Greg Craven: Closing the book

The facial features of Gregory Joseph Craven are quintessentially Irish. The prominent chin. The thin upper lip. The contoured nose. A map of Ireland on a face. On his first visit to the old country in 1990, as a 32-year-old Australian who had never ventured overseas, he came face-to-face with “some really confronting things”.

“One is that there are only four types of Irish looks, and I’ve got one of them,” says Craven, Professor of Law and the retiring Vice-Chancellor and President of Australian Catholic University (ACU).

“My father used to say, ‘by the time you’re 50, you’ll look exactly what you are: an Irish peasant from Galway’. That was true. I had no choice but to embrace it.”

Visiting Ireland for the first time “wasn’t one of those mawkish emotional experiences”, but it did bring him closer to his Irish-Catholic heritage. With his wife Anne and four children in tow, he went searching for Cloondergan, a township in County Galway where his ancestors once lived.

“There was one house, and when the farmer and his wife came out, I said, ‘we’re looking for Cloondergan’, and they said, ‘this is it’. We looked around and we thought, ‘something awful has happened here’.”

Before them was a vast field dotted with rough stones memorialising those who fell victim to the Great Famine.      

“It suddenly made the Irish history of famine – being Catholic in Ireland, having to leave Ireland – it made it real,” says Craven, now 62. “That was a sort of galvanic moment … an experience that you don’t easily repeat.”

It put into greater context the journey of his great-great-grandfather Thaddy O’Creaven, who arrived in Australia in 1867 and was handed a piece of paper with his new name: Timothy Craven. Problem was, he couldn’t read.

For the next three generations, the Craven men were labourers, and life was hard. Greg predicts that if it weren’t for education, and specifically Catholic education, he would likely be “digging a road somewhere outside Geelong”.

“We have no idea how many generations of brilliant men and women lie buried without a headstone in Ireland because they were never taught to read and write,” he says.

“And so I’ve had a consciousness of, in a sense, good fortune that my family escaped relatively recently from grinding poverty, a strong feeling that the reason it happened was education, and a burning desire and duty to make sure my children had the same opportunities for it.”

The great leveller

ACU Greg Craven

The progression of Greg Craven’s paternal line explains his passion for providing educational opportunities to people who never had them before. He’s been a vocal supporter of the demand-driven system of funding, which uncapped university student places to provide broader access to higher education.

Craven is a firm believer in the system as an equity measure. He has used his national platform to shout it from the rooftops.

“That’s what uncapping places means to people,” he told The Monthly in 2016. “You know that daughter you thought was going to be a cleaner, like you? She’s going to be an accountant. That son you thought was going to work on the roads? He’s going to be a nurse.”

Craven speaks of his strong desire to help those who are rich in talent but poor in opportunity. Universities, he says, “should not simply be a privilege of people who are either wealthy or well placed”.

The young Greg Craven was well placed, and he was certainly clever, but he wasn’t always a model student. In primary school, his parents received a report from an educational psychologist declaring he would not make it past year 10.  

“I’ve never known whether that was a completely accurate report and I’ve massively overachieved, or whether he was completely wrong,” Craven says.

Even in high school at St Kevin’s College, his academic performance was patchy.

“When my sister died, my performance completely collapsed and went up and down,” he adds. “I was very unmotivated because I was very unhappy.”

Remembering Paula

ACU Greg Craven

Fifty years on, Greg still thinks of his sister often.

He was 12 when Paula died crossing the road near their home at Glen Waverley. Paula was 11. Greg was right next to her when it happened.  

“It’s quite vivid, so if I want to, I can picture it,” he says.

He remembers the truck coming over the hill, him stepping backwards, Paula stepping forwards.  

“It was all so quick that the view of the truck … I mean, I was literally there, and it blocked my view of Paula. When I saw her, she was lying on the road, dead. It’s not a memory I often allow myself to conjure up, but yes, I have the clearest memory of it.”

Losing her permanently changed his psychology. 

“I’ve seen a terrible thing happen that no one could possibly reason away,” he says. “I think it’s led to me being a very anxious person, because if you think things can constantly go wrong, you will be like that.”

The loss sent shockwaves through the family, and Greg’s father was heartbroken. John Craven was a well-known Melbourne sports journalist. He died at 47, seven years after Paula’s death, and Greg has no doubt that the tragedy contributed to his early death.

In the end, it was his father’s words that impelled Greg to turn a corner at school. He was in year 9 when his dad approached him to very sadly say: ‘Look, I’m working very hard to pay your fees. I don’t mind if you don’t do well because you can’t, but I’d really appreciate it if you tried.’

Though Greg didn’t reply, the message came through loud and clear.

“When somebody says, in a tone of real pain, ‘please just try’, it does have an effect on you,” he says. “So my effort and results in year 10 were miraculously better than year 9, and it just progressed from there.”

A strong constitution

ACU Greg Craven with students

Paula’s death may have given Greg Craven a profound sense of grief, but it never shook his Catholic faith. If anything, it strengthened it.

He has worn his Catholicism as a badge of honour, even when he felt pressure to conceal it. He first encountered hostility while studying law at Melbourne University.  

“If you encountered bigotry outside of university, you’d get people who’d say quite honestly that they don’t like Catholics,” he says. “In university, it was a lot more intense and much more self-righteous.”

Years later, there were more ferocious attacks on Craven, but they were to do with politics rather than religion.

In the early 1990s, having held academic positions at both Melbourne and Monash universities, he became crown-counsel in the Kennett government. His performance cemented his reputation as one of the country’s leading constitutional lawyers.

But professional success came at a high personal cost.

The government pursued an aggressive and often controversial reform agenda, and as a leading adviser, Craven was the fall guy. The attacks – both private and public – were vicious.

“It was incredibly tense and quite unusual to know that large numbers of people who you’ve never met really, really hate you,” he says.  

Whether he liked it or not, Craven now had a public profile to match his legal expertise.   

After a brief stint as a Reader in Law back at Melbourne University, he moved to Perth to set up the University of Notre Dame’s law school, and then to Curtin University, where he landed a role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Planning). He kept busy writing journal articles and books, including Conversations with the Constitution (2004), described in The Australian as “the wittiest book on the Constitution and one of the wisest”.

Before he knew it he was 47, the age his father was when he died.

“I worked out the exact day I would be as old as he was, and I sort of assumed I’d die at that point,” he says. “I thought, ‘well, this is interesting, I’m not dead. So, I better do something’.”

When the call came for him to move to Sydney to become ACU’s vice-chancellor, he wrestled with the decision. It was a young university, and perhaps one of the more challenging assignments in Australian higher education. In hindsight, he made the right choice.

Closing the book

One could easily surmise that Greg Craven is a natural extrovert, but he begs to differ.  

“I've always been quite shy,” he says. “At a function, if you see someone standing in a corner, that will be me. I’m very good at making a speech to 1,000 people, but put me in a group of 50 and I won’t quite know what to do.”

Shy he might be, but throughout his career, Craven has been anything but quiet. He has been described publicly as “a feisty commentator”, “irreverent” and “the noisiest person in the university sector”.

As ACU’s vice-chancellor, he has pursued an ambitious and wholehearted reform agenda, and the university has earned wide respect in the areas of research, teaching and overall influence.

The institution that was once regarded as “that funny little Catholic university” now has “a genuine place in the Australian higher education system”, Craven says. It has climbed the rankings in research and student satisfaction, has a campus in Rome, and will open its ninth campus in Blacktown next year.

Craven has also left his mark on the sector, playing a prominent role in developing policy on university funding, regulation and teacher quality. He is a frequently published commentator on issues including republicanism,  and Indigenous recognition.

In all of these endeavours, he’s never been scared of a fight.

“Professor Craven is always ready to go into battle for what he believes in,” said ACU chancellor, the late John Fahey, in April 2020.

Others have noted that Craven “thrives on a bit of biffo”.

“He’s not oppositional by nature,” The Australian declared in 2012. “It’s just that he passionately defends his position.”

On occasion, the biffs have been controversial, and Craven has been on the receiving end of criticism. But some battles are “so important and so true that they have to be fought”.

“You’ve got to have vice chancellors and professors who are prepared to stand up for things that matter,” Craven says, “and frankly, to suffer for them.”

There is an insider joke that Australia’s university executives like to tell. If you ever feel the need to ring a vice-chancellor at 3am, go right ahead. They’ll be awake, too.

“Being a vice-chancellor is terrifying,” says Craven, “because so many things can go wrong. Some people can literally have the world falling around their head and they can sleep soundly at night. I can’t do that.”

Craven is the first to admit that, despite all he has achieved in a long and fruitful career, he can’t help but worry that things might go awry. Put it down to the devastating loss of his dear sister, or to his “natural Irish pessimism”.

In retirement, he’ll spend more time on his farm in Wollombi, enjoying “a senile version” of his childhood in Glen Waverley. He’ll read and write more. Spend time with Anne. Tend to his cows and herd his grandson. He’ll sit with a sense of pride at what he has achieved, and a sense of relief that – finally – there’ll be less that can go wrong, and there’ll be less to worry about.  

“I look back with satisfaction,” Craven says, “and I look forward to going … it’s the right time for me to go.”

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