Dr Patricia Mary Lahy - Sydney's first female dean

5 July 2004

Pat Lahy passed away suddenly in May, within five years of her final retirement from the University of Sydney and just days before her 76th birthday.

During the 36 years of her academic career Pat made notable contributions both to Sydney University and to the University of Western Sydney. In 1979 she became Sydney's first woman dean, and as such, was the pacesetter in the now familiar movement of senior academic women to positions of influence within the broader administrative context.

Those who knew her personally will however remember her best as an eminently sane person, droll, astute and down-to-earth who treated everybody as equal and who when in a position of authority took considerable pains to help those she felt had been unfairly dealt with.

Dr Patricia Mary Lahy
Dr Patricia Mary Lahy

Educated at North Sydney Girls' High School, Pat (right) became a part-time student at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1963 with honours in psychology. She was promptly recruited as a senior tutor in the psychology department by Professor W.M. O'Neil, promoted to lecturer in 1965 and to senior lecturer in 1977.

From the late 1970s Pat's University horizon broadened; in 1978 she became sub-dean and in 1979 pro-dean of the Faculty of Arts. In 1979 she was elected dean and served three full terms, from 1980 to 1985.

As dean, Pat dealt imperturbably and almost solely by mediation and force of personality with the many disputes and crises that arose. That she managed this without losing popularity can be gauged from her election in 1982 and again in 1985 as academic representative to the University Senate.

In 1986 the vice-chancellor, Professor John Manning Ward, appointed her his executive assistant. When the NSW Labour Government proposed to start a new university in Western Sydney, under the auspices of the University of Sydney, Pat was selected in 1987 for the new position at Sydney of pro-vice-chancellor with special responsibility for organising the structure of the college and its courses.

The decision of the NSW government in 1988 to abandon the scheme and instead to combine and elevate three existing tertiary colleges in Western Sydney to the status of a university under the guidance of an academic Senate, provided her with a new challenge. Pat was obliged to juggle her obligations to her employer with her personal commitment to helping the erstwhile colleges collectively to adjust to the demands and pitfalls of university status. She was a member of the UWS academic Senate from 1989-91 and also became a member of the first Board of Governors of Western Sydney in 1989. The new university recognized her contribution with an honorary D.Litt. in 1999.

In 1991 Pat completed her five-year term as pro-vice-chancellor at Sydney and she retired from full-time employment. In 1992 Sydney awarded her an honorary D.Litt and her services to higher education were acknowledged with membership of the Order of Australia.

From 1994 to 1999 she returned to Sydney to run, part-time, the office of the Student Ombudsman.

For some 20 years Pat served on numerous boards and committees in the academic and wider educational communities, where she will be remembered as one who did not allow bureaucracy to triumph over commonsense and equity.

Pat's last few years were spent quietly, in failing health, at what was previously her Blue Mountains weekender, in Hazelbrook. She is survived by her brothers Robert and Mathew and their families.