Ken Michael interview, 23 April 2015 and 6 May 2015

Dublin Core


Ken Michael interview, 23 April 2015 and 6 May 2015


Other – Chancellor (at UWA from 1950s)


Dr Ken Michael AC was installed as the thirtieth Governor of Western Australia on 18 January 2006, retiring from this position in May 2011.

He was educated at Highgate Primary School, Perth Boys’ School and Perth Modern School. He graduated in civil engineering from The University of Western Australia and completed his PhD degree at Imperial College of Science and Technology in London.

He was Chancellor of The University of Western Australia, Chairman of the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, Chairman of the Western Australian Museum and a member of the Economic Regulation Authority. He also served as Commissioner of Main Roads and Public Service Commissioner.

Dr Michael has made a significant contribution in many areas, including public service, engineering, academia and, in general, to the Western Australian community. He continues his support of the community in his retired capacity. He is currently Chairman of the Australian Defence Force Assistance Trust and Chairman of Broome Future, as well as being involved in other community based activities.

He has received a number of awards in recognition of his contribution to his profession and the community. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1996 and Companion of the Order of Australia in the 2006 Australia Day Honours.


Michael, Ken


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Ken Michael


Interview (1) 1 hour 10 minutes 43 seconds
Interview (2) 55 minutes 38 seconds
TOTAL: 2 hours 6 minutes 21 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1: Thursday 23 April 2015
Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis
00:39 Educated at Highgate Primary School, Perth Boys’ School (1951-1953) and Perth Modern School (1954-1955). Went to UWA in 1956. Debating and sporting opportunities at Perth Boys’ School. Had caring teachers at all of his schools. Mathematics was his favourite subject.
06:02 Engineering was a 5 year course. Student numbers had reduced considerably by 5th Year. Dr Michael had to do a supplementary examination in English which provoked letters to the West Australian debating how much English an engineer needed and eventually an editorial “The Un-poetical Engineer”. He is now very interested in English and History. He did not engage in sporting activities at university. At Perth Boys’ School, he chose “Roads” as the subject for a talk.
10:13 To go from high school to university was quite a bit jump. He is supportive of the new 5 year course structure being introduced at UWA. First year students were initiated by the other students in the Engineering hall. It was just good fun and nothing dangerous. The School of Engineering was off the main campus and situated near Matilda Bay. Lectures were in Shenton House. Engineering students also took lectures with the science students. The first three years was a general education. Students were encouraged to join the Engineer’s Club. The student experience through the Guild was very good. Dr Michael chose Civil Engineering over Mechanical and Electrical Engineering for his last two years of study. Civil Engineering students did survey work in the university grounds and studied astronomy. They had to create their own design project and drawings.
16:17 Dr Michael enjoyed the theoretical component of the course. Fundamentals were stressed. The lessons he learnt at UWA are still applicable today. You need to identify the problem, enunciate the assumptions and establish the boundaries. It is a very methodical way of working. He finds reflection an important element in undertaking any task. George Hondros was a key lecturer who taught structures. Graham Glick taught structures and design elements. Campbell Massey taught the theoretical elasticity approach to science in general.
19:30 There were outside lecturers as well. The hydraulics lecturer was a practising engineer. His practical knowledge was very helpful. The exams in this subject meant that you had to apply the principles. Gilbert Marsh, a Bridge Engineer at Main Roads, lectured to the 5th year students. Gilbert Marsh was a close colleague of George Hondros. George Hondros told Dr Michael that he should contact Gilbert Marsh to get a job at Main Roads. Gilbert Marsh agreed to this and offered him a job over the telephone. Gilbert was a great mentor during Dr Michael’s time at Main Roads.
23:00 Civil Engineering graduates could work on public buildings, consulting or construction. Dr Michael wanted to understand structure and design and to gain an overall picture. He also wanted to be able to apply the skills he had developed at university. He only intended to work at Main Roads for 3 years but Gilbert Marsh encouraged Dr Michael to remain at Main Roads. He also encouraged him to apply to Imperial College in London. Dr Michael got a scholarship to attend Imperial College and went to London with his new wife Julie in 1964. It was a good decision. The lecturers at Imperial College were very close in teaching methods to those at UWA.

Track 2
00:00 In the first three years at UWA, the engineering students took laboratory classes with the science students. The new buildings in Fairway were finished in about 1959. Dr Michael used the new building to test concrete models for folded plates for his Honours thesis. The students also tested soils and used theodolites to survey the empty grounds more or less where the University Club is now situated. He remembers the agricultural area around Shenton House where sheep nibbled the lawns. Hymie Spiegel, the Government astronomer taught the students. One of the projects he set them was to view a star by day using mathematical calculations.
05:58 It was a broad education. It was too early for the resources boom but opening up the State and infrastructure was very big in the mid-1950s and 1960s. In 1955, Professor Gordon Stephenson and the Town Planning Commissioner Alistair Hepburn published the Plan for the Metropolitan Region (the 'Stephenson-Hepburn Report'). The decision was made to build the Narrows Bridge and Michael visited the site when he was in Fourth Year Engineering. The bridge was built by the Danish firm Christiani and Nielsen in conjunction with Clough Engineering. The bridge used a new construction method – pre-stressed concrete.
11:57 The new Narrows Bridge used different innovations in construction. Things had changed over the fifty years between the building of the first bridge and the second bridge. University training and research programmes are instrumental in developing new technologies.
15:10 It was an exciting time to join Main Roads. In-fill material for the Narrows Interchange was being developed. The materials were tested in the labs at Main Roads and at UWA. Gilbert Marsh was very skilled in this area. Main Roads had a good relationship with the university. Main Roads people gave talks at UWA and mentored the students. The piers on Mount Henry Bridge were tested at UWA using micro concrete models. UWA also did specific testing for Main Roads from time to time and Main Roads sponsored short research programs at UWA. Dr Michael believes it is essential for academia and the profession to maintain strong links.
20:25 Dr Michael wanted to do postgraduate study. He could have gone to New South Wales but was advised to go to London. Dr Michael did a computing course in 1962 and used the new Main Roads computer, the Bendix G-15D, to do the calculation and analysis for a joint paper published in 1964. He enjoyed the analytical aspect. Dr Michael was supported by Main Roads and got a British Council Scholarship that enabled him to study at Imperial College, London. He married Julie in July 1964 and they set off for London in August 1964.
25:51 The couple returned to Perth in February 1968. They took advantage of living in London to see the UK and to travel in Europe. Dr Michael was awarded a PhD in 1968 for his analysis on shallow shells. He was inspired by the many bridges he saw in Europe including those in London.
33:05 At Imperial College he was exposed to other international students. Some of the inspiring people who delivered general lunchtime lectures included the Archbishop of Canterbury and Sir Barnes Neville Wallis of Dam Busters fame. Imperial College also taught him to stick to the fundamentals.
38:12 Returning to Perth, Dr Michael worked on the Mount Henry Bridge before he moved to Geraldton with Main Roads. He returned to Perth in 1976 and was able to finalise some of the details for the Mount Henry Bridge as the contract had been let. He worked on the extension to the freeway and country bridges and became more involved with construction. In the three years that Dr Michael was away, Perth had begun to change towards being the modern city it is today. Malcolm Street Bridge was in place and the freeway section was built but the Narrows interchange was being planned. Dr Michael used modelling to help understand some of the features for this. Even in the last 10 years he notes that there has been a dramatic change in the Perth skyline.

Interview 2: Wednesday 6 May 2015
Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis
00:50 Students worked for Main Roads during vacations and Dr Michael supervised them. He also taught a Masters’ class on Foundations. He remained involved with members of the Faculty both through his connections with Engineering Australia and with joint research programmes.
02:52 Dr Michael finds UWA campus a delightful place – then and now. Engineering students spend most of their time around the Matilda Bay area although they did visit the refectory and take part in the tug of war with the lawyers across the reflection pond.
05:30 He considers Winthrop Hall a magnificent building and enjoyed the Graduation ceremonies at which he officiated. There were only about 15 Civil; 8 Electrical and 4 Mechanical engineers who graduated in 1961. He considers the graduation ceremony to be a special 10 seconds and a moment when a student’s life can take many different directions. Contribution to your profession is important but so is contribution to the wider community. Now there would be approximately 150 plus engineering graduates each year.
12:10 Some Engineering graduates became consultants. A government job is no longer secure as it was then. Main Roads had a cadetship system but was forced to reduce the number of cadets that they took over time. Engineering students used to have to spend 12 weeks in industry to do practical work as part of their degree. UWA and Curtin were the main source of the engineering students who came to Main Roads. Dr Michael also encouraged draughtsman in Main Roads to study and become engineers. Some of the students challenged the way things were done and stimulated discussion at Main Roads through their questioning. They were encouraged to bring forward ideas. Dr Michael is of the opinion that listening is key and that there is always more than one way to solve a problem. Sometimes you have to go back to basics and rethink something.
20:03 Dr Michael was Commissioner of Main Road from 1991-1997. An essential part of his role was to consult the staff in the various offices and to take part in community consultation – over the Graham Farmer Freeway , for example. Dr Michael started Team Brief information sessions in Main Roads on a Friday morning to keep everyone in the organisation engaged and informed. He attempted to lead through engagement.
24:57 Dr Michael was elected to the UWA in 1998. He was approached by friends in Convocation and asked to join. He had attempted to join the Senate some years before but was unsuccessful. The Senate seeks people with a broad perspective who can relate with the wide range of activities that take place at UWA. They are also looking for professional expertise that people can bring to the table. Some positions are ex-officio and include students. The Senate comprises a very broad cross section of people. The university not only offers services to graduates but to the school community and to the broader community. An example of the latter is the Festival of Perth which has been operating since 1953. The university campus is also used for public forums. The university is there to offer opportunity for debate.
29:12 Originally there were 24 people on the Senate. This was reduced to about 18 people. At first they met monthly and then bi-monthly. The Senate has a committee structure in place that can allow for bi-monthly meetings and which leaves the Senate free to concentrate on the strategic direction of the university. The committee structure also allows people from the business community and other areas to contribute their expertise.
31:27 Dr Michael was elected as Pro Chancellor from 1998-2000. The Chancellor’s term used to be for one year and the Chancellor was elected annually from within the Senate. This changed to a four year term and the Chancellor could be elected from within the wider community. Dr Michael was very pleasantly surprised to be elected as Chancellor and his wife, Julie, considered this to be a special highlight. He had retired from Main Roads in 1997 to work as a consultant. Even though this change did not make his workload any lighter, he kept time for university business and would meet with the Vice Chancellor (Derek Schreuder and then Alan Robson) on a weekly basis.
35:50 Dr Michael regards the role of the Chancellor as being like the Chairman of the Board; the Vice-Chancellor is the CEO and the Pro-Chancellor is the Deputy Chancellor. If the Chancellor was away, the Pro Chancellor has to stand in for him such as at graduation ceremonies. Dr Michael believed the relationship between the executive team and the academic staff to be good at that time. He met with the academics and with the students.
39:39 There was an instance where the students were concerned about changes being made by the Federal Government to Guild funding. The student experience at UWA is very important and one that is highly valued by the student body. He called a student protest that took place during one of the Senate meetings.
42:58 In 2000, the Senate had to address the fact that the Festival of Perth had spent too much money under the then Director, Séan Doran. There was talk of handing the festival over to the State Government but it was agreed that it had always been a means for the university to give back to the community and that it should be sorted out by the university. The situation was managed and from then on. the role of the artistic director was made separate from that of the general manager who managed the finances. When Dr Michael was a student the Festival was part of the summer school but it was fairly low key compared to today. Séan Doran took the festival out to the regions. Jonathan Holloway brought out the French marionette show The Giants in February 2015 which was a huge success not least because it provided free entertainment to the wider community.
49:00 Convocation, the graduates association for UWA, has been a very significant part of the university and they have representatives on the Senate. The warden when Dr Michael was elected to the UWA Senate was Sue Baker. The students are encouraged to remain active and engaged with the university after graduation. The alumni are given the opportunity to get together from time to time. UWA alumni are spread all over the globe. Dr Michael is proud to be part of Convocation and to contribute to it.



Michael, Ken, “Ken Michael interview, 23 April 2015 and 6 May 2015,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed June 13, 2024,