John Niland’s Wasteland

Some say that John Niland was born under a tree at UNSW. His life has, in one way or another, always revolved around the university. When he was the young student who helped mastermind Foundation Day in 1961, nobody knew how much of a lasting impact he would have had decades later as Vice-Chancellor.

Niland’s relationship with Tharunka was unique – it involved clashes as President of the Student’s Union, collaborations as with the ‘Sydney Moaning Tharunka’, and interviews during his tenure as Vice-Chancellor. But in speaking to him it became clear that he revered this irreverent student newspaper more than most.

For Tharunka’s 70th anniversary, Mr Niland recalled one of his most memorable clashes with the paper. It was called ‘The Wasteland Issue’. “At the time, we only had the Roundhouse and the old Main Building. The campus was totally bleak. Just sand, and when wind blew it was just awful.

Part of my DNA when I became the Vice-Chancellor was looking at the campus and thinking ‘What a godawful place. We’ve got to put up proper buildings and landscaping’. I was a serious gardener at heart and I needed the place cleaned up. I thought we had to even start that as students.” In 1961, before he had ever become Vice-Chancellor, he had that same attitude in seeing that the campus needed to be built up, but he wasn’t willing to criticise it in the same way Tharunka would.

I was a serious gardener at heart and I needed the place cleaned up. I thought we had to even start that as students.

“Tharunka took the view that students needed to publicise just how bad it really was if they were to get the funds to do something about it. So they put out an issue which was called the ‘Wasteland Issue’. It had photos of the campus which were absolutely abysmal, they were accurate but abysmal. Some of them were taken by the photographer laying down on the ground and taking photos of the weeds to make them look like trees. I was outraged.

Even at that stage [as the President of the Student’s Union], I was trying to build a sense of a visually perfect place in which to live and study, not just a place where you can get good lecture notes. During the time I was there we discussed not allowing the publication to go forward, not allowing Tharunka to be distributed because of the way it was treating the campus with disrespect, and it would give ammunition to our counterparts at Sydney University.

In the end, it got distributed, and looking back on it, I should’ve been a bit more comfortable with it being published, but then again, for the President of the Student’s Union to have a disagreement with Tharunka isn’t so bad in the broader scheme of things.”

“I suspect now, 65 years later, Tharunka was right, and I was not.”

Photographic Material Courtesy of UNSW Archives and Tharunka