Emeritus Professor John Hay AC
Emeritus Professor John Hay AC

Emeritus Professor John Hay AC transformed The University of Queensland into a 21st century beacon of higher education teaching and research, and attracted hitherto unimagined global esteem to the institution and the state of Queensland.

Born in Western Australia in 1942, John Anthony Hay joined UQ as Vice-Chancellor and President in 1996, armed with an impressive record as a scholar and university leader. He applied his peerless talents to advance UQ for 12 exceptional years, before retiring in December 2007.

Schooled at Perth Modern School, he attended the University of Western Australia (UWA) and Cambridge University (where he was a Hackett Research Scholar), earning degrees in English literature: BA(Hons), MA and PhD. He held professorial chairs and senior administrative appointments at UWA and Monash University, serving at the latter as Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

During his first Vice-Chancellorship his institution, Deakin University, was named Australia’s University of the Year by the Good Universities Guide – a feat he was to repeat at UQ in 1998.

John may have had some luck in choosing the right place at the right time, but he capitalised on the situation as only one with his intellect, strategic instincts and oratorical elegance could have done.

He was able to build on the work of his forerunner, Emeritus Professor Brian Wilson AO, and prime UQ to take advantage of serendipity and a changing mood in Queensland.

A March 1998 meeting in Brisbane’s Irish Club with an intensely private Irish-American philanthropist, Charles “Chuck” Feeney, started a relationship that would empower John to weave a transformative series of fundraising deals.

After the Irish Club confab, he gained agreement from the then Premier, Rob Borbidge AO to match a gift from Mr Feeney (who at that time insisted on anonymity) to establish a major biosciences institute. Although the government changed before Mr Borbidge could honour the pledge, his successor, Peter Beattie AC, came with a bold “Smart State” agenda in which John immediately saw further advantage. With Mr Feeney’s partnership, he elaborated on the original bioscience institute idea and clinched government support for a cluster of world-class research facilities, including the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the Queensland Brain Institute, the Centre for Clinical Research, and the Translational Research Institute.

Along with other Hay-era infrastructure, these have been instrumental in attracting and holding excellent staff and students for UQ, Queensland and Australia – people whose potential to influence the health and happiness of others is without limit.

John’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of science and technology never distracted him from his first love, the arts and humanities. Nor did his success at raising funds for research detract from his devotion to teaching.

A philanthropist in his own right, he developed a strong affinity with Mr Feeney, whose generosity enabled him to realise many of his ambitions for UQ. These included the re-imagined James and Mary Emelia Mayne Centre, which houses the UQ Art Museum and Australia’s first national collection of self-portraits, and the UQ Centre, remembered by close to 100,000 alumni as the scene of their graduation.

John transformed the aesthetics of UQ’s campuses, and took deserved pride in the many architectural awards collected by new buildings.

Always placing a premium on teaching quality, he saw UQ become and remain Australia's most successful university for winning and being shortlisted for national university teaching awards.

Beyond UQ, he was an energetic servant of literary scholarship, the arts community, and education. Among other things, he was Deputy Chair of the Council of the National Library of Australia, general editor of the Bibliography of Australian Literature, Chair of the Queensland Art Gallery Board of Trustees, Trustee of Queensland Performing Arts, Chair of the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Chair of QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Chair of the Group of Eight, Chair of Universitas 21, and a member of the boards of Brisbane Grammar School and Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

John was an influential figure in research and scholarship of Australian literature and counted many Australian writers among his friends.

John justly received a swag of accolades. Too numerous to list exhaustively, they include: a Companion of the Order of Australia; Fellowship of the Australian Academy of the Humanities; investiture as an International Living Pedagogue by the Swedish Academy of Higher Education; a Career Achievement Award from Australia’s Office of Learning and Teaching; a Centenary Medal; and a Queensland Great award. He attained honorary doctorates from at least five universities, including UQ.

He remained warmly engaged with UQ people until very soon before his death. In late October he attended a celebration of the new autobiography of a distinguished UQ alumna, former Brisbane Lord Mayor, Sallyanne Atkinson AO.

Hay Family
Members of the Hay family: (from left) Ben, Barbara, Chris, John and Tim. Daughter Kate was absent in Melbourne at the time.

John is survived by his wife of 51 years, Barbara, their children Chris, Kate, Tim and Ben, and their adored grandchildren.

In his final column in 2007 for UQ’s alumnus magazine, Contact, John graciously thanked many colleagues and friends. But he reserved his last words for Barbara, writing: “More than anyone, it is Barbara who has shared most of my life and shaped it in ways that no words can ever express adequately.” From a man admired by many as a soaring wordsmith and orator, that is quite a statement.

While immensely sad about John’s passing, the UQ community is also deeply thankful for the lasting positive legacy he has left for the benefit of current and future generations of learners and innovators.