From a mathematician to a university leader

Emeritus Professorship a career highlight for retired UOW academic

From a mathematician to a university leader

Mathematics has always come naturally to Emeritus Professor Graham Williams. So much so, that when he finished his HSC and was contemplating what to study at university, mathematics was the obvious choice simply because he found it easy.

Two years after his retirement from the University of Wollongong, Professor Williams remembers with a laugh how nonchalant he was about decision.

“I chose to study mathematics at university because I didn’t really have to do any work,” he said. “When I was at school, the only revision I did for maths, including during my HSC, was to memorise a few formulae. It came quite easily to me, and I really enjoyed it. I would sit down and solve a hundred maths problems. I loved it.”

That decision has taken Professor Williams from strength to strength. Now, many years after he finished his PhD at the University of Adelaide, he has been honoured with an Emeritus Professorship from UOW, awarded during a conferral ceremony held yesterday (Tuesday 8 December) at Innovation Campus.

The prestigious honour recognised his immense contribution to the research of pure mathematics and computer modelling, as well as his passion for learning and teaching.

An admired national and international scholar for more than forty years, Professor Williams said he was shocked to learn that he would be receiving an Emeritus Professorship.

“I was overjoyed,” he said. “I had no idea it was coming. I didn’t even know it was being contemplated. It is truly one of the highlights of my career and I did not expect it.”

Following his PhD, Professor Williams lectured at the University of Melbourne and Australian National University before joining UOW in 1985.

While at UOW, he wore many hats and took on every opportunity that came his way. Professor Williams’ passion of research was balanced by his interest in shaping the minds of the young mathematicians who joined his classes.

“I’ve always loved teaching,” he said. “It can be a bit stressful so at the start of every year I would think to myself ‘I’m not going to teach this year’. But that never ended up being the case. It is very rewarding.

“Teaching mathematics is a bit different to other subjects, in that you have to try and teach people how to solve problems and how to think. It is not just about memorizing. The only way you can teach is by example, getting students to do similar problems.”

In addition to teaching, Professor Williams has also served in a number of senior roles that have provided him with an insight into the governance of the University, including for the then Faculty of Informatics, followed by Head of School for the School of Mathematics and Applied Statistics, Associate Dean of Faculty of Business and then the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

“I feel like I have been learning the whole time I have been at UOW,” said Professor Williams, who joined the University in 1985. “I am so grateful that I have been able to have these opportunities while staying at the same place.”

UOW Chancellor Elizabeth Magassy, Emeritus Professor Graham Williams, and Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings. Photo: Paul Jones

UOW Chancellor Elizabeth Magassy, Emeritus Professor Graham Williams, and Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings. Photo: Paul Jones

These leadership roles have enabled Professor Williams to expand his skills and knowledge, but also gain an insight into the way people work. He prides himself on being a good listener and helping his staff to build confidence in their inabilities.

“Being a leader, you have to make plans, and then carry the people with you in those plans, so I think being a good listener is a really important aspect,” Professor Williams said.

“It’s a bit like mathematics, it came instinctively to me. I always thought leadership was more about the other people than about myself.

“One of the things I have loved about working across different departments has been the opportunity to get to know people from all parts of the University, including academic and professional staff and many students.”

Associate Professor Di Kelly, from the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, and Professor Rodney Nillsen, from the School of Mathematics and Applied Statistics, who jointly nominated Professor Williams for the Emeritus Professorship, said their former colleague was the rare combination of being highly effective and highly respected.

“His deep interest in teaching and learning expanded from mathematics and statistics to informatics and computer studies, and then later across many disciplines. As rather a Renaissance man, Graham was able to offer insights and transmit ideals of good education across the disciplines, and is probably the only person at UOW who will be hold senior roles in fields as diverse as informatics, humanities, law, creative arts, and business,” they said.

“Graham was always assiduous in his support and wise counsel. He was not only helpful, but also through kindliness and incisive logic, offered real leadership.

However, Professor Williams always went back to his first love of research.

“Getting a research paper published, about a topic that I am I am really excited about, has always been a real highlight for me,” he said. “The satisfaction of having new research people, and expanding other people’s knowledge, makes me happy.”

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