Vale Associate Professor Peter Howard

ACU pays tribute to Associate Professor Peter Howard, who died last month after more than 33 years of service to the university in both academic and leadership roles.

Described as a pioneer of social justice in Australia, Associate Professor Howard died on 13 February 2024 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He had officially retired from ACU in 2020 after three decades of service.

Associate Professor Howard was best known for opening doors to innovative and accessible education opportunities for under-represented students, particularly First Nations People and Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The former director of ACU’s Institute for Advancing Community Engagement, Br Jude Butcher CFC, had worked closely with Associate Professor Howard during their time at ACU. Br Butcher described Associate Professor Howard as “friend of and scholarly advocate for people especially those experiencing multiple disadvantage and marginalisation”.

“His vision and leadership at ACU in engaging with Aboriginal people and communities was foundational to the integrity and sustainability of the university’s Indigenous education programs,” Br Butcher said.

“His vision, scholarship and collaboration at ACU with Earl Shorris from the United States and Mission Australia and St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia was foundational to the credibility and sustainability of the Clemente Australia Liberal Arts program.”

Commencing his academic career at ACU in 1987, Associate Professor Howard’s contribution to First Nations Australians began in 1988, when he was appointed academic coordinator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education at ACU, a role he held for six years. Through his role he helped establish the first Aboriginal education program in Moree, emphasising the need to work in partnership with Indigenous communities. He also trained teachers working on social justice programs in schools and the wider community.

Later in 2003, Associate Professor Howard brought a ground-breaking program in liberal arts to Australia from the USA.

The Clemente Course in the Humanities was founded by American writer and social critic Earl Shorris, who sought to establish an institution that could teach the humanities at a university level to Americans in financial distress. Associate Professor Howard saw an opportunity to replicate the program for Australians experiencing disadvantage and social isolation, introducing the Clemente-Catalyst program, initially supported by Mission Australia and the St Vincent de Paul Society.

In an interview with Four Corners in 2007, following the first graduating cohort of the Clemente-Catalyst program, Associate Professor Howard said the focus was “engaging people within our community, who for one reason or another, have lost their way”.

“A lot of the courses that are out there at the moment are vocationally based courses, looking at trying to link people back into the labour market, and what we’re doing here with a complete focus on humanities, is trying to enable people to look at their own lives and their own issues and how they fit within community,” he said.

Twenty years after Associate Professor Howard’s vision to change people’s lives through the humanities, Clemente Australia still operates through ACU in Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Ballarat, and Blacktown.

Many Clemente students deal with complex issues such as mental illness, disability, addiction, unemployment, homelessness, or family breakdown, and most have encountered barriers to their education aspirations.

Head of ACU Engagement, Dr Matthew Pink, also paid tribute to his former colleague.

“In the death of our esteemed colleague Peter Howard, Australia has lost a champion for those most marginalised by society,” Dr Pink said.

“Peter saw the opportunity to marry social justice work with the empowering gift of education, developing nation-first programs for Indigenous Australians, and making the humanities accessible to men and women who never imagined a university education possible.

“His commitment to working with community to address intergenerational problems was admirable, and ACU, and indeed our nation is richer for his unique approach to higher education.

“ACU community engagement stands on the shoulders of people like Peter Howard and we hope to continue his legacy for another 30 years and more.”

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