Alternative courses which present themselves when a new university is being planned are to replicate a traditional model, or to explore new ways of promoting scholarship, drawing on the experience of existing universities and their staffs and students, and on perceptions of external needs and pressures for various sorts of learning. The latter course was followed by Griffith University, Brisbane, which opened in 1975.

John Topley (Foundation Registrar) and John Willett (Foundation Vice Chancellor) 1976.


Our university was founded on a number of principles that were intended to offer our students a unique and alternative university experience. Our founders decided that while 'traditional' university models that existed at the time had served humanity well - Griffith University would do things differently with how it was structured, administered and most importantly for our students - how we would teach and deliver courses. Specifically, foundation Griffith students were to be exposed to 'real-world' problems and address these issues within a multi-, inter- or cross-disciplinary teaching and research framework. As our university looks to realign with our foundation interdisciplinary principles - this exhibition provides an account of our pioneering effort to provide our students with a distinctive university experience.


The idea that Griffith would offer a different university experience for our students - was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Originally, Griffith University was intended to be a 'College' of the University of Queensland (UQ). Planning for a second university/college for Brisbane had begun 1963. This decision had come about in part to 'over-crowding' at UQ. A new college in Brisbane was seen as an opportunity to alleviate the space problems being encountered at Queensland's oldest university.

The University of Queensland had hoped to have this new institution open for business by 1969. However, the Universities Commission (Australian Government) refused to provide funding that would allow for a 1969 opening. This failure to secure funding saw a rethink by the UQ senior management.As a result, the University of Queensland Senate voted unanimously that this new institution should be an independent, self-governed entity - rather than a part of UQ.

This decision forced the Queensland Government to appoint the Griffith University Interim Council (later Griffith Council) which held its first meeting on 22 January, 1971. And while the brief provided by the Queensland Government at the time for this new venture was not overly detailed - they did stipulate that this new institution was to be called 'Griffith University' (named after Sir Samuel Griffith).

Despite the UQ decision not to proceed with its own college - they were nonetheless very supportive of getting our university up and running. UQ provided office space, library resources and administrative support until the necessary Griffith University space and administrative structures were in place. This help extended to input from UQ academics on how Griffith should be structured for research, teaching and course administration. There were even four standing UQ professors that sat on Griffith's Interim Council.

While University of Queensland academics were not the only early players providing input into how our university would be structured (the then Vice Chancellor of Flinders University, Professor Peter Karmel, was very influential) - they were however prominent in our decision to establish four Schools that offered an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research.

This idea to provide a multidisciplinary model was influenced in part by some of the weaknesses in the UQ 'traditional' university model - that had been identified as existing by the four UQ professors, including Professor Charles (Val) Presley. Presley would eventually leave UQ to become our foundation Chairman of our School of Humanities.

Griffith University Interim Council Meeting in 1971 with (back and left to right) Vice Chancellor Professor John Willett, Chancellor Theodor Bray and Registrar John Topley.


Griffith University decided to develop an alternative to the conventional academic organisational unit of the discipline based department. Rather it would have multi-disciplinary Schools that would provide coherence for its students by focusing on a broadly defined set of problems or a theme.

Sir Zelman Cowen - University of Queensland Vice Chancellor from 1970-1977.

Development of our Cross-discipline Approach

An interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach can be described as exposing people (or students) to a variety of fields of study or disciplines (sociology, economics, geography) to help them develop different ways of thinking. It is the intention then of this approach/model that this cross-disciplinary exposure will provide people with a broader, more varied knowledge base with which to learn, research and/or solve problems. In other words, students study the same topic/theme/problem from the viewpoint of more than one discipline or field of study.

The foundation interdisciplinary design at Griffith intended for our four foundation Schools (Australian Environmental Studies, Humanities, Modern Asian Studies, Science) to share teaching resources and approaches so that all of our students had exposure to different disciplines. The Griffith model also intended for each of the four Schools to contain academics from various discipline backgrounds. This approach extended to research where it was anticipated that the Schools would support research projects undertaken by teams drawn from across our four Schools.

A schematic of our original course structure with the Foundation and Link Courses focusing on interdisciplinary study.


In the School of Science there is to be some compromise between the Griffith form and that of the earlier experiments with macro-departmental schools. In all four, however, there is in their fundamental definition, a substantial element of emphasis on empirically determined, external problem sets. The expectation is that this system of primary sub-division, stemming from external problems, will result in multi-disciplinary schools in which staff and students can focus on "real-world" complexities, and that representatives of particular disciplines will be found in more than one School. Sociology, for example, contributes to the work of all four Schools.

John Topley (Foundation Registrar) and John Willett (Foundation Vice Chancellor) 1976.

Challenges for our interdisciplinary model

Opening a new university that taught and researched within a multidisciplinary framework - would prove challenging for us to implement. While the idea of bringing together different fields of study to investigate and attempt to solve societal problems was not new - having all your Schools offering interdisciplinary courses was quite novel for a 1970's Australian university.

So, while it was intended that this framework would allow for the individual Schools to draw on teaching resources and knowledge from the other Griffith Schools (or disciplines) - the model did not allow our students to do subjects from Schools outside their respective School. This meant that a School of Science student couldn't study a subject taught by the School of Humanities. This was problematic in attracting some potential students to early Griffith as the nearby University of Queensland did offer students the opportunity to study subjects from outside their respective School.

Another problem was that a subject such as Mathematics, was seen as being important in teaching numeracy skills across all our four foundation Schools - not just Science or the School of Australian Environmental Studies. So, in which School should subjects (like Mathematics) that were seen as relevant to study and teaching in all four Schools - actually be based when considering an interdisciplinary framework? Should the School of Humanities for example - have a dedicated maths lecturer on staff?

And when it came to research - how were discipline specialists from the respective Schools supposed to find time to meet with colleagues from other Schools and undertake research work together? How would staff undertake cross-discipline research projects while at the same time meeting the teaching, research and administrative requirements at their individual Schools?

Elizabeth Oliver, Professor Charles Presley (seated) and Professor Andrew Field - School of Humanities 1974.


What did our staff think?

In a 1992 interview, one of our early champions of the Griffith interdisciplinary model, Professor Charles Presley (mentioned above), reflected on how challenging this alternative approach to university education had been for our foundation staff.

"We used to talk about that and call it the "de-skilling effect" of working in Humanities at Griffith. A lot of people felt that they were put in the position where they had to lecture on things in which they weren't qualified. And that seemed to be an unforeseen consequence of this kind of interdisciplinary stuff" (Presley 1992).

A further problem identified by Professor Presley in this 1992 interview was that "there was a certain sort of distrust of people in one discipline with another" (Presley 1992). In his mind, team teaching (with lecturers from different disciplines) within our then School of Humanities was very difficult due to the lack of trust between academics. Alarmingly, Professor Presley suggested that this distrust between lecturers even led to heated arguments taking place in front of classes that were being taught.

"The ideal team would be people who'd known each other for years and worked together and trusted and knew each other's views inside out. As it was, it was often quite difficult and there were often sort of conflicts displayed in lectures that were upsetting to the students and so on" (Presley 1992).

Long-serving senior academic administrator Gem Cheong also witnessed first-hand how challenging the interdisciplinary model was to implement and have accepted. In a 1992 interview, she agreed with some of Professor Presley's misgivings - particularly as our university grew and more academics came to Griffith.

"I had come through a conventional university with the old structure of disciplines and the whole notion of a problem-solving interdisciplinary framework was strange to me, as it was to most people, and I could see that it was harder work for the people to teach it. The original ones (academics) had come because they all genuinely shared this Messianic zeal for the alternative university, this group of people who came from conventional commerce-type faculties around the country were not committed to the interdisciplinary model. They were not prepared to actually break those barriers down and take the same sort of problem-solving approach" (Cheong 1992).

Gem went on to suggest in the interview that the interdisciplinary 'buy in' by our foundation students was also an issue - as suggested above. For Gem - our pioneering cross-disciplinary approach was not as progressive as it appeared - when our course structure was compared to the nearby 'conventional' University of Queensland course structures.

"One of the things I found for the students, was that we were not able to sell it clearly to the students who did not see, could not understand, the benefits of that approach against the conventional one. You see , I used to explain to prospective students that at Queensland University, you could do a Bachelor of Arts combining maths and music, because they were the two things you might be good at. At Griffith, the programs were much more structured and you had to do it within the framework of a defined program. This meant you had much less choice and there were much fewer electives. You had to do things that you were probably not very good at doing. You couldn't just pick and choose from your areas of strength. So that didn't sell very well" (Cheong 1992).

However, this 'restrictive' course structure, this lack of study options discussed by Gem Cheong - was not an accident or oversight in the design of our interdisciplinary model. This component of the model was a deliberate strategy - as our foundation Registrar, John Topley, explained in a 1992 interview.

"That was quite a deliberate decision early in the University. Far less subject choice than was traditional, and that was necessary we felt, because of the attempt to be interdisciplinary. We decided that students should have a special relationship with their staff. Instead of adopting the smorgasbord approach that the University of Queensland and other traditional universities had, where students visited departments to learn about certain things - our organisational structure attempted to be different. Students had contact with a limited range of academic staff, and got to know them well. The students worked in a relatively small, cohesive unit which we then called Schools - so that they wouldn't be darting about all over the University" (Topley 1992).

Our foundation Registrar - John Topley.


What did our students think?

As outlined by Professor Presley - academics undermining and attacking each other in the classroom in front of students, must be considered a failing of our original cross-discipline model.

Our first student newsletter/newspaper was 'Griffitti' - which was a fully independent student publication running (with this title) from 1975 to 1993. As early as 1976, students were commenting in this publication on this cross-discipline system they were experiencing at Griffith. Our School of Modern Asian Studies (MAS) students as a collective had this to say in a 1976 Griffitti opinion piece they submitted:

"We believe that the interdisciplinary ideal of Griffith University should be brought out of its mothballs and put into practice."

MAS students at the time believed that the 'limited' choice of subjects (referred to by Gem Cheong) within their courses and not being able to study subjects at other Griffith Schools - was not representative of a multidisciplinary approach. They also believed the fact that they could not study subjects at universities outside Griffith (to contribute to their Griffith degree) showed another example of a flaw in our interdisciplinary model. In fact, despite our noble intentions - student frustration with this framework at the time, was causing cynicism in some of our MAS students.

"Let's see the interdisciplinary study, the flat bureaucracy, the "new approach" to education. Or was it all a big P.R. job?"

Some of our early Humanities students also felt the course structure at Griffith was too rigid. They were not able to study two subjects that they saw as inter-related or 'interdisciplinary' - at the same time. One subject could be studied as a main/core subject and the other at a later time as an elective. To them - not being able to study these relatable subjects in unison - was the antithesis of multidisciplinarity. In a 1981 edition of Griffitti, two School of Humanities students also questioned the flexibility of the model:

"They [subjects] could each benefit from a recognition of compatible aspects, that could work toward not only a greater understanding of the complexities of discourses (production, dissemination, reading, social function etc.), but would also represent a move towards true interdisciplinary education."

By 1984, student disillusionment with our initiative had increased to the point that our GUUS (Griffith University Union of Students) called on Griffith management to review our interdisciplinary approach. The Union outlined in Griffitti that a working party made up of GUUS representatives and interested academic staff was established in August 1984 to review our cross-discipline prototype. The working party offered this commentary (excerpt) on how students were viewing multidisciplinarity at Griffith:

"Despite continued rigorous and detailed research in "Interdisciplinarity" throughout the world, in this University "Interdisciplinarity" has become the subject of ridicule and laughter."

These examples suggest that less than 10 years since we had commenced teaching - to some of our students at least, our endeavour had failed.

Griffith advocates of the model

John Topley (who had also come to our university from the University of Queensland) was a significant player in developing our multidisciplinary model and associated support structures for the framework. One of these support structures established was CALT (The Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching). Topley had attracted Doctor Robert (Bob) Ross to become the Director of CALT. Topley and Ross were discussing how CALT could support our interdisciplinary approach aspirations - before Ross had even come to work at Griffith.

For interdisciplinary proponents like Bob Ross - coming to our university to develop integrated, problem-oriented courses - was a dream job. He had experience in working across faculties/disciplines in course and assessment development - so interdisciplinarity was not something new to him. And where Gem Cheong, Val Presley and some of our former students have identified some of the problems with implementing our model - Bob Ross remained positive when reflecting upon his involvement in this bold Griffith initiative.

"I would just sit on the planning groups and help them structure their foundation programs, and that was for me a very fascinating experience. The difference between the Faculties and their approach to the activity was really quite fascinating. It's been a marvellous experience of course, working particularly in the very early days, when you're excited, you're exploring new things, and nobody knows how to solve these problems and that makes it nice" (Ross 1992).

Our School of Australian Environmental Studies (AES) was the first School of its kind to open at an Australian university. Foundation Chairman of AES, Professor Calvin Rose, had the task of not only establishing a unique new School - he additionally had to embed an interdisciplinary approach into the courses being offered and the structures of the School.

Professor Rose had come to Griffith from the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific Investigation and Research Organisation) where it was common practice for people with different disciplinary strengths to come together to solve problems. Rose felt strongly that an interdisciplinary framework was the best way to solve real problems of society. He enjoyed being involved in this undertaking and looks back at this time fondly.

"Since we started with a blank sheet of paper, as it were, I felt very strongly that we ought to include the whole range of what, often in universities, are called disciplines. The willingness to bring together knowledge and create knowledge, if it's not there, in new ways to deal with problems and to build that into a teaching programme is something that is, I think, quite a great achievement" (Rose 1992).

Our first PhD recipient and former Queensland University of Technology Vice Chancellor, Emeritus Professor Peter Coladrake, came to Griffith as a mature-aged student. Coaldrake revealed in 1996 that the idea of working and studying in a cross-disciplinary environment enticed him to leave working in Canberra and come to our institution. In his own words, when Coaldrake finished his studies at Griffith - "I was a political scientist, a geographer and a planner."

Even Sian Lewis (who had been President of GUUS when our student union called for the 1984 review of the model) acknowledged there had been genuine positives for students that had come out of this endeavour.

"I think if we go beyond the teaching, there were some quite positive things that happened there, things that have been quite enduring. Despite all the criticisms, people [students] did question authority there and developed a very broad-base of skills" (Lewis 1996).

Our first student council (GUUS) President Sian Lewis (centre) planning for our 1976 Orientation Week.


Reinvigorating our foundation Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching and Research

Today our university is ranked in the 'Top 300' universities in the world. In less than 50 years since we began teaching - we are now a university of global influence. Interdisciplinarity will be reinvigorated at Griffith in our business practices - including teaching and research. This following excerpt is taken from our 'Creating a future for all - Strategic Plan 2020-2025':

'In the pursuit of excellence, we reach across boundaries of all kinds within and beyond the University. In particular, we pride ourselves on our interdisciplinary work and our ability to engage with industry, government and the not-for-profit sector'.

Our Vice Chancellor, Professor Carolyn Evans has recently established 'Griffith Beacons' - an initiative that brings together disciplines from across our university to research and solve societal issues.

"The strategy builds on Griffith’s ability to build interdisciplinary research teams from across the University which can play a significant role in tackling real world problems" (Evans 2019).

One of the chief architects of our original interdisciplinary framework, John Topley, had this to say about Griffith University in 1992.

"I think we have devalued interdisciplinarity. I think we've devalued the problem-oriented theme approach. I think we've increased our values attracted to the more conservative aspects of academic organisation and I think we have decreased the amount of care we give to our staff and our students as a University as a whole" (Topley 1992).

So, as Professor Evans heralds a realignment with one of our founding principles - an interdisciplinary and 'student-centred' university experience for our students - it seems likely that one of the 'fathers' of our foundation cross-discipline model - would be very happy.

Professor Carolyn Evans discusses our realignment with interdisciplinary teaching and research.