Educator extraordinary's radar tuned to excellence




29-6-1922 15-8-2011


DAVID Caro, an eminent physicist who became a major contributor to Australian higher education, serving as vice-chancellor of three universities and chancellor of a fourth, has died of heart failure at a residential care facility in Malvern. He was 89.

The son of George and Alice Caro, he was born in Melbourne and educated at Geelong Grammar School before starting a science course at Melbourne University in 1940. In his second year he joined the RAAF, where he and other recruits who knew some physics were introduced to radar one of the great secrets of World War II.

Caro learnt a lot about electronics, becoming expert at installing and maintaining airborne radar equipment around Australia and in the islands to the north. In 1946, he returned to university and completed his BSc with first-class honours in physics. A master's degree followed, working with Philip Law, then a lecturer in physics but soon to become an inspirational leader of Australia's Antarctic program, building equipment for measuring cosmic rays. The equipment, field-tested at Mount Hotham, was destined for Antarctica and led to several publications and the award of an 1851 Exhibition overseas research scholarship that took Caro to Birmingham University in England in 1949.

He chose Birmingham because Australian-born professor Marcus Oliphant was there overseeing the construction of a proton synchrotron intended to be the world's most powerful particle accelerator. For his PhD, Caro worked on the radio-frequency electronics that were to drive this machine.

In 1952, he returned to Melbourne University, where he proved an excellent lecturer, adept at making complex ideas comprehensible. His experience in Birmingham made him an obvious choice to lead the university's project to build an innovative, variable-energy cyclotron. Once completed, this machine gave several generations of postgraduate students excellent experience in nuclear physics research.

Caro, however, never developed an ongoing program of research using it. For him, as for Oliphant, the fascination lay in building a machine that worked, rather than in the experiments that one might then do with it. He also found himself with less time for research, because in 1961 he was appointed professor of experimental physics and head of department.

He proved an excellent administrator, declining to be a "god-professor" who made all decisions instead he instituted a more democratic committee system. New appointments reinvigorated a department that had become somewhat moribund, the curriculum was overhauled and new research groups established, and in time a new building, now known as the David Caro Building, provided more satisfactory accommodation.

He joined the department's high-energy physics research group that was running an experiment on the huge proton synchrotron at Brookhaven, New York. The experiment generated hundreds of thousands of bubble-chamber photographs that were brought back to Melbourne for analysis, and Caro worked to develop machines to measure the bubble-chamber tracks automatically. These machines depended on powerful computers, and Caro became an expert computer programmer.

In 1972, Caro was appointed deputy vice-chancellor. Adept with computers, he was instrumental in computerising the university's administrative systems, and he restructured the almost arbitrary way the university's funds were divided, employing a formula that rendered decisions transparent.

Caro was vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania from 1978 to 1982, arriving at a difficult time when the planned merger between the Hobart-based university and the Launceston-based Tasmanian College of Advanced Education was strongly opposed in many quarters. His collegial approach and willingness to listen calmed many fears and resulted in a successful outcome.

Concerned by problems in the university's superannuation scheme, he became a leading advocate of the nationwide scheme for university staff, Unisuper, that has become one of Australia's most successful superannuation schemes. The University of Tasmania was the first institution to join, and Caro later served for 10 years as chairman. Many thousands of university employees owe him an enormous debt.

In 1979, Caro became chairman of the government's Antarctic research policy advisory committee, which, under his leadership, laid the foundations of Australia's Antarctic program. The committee identified the need for a multipurpose ice-breaker vessel (later realised in the RV Aurora Australis), as well as air transport between Australia and its Antarctic bases, and proposed the system of research grants that has substantially increased engagement with Antarctica.

Caro visited Antarctica twice, including a brief but memorable visit to the South Pole.

In 1982 he returned to Melbourne University as vice-chancellor, and again proved a strong leader, successfully fighting off a state government proposal that would have exposed the university to greater political interference. Within the university, he strongly supported centralised services such as the computer centre and the university library, pushing through a massive increase in the library's acquisitions budget that transformed its ability to support the university's academic programs.

Caro was notably accessible he regularly appeared in the lunch queue at the university staff club and committed to a collegial approach to administration that kept staff morale high even as government funding declined. He retired in 1987, but his advice was much sought after by other higher-education institutions that were being transformed into universities.

In 1988, he was engaged to oversee the planned merger of the existing University College in Darwin and the Darwin Institute of Technology, to form the University of the Northern Territory (now Charles Darwin University). With the merger achieved, he became interim vice-chancellor until a permanent appointment was made. He also served on the council of the University of South Australia after this was formed out of the old South Australian Institute of Technology as a council member and later chancellor of the infant Ballarat University as a director of the Melbourne Business School and as president of the Victorian College of the Arts.

They all benefited from his wisdom, born of long experience of university administration, as well as from his capacity for cool, hard-headed strategic analysis informed by a clear vision of what a university should be.

A colleague of long standing wrote: "David always was well informed, inclusive, visionary, decisive, patient and courteous. I never heard him say anything that was not correct."

Caro married Fiona Macleod in 1954. She survives him, as do their children Richard and Catriona and granddaughter Marguerite.

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