History of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Deans of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, 1856–2011

The University of Sydney Seal

The university’s first seal, 1852–57

The deanship—a historical note
The position of dean for the Faculty of Arts was first mentioned in the university’s by-laws published in 1856, when it became necessary to set up the faculty’s Examinations Board in preparation for the university’s first BA degree examinations, which were about to take place. There, it was stated that the ‘Senior Professor shall be President, with the title of Dean of the Faculty of Arts’.

The chair of Classics had already been designated as the senior position in the university, when the original Professorial Board was established in 1852. Its holder, by virtue of this seniority, presided over all meetings of the various faculty boards, including the Professorial Board, and now automatically became dean of the faculty as well. This remained the case until 1867, just after the death of the first professor of Classics, and first dean, John Woolley.

Arts at this point was the only teaching faculty in the university: it therefore was the senior faculty, and its dean was the senior dean. While the other existing faculties at this time—Medicine and Law—also had deans this was for administrative purposes, these two faculties being in reality little more than examining boards until teaching properly began in these disciplines (respectively, 1882 and 1890).

Following representations by the first professors, from 1861 they had been admitted as ex officio fellows of Senate in order to ensure that the concerns of the university’s academic community had a voice in the deliberations of Senate. After the death of Woolley limited terms of office were introduced for the first time and the position of dean became tied to being an ex officio fellow of Senate. Between 1868 and 1891 the term of office was three years; in 1892 the term was reduced to two years, which it remained until 1992.

Until 1912 the procedure of selecting the dean was merely in effect a form of appointment by the Senate; the 1861 Act prescribed that Senate would from time to time select certain ‘branches of learning’, the professors in which would then become ex officio Senate fellows. Initially, there was an element of formality about this since until the early 1880s there were only five professors in the university. Changes introduced in 1892—reflecting, in part, the increased number of professors in the university (by now there were fourteen)—not only reduced the term of the deanship, they also reduced the number of ‘branches of learning’ to one for each faculty. A further change was the introduction of a limited measure of autonomy: from this period the Senate accepted the faculty’s recommendation as to which branch of learning should be selected for ex officio membership of Senate. Thus, every two years the faculty sent its recommendation to the Senate and, upon Senate’s approval, the professor in that nominated branch would be selected as dean and become an ex officio Senate fellow. This remained the means of selecting a dean until a new method was introduced in 1912—by election within the faculty.

Apart from representing the faculty at Senate, the dean’s principal duties were to preside over faculty boards and meetings and the position continued to be—at least, in theory—part-time, until it was professionalised after 1992. From the 1960s particularly, as the faculty grew in size, the workload and number of committees increased, and to spread this load a system of sub-deans, by nomination, was introduced and also the position of pro-dean was created: H.L. Rogers was nominated by the then dean, Professor Farrell, and elected as the first pro-dean in 1966.

The general procedure for elections was that in the latter months (between September and November) of every alternate year the full-time permanent members of the faculty elected a dean from among themselves, having first called for nominations. The new dean’s term commenced from 1 January of the following year.

For most of the period when elections took place (1912–92) there was only a single nomination on each occasion; the first contested election didn’t occur until 1955. Over this period the major change impinging on the elections was a broadening of membership of the faculty, as gradually all teaching staff were admitted to full membership and thus became entitled to vote and even stand for office. The first dean not of professorial rank, Alex Jones, was elected in 1971 (to take office in 1972). The first female dean, Patricia Lahy, was elected in 1979 (to take office in 1980).

In part owing to the increasing complexity of the faculty’s affairs and its size, and also because of central administrative changes in the university affecting the potential role and responsibilities of deans, there was pressure—from the late 1980s, particularly, although it had first been raised in the 1960s—to change the dean’s position into a full-time, professional one. Such moves were initially resisted inside the Arts faculty, which felt that the principle of the faculty electing its own deans was an important one to retain.

However, as other faculties became professionalised, the Arts faculty finally gave way and, after 1992, elections ceased. The dean was henceforth to be a full-time position, appointed by Senate through a selection process, based on applications from candidates either from within the faculty or else, following advertisement, from within and beyond the university. The term of office is now five years, with the possibility of renewal.

The Arts faculty had commenced with the opening of the university in 1852 as its first teaching faculty. In 2010, as a result of a university reorganisation, it was renamed to better reflect its diversity of disciplines, some of which had already been part of the old Arts faculty and others were newly acquired. Duncan Ivison, the last dean of the Faculty of Arts, in 2011 became the first dean of the new Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.


Roderic Campbell
Research Officer
Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences