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The nice Vice

Don Watts
Dynamic duo: Michelle Watts and her husband, Bond University's first Vice Chancellor, Don Wats.

This article was published in edition 31 of the Bond University alumni magazine the Arch.

Vice Chancellor Don Watts had a lot on his plate in 1989. The new Gold Coast university he had agreed to lead two years earlier was finally open but many of its buildings were not. The true extent of founder Alan Bond’s finances were being laid bare in the media, leading to questions about the future of his namesake enterprise. And Professor Watts had just signed up to become a late-night taxi driver in Surfers Paradise. The pledge, made in front of students and parents at the Opening Day Ceremony on May 15, was unequivocal. If students found themselves stranded on the Glitter Strip in the early hours with no way to return to their on-campus accommodation, they were to call Professor Watts and he would give them a ride home.

“He never had to do it but the offer was there,” his wife Michelle Watts says. “I think the parents felt reassured that someone cared about their children, because most of the young people came from elsewhere. Not a lot lived on the Gold Coast.” Mind you, Professor Watts would probably have relished the chance to slip into his little sports car for a late night drive. “He had an MG and one day someone reported that a student was making a lot of noise driving around the campus. It was actually Don,” Mrs Watts says. “He loved to rev it up!”

Don Watts and model.
Professor Watts (right) displays  a model of the university.

Bond University has led national student experience measures for 17 years but the standard was set long before by its inaugural Vice Chancellor Donald Walter Watts AM who died in his hometown of Perth on May 23, aged 88. The esteemed educator studied, taught and led at leading universities around the world but in 2014 said he considered Bond his ‘finest contribution to education’. Professor Watts was born on April 1, 1934 and went on to became an internationally recognised expert in inorganic chemistry. He enrolled at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in 1951 at the age of 16 to study a Bachelor of Science and attained a PhD before moving to University College London on a CSIRO Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in 1959. It was in London that he reconnected with his soon-to-be wife Michelle Yeomans who was teaching in the East End during a working holiday. The pair had met years earlier on family holidays when they were 12 and 10 respectively. 

“(After the teaching stint) I went off to Europe to meet my parents and I said to Don, ‘Write to me at post restante here, here, here and here’, not expecting that he would. And I got to the first stop and there was a letter. When I got back to London and we met up we were married very soon after, because I was booked to come back to Australia with my family on the ship. So it was either get married and stay, or say goodbye. We were married for 62 years.”

Don Watts on campus.
Professor Watts on campus with the Arch still under construction. 

The newlyweds returned to Australia in 1962, with Professor Watts becoming a Senior Lecturer in Physical and Inorganic Chemistry at UWA, rising to a Readership in 1968 and a Personal Chair in 1978. In 1980 he was appointed Director of the Western Australian Institute of Technology which became Curtin University of Technology. Professor Watts was its inaugural Vice Chancellor.

He would go on to launch not one, but two universities, arriving on the Gold Coast in July 1987 to oversee the recruitment of academics and construction of the Bond campus which Mrs Watts says was ‘horrific – a mud puddle amidst pine trees’ following months of wet weather delays. 

Professor Watts told the 20th anniversary edition of the Arch in 2009 that he took the job because it was ‘absolutely vital’ there was an alternative to public university education in Australia. “I felt the overbearing bureaucracy in public education needed to be shaken by the existence of a private alternative.”

Don's tankard.
The tankard presented to Professor Watts at the opening on Don's Tavern in 1989. The tankard is on display in the Chancellery among other memorabilia from the university's history.

Professor Watts’ recruitment was a two-for-one deal, with Mrs Watts taking an active role in the University and the lives of its first 322 students. One of them, Claire Bibby (Class of 1989), remembers the isolation she sometimes felt as a West Australian on the Gold Coast and how fellow Sandgropers the Watts made her feel at home – literally. “I’ve always treasured my memories of Michelle and Don inviting the cohort of 15 or so Perth students into their home,” Ms Bibby says. “They both made us feel welcome and cared for and understood the depths of our own homesickness and vulnerability. I’ve always cherished my recollection of them opening their hearts and home to us and embracing us with their kindness and generosity of spirit.” While focussed on student achievements, the Watts reminded students to enjoy their time at university and participate in the social life of campus. It was at the suggestion of students that the University’s tavern be named Don’s and it remains a hub of campus social life to this day.

Tom Betts, another 892 student and foundation staff member, describes Professor Watts as ‘a bloke and a human being first, a university administrator second’. “During the contentious and fraught few weeks leading up to opening day in May 1989, when catastrophic rainfall set construction back months, Don showed his true self,” Mr Betts says. “In the middle of these battles, Don dropped everything to rush into the Gold Coast hinterland to join the search for a faculty dean (Steven Johnson) who was tragically swept away by raging floodwaters on his way to the campus. When his body was found, Don helped carry him out of the mud like a soldier with a fallen comrade. That kind of leadership isn’t taught at business schools.”

Bond and Watts
Bond University founder Alan Bond with Professor Watts.

During his academic career Professor Watts spent time at the University of Southern California as a Fulbright Scholar, at the University of Toronto and the Australian National University. Outside of academe, Professor Watts held a number of distinguished positions including a seat on the Australian Science and Technology Council, Executive Chairman of the Northern Territory Trade Development Zone, board positions on the Western Australia Institute of Sport and Queensland Academy of Sport, and Chairman of the Australian Space Council.

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Don Watts - The Arch

Current Vice Chancellor Professor Tim Brailsford says Professor Watts’ contribution to the University has been ‘immense and remains unparalleled’. “Professor Watts and his wife Michelle welcomed and embraced the initial cohort of Bondies and subsequent cohorts, taking care of both the students’ academic and personal needs,” Professor Brailsford says. “The dynamic couple established the high-water mark in standards of student care and their actions set Bond on its journey of leading the nation in the student experience.”

Professor Watts was the first recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Bond University in 1990, his final year at the helm. His achievements and contribution to education were recognised in the 1998 Australia Day Honours when he was made a Member of the Order of Australia. Following a stint working for the Northern Territory government, Professor Watts retired in 1995 and returned to Perth where he was asked to become an advisor to the Vice Chancellor of The University of Notre Dame, which he was for 20 years. The couple visited Bond University regularly, attending the 25th Anniversary Ball in 2014, and celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 2020.

Mrs Watts and her family were special guests at Bond University in September to attend a function marking the contribution of her late husband. Appropriately, it was held at Don’s Tavern. Professor Watts is survived by Michelle, sons Andrew and Tim, their partners Fran and Gill, and grandchildren Isaac, Ella, Angus, Caleb, Corinna, Ruby and Cooper. 

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