would graduate in 1991 and it was also time for Alan to move on.

He was approached to go to the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba as registrar, and he agreed to accept the appointment.

He helped guide USQ through its transition from a university college but would prove an early exemplar of the saying, “once a Bondy, always a Bondy”.

In 1996 he found himself in a meeting with Bond’s charismatic Executive Chancellor Harry Messel and future prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, then a merchant banker representing the interests of one of the original joint venture companies. They wanted to know: would he come back?

He returned at one of the most perilous moments in Bond’s history – the campus (as distinct from the university) had been put up for sale by the receivers and the University of Queensland was circling as a likely buyer.

Alan would again play a pivotal role in the history of the institution.

“I was at a meeting of Queensland registrars and I said to Douglas Porter (from UQ), ‘Are you guys interested in doing a deal within the deal?’

“Douglas said, ‘Yes, let’s talk about it’. So (current Vice President, Operations)  John Le Lievre and I went up to UQ to see him a week later.”

The then Vice-Chancellor Ken Moores negotiated a deal with UQ under which Bond University would acquire ownership of its campus, provided it met various financial obligations.

Subsequently, Bond University acquired its campus in 1999 and Alan says Queensland’s oldest university deserves credit for throwing a lifeline to one of the youngest.

“UQ knew they might acquire the campus and the buildings but they would never, ever get their hands on the university,” Alan says.

“I think they were more intent on keeping other university competitors out of the Gold Coast.”

Bond was finally in control of its own destiny and was further strengthened when the federal government in the mid-2000s cleared the way for private university students to access FEE-HELP loans like their public university peers.

“Before that, parents would go to the bank and use their assets as security or capitalise their assets to send their children to Bond,” Alan says.

“When FEE-HELP came in, students could borrow from the government for their tuition and so we saw growth happen quite dramatically over two or three years."

More recently, perhaps Alan’s proudest moment was the opening of the Nyombil Indigenous Centre in 2012.

“I was conscious of the hardship that Indigenous kids faced, particularly in rural and remote areas, because in 1986 I'd dragged a caravan around Australia,” he says.

“I'd gone through Fitzroy Crossing and other Aboriginal settlements and seen the poverty and the lack of hope that there was something better out there.”

Alan, with Jason Murray, met with local Indigenous elders including Aunty Joyce Summers to gain their support for the centre, which was backed by current Vice Chancellor Tim Brailsford.

“Prior to Nyombil we had certainly graduated Indigenous students, some quite early in the piece, but (the centre) gave them a place to call their own.

“There they are supported by their peers who understand what they're going through and can advise and support them.

“We’ve got tremendously good outcomes in terms of retention and graduation – about 150 Indigenous graduates who have come through the Centre so far.”

Bond University Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Tim Brailsford, said it was  hard to think of too many other individuals that had made such an impact over such a sustained period of time at the University.

“Alan deserves all the accolades he is receiving.  His contribution has been immense and impacted both the institution itself but also so many individuals,” Professor Brailsford said.

“Alan has served both the University and its students with distinction over almost three decades.  He has served in many roles at various times that demonstrates his versatility, adaptability and expertise.

“Alan’s influential contribution to the establishment and development of Bond University is well documented. But perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the positive impact he has made on the lives of thousands of students.” 

Alan’s greatest wish for the future is for Bond to grow its endowment and involve even more alumni in university governance noting that already one-third of the University’s most senior body are alumni.

“Our alumni bring real-world experience to the place but with the added knowledge of having been here and knowing what Bond is all about,” he said.

Alan is stepping away from Bond but staying involved with higher education. He was recently appointed chair of Independent Higher Education Australia.

And after watching dozens of graduations over the years, on October 12 Alan Finch ‘graduated’ himself with an Honorary Doctorate.

Of the graduation ceremonies, he says:  “You think, oh it's another Saturday, then you’re sitting on the stage and watching these students come across and the pride is glowing off them and their parents in the audience and thrilled to the back teeth,” he says.

“You think, this is worth it. It's a great experience.

“Most of my good times here have been student-related. Some of them were just remarkable young people.

“It’s been a pleasure not only seeing them graduate but watching their careers because some of them are just doing amazing stuff.

“At times (Bond) has been bloody difficult, at times it's been painful, and at times it’s just been wonderful.

“My philosophy on that is, you don't know when it’s good if there’s no light and shade in what you're doing.

“I'd probably line up and do it all over again.”

Alan Finch is trying to walk away once more, but his legacy forged over university’s first 30 years will remain.

After all, he's the godfather of the student body -- and you never stop being a parent.