Obituary - Professor Ronald James McKay 1946-2006 


Emeritus Professor Ronald James McKay, who helped develop the Northern Territory’s only university into a leading research and academic institution, has died in his home town of Murwillumbah in New South Wales, aged 59.

Professor McKay was the Vice-Chancellor of the Northern Territory University from 1996 to 2002. Under his management it developed from a disparate body facing financial hardship to a single institution with its own unique identity and ethos. Earlier this month, Professor McKay was awarded the degree of Doctor of Education Honoris Causa by the Charles Darwin University, in recognition of his outstanding service to the Northern Territory community and in particular, through his notable contribution to the Northern Territory University.

“He recognised the need for distinctive, even unique, solutions to our particular problems and never slavishly followed the models that had been developed in the older universities,” CDU Chancellor Richard Ryan said.

Ron McKay was born at Murwillumbah, in New South Wales, in October 1946. In 1967 he graduated from the University of New England as a Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours, majoring in Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics.

In 1972, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy for his work on statistics within the School of Mathematics at the University of New South Wales.  He then lectured in Statistics at Canberra College of Advanced Education before taking an appointment as a foundation member of staff within the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Murdoch University.

He became Senior Lecturer, then Associate Professor of Mathematics at Murdoch University. In 1977 he was Visiting Professor in the Department of Statistics at Stanford University in California, and in 1986 was appointed Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Applied Statistics at Lancaster University in Britain.  Ron McKay was appointed Dean of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Murdoch University in the same year.

It was during his appointment as Dean that Ron McKay found himself increasingly involved in university management, at a time when fundamental changes to the Australian higher education system were being initiated.

“That experience, and his demonstrated capacity for effective university management through a period of radical change were key factors in the February 1991 decision to invite Professor McKay to take up the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the [then] Northern Territory University.

In 1991, the University was two years old and had been created by the merger of the Darwin Institute of Technology and the University College of the Northern Territory. It was a disparate body, spread over several campus locations.

Ron McKay was acutely aware of the need to create a new single institution relevant to the circumstances of the Northern Territory and of which the Territory could be proud. The various elements which had been brought together to create the University had to be reconciled, new management structures had to be created, new courses had to be devised in response to the community’s special needs, and a new status for the University and its graduates had to be achieved.

One of his first tasks was to rationalise the university’s academic structure, reconciling vocational education and training with higher education.

One of Professor McKay’s main goals was to maximise the opportunity for university access. Bridging courses were developed to bring disadvantaged students to suitable levels for university entry and distance education outreach was strengthened to facilitate university study despite enormous geographical challenges.

Ron McKay was a strong advocate for research and harnessed opportunities for the University to create co-operative research partnerships, leading to a significant increase in research funding and activity. Under his leadership as Vice-Chancellor, many problems and situations highly relevant to the Territory were addressed in research work.

He was the founding chair of the Northern Territory Research and Development Advisory Council, established by the Northern Territory Government in 1994. Professor McKay was also appointed to chair the Strehlow Research Centre at a time when that body was wracked by controversy. Under his leadership, the Centre was able to resolve many issues and proceed with effective study and care of its unique collection of sacred and significant Aboriginal items.

During his period as Vice-Chancellor, Ron McKay developed relationships with many organisations, including the Menzies School of Health Research, Centralian College and with the Northern Territory Government, which laid the foundations for the subsequent formation of Charles Darwin University and the partnership agreement with the Northern Territory Government.

By 2002, when Professor McKay, after twelve years of continuous service to the Northern Territory University was obliged to resign because of ill-health, the University had fulfilled the hopes of its founders that it would become a vital and effective part of the new Northern Territory.

Professor McKay is survived by his wife Gayl and children Jim, Sam & Kimberley and their partners Rhyanwen, Tina and Richard.

Prepared by CDU Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Garnett