A Swinburne honorary doctorate recipient, Jeanne Pratt AC has a long-held association with Swinburne through the Pratt Foundation and her late husband, Richard Pratt, Swinburne’s foundation chancellor
As the crow flies, the Pratt family’s historic Raheen estate in Kew lies less than three kilometres from Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus. In other ways, it seems worlds away. In contrast to Swinburne’s inner-urban laneways, high-rises and bustling public spaces, Raheen is six serene acres of greenery. The Italianate mansion and its light-filled contemporary extension is surrounded by soaring trees and abundant flowerbeds. Yet the two places share a connection and have done since 1993 — the year in which Richard Pratt became Swinburne’s founding chancellor.
Richard Pratt: our founding chancellor
Jeanne Pratt recalls that it was Jeff Kennett, then Victoria’s premier, who made the approach to see if her late husband might be willing to help steer Swinburne through its first years as a university. It was 1992 and Richard — a Polish-born former footballer and student-actor turned manufacturing magnate — was ‘incredibly busy’, leading arts and community organisations as well his family’s rapidly growing business and investment empire. Despite lacking anything resembling spare time, he accepted. ‘Richard knew from his experience as a manufacturer at Visy that technology was vital to progress and growth, not just for his business but for all business. And he had always believed that Australia’s future depended on education,’ Jeanne says.
It was important to Richard to be more than a figurehead. ‘He devoted a lot of time to Swinburne and took it very seriously. He wanted to do more than preside over university council meetings and attend graduation ceremonies, although he did do that of course, because it was important.’ Richard worked closely with Swinburne’s first vice-chancellor, Iain Wallace, and shared his vision for what the university could become. ‘I think that as Swinburne was a “new” university, it meant that while it had that tradition of connection to “the real world”, it was also less set in its ways and willing to try new things, perhaps more than some of the older, more established universities,’ Jeanne says.
‘Iain said that Swinburne shouldn’t try to do all the things that other universities do but to do some things really excellently. It had to take risks and Richard liked that approach because he was an entrepreneur — he knew you had to take risks to achieve any success.’ Richard hired specialist staff to help him do the job and liaise with Swinburne daily.
While Richard visited Swinburne regularly, Jeanne joined him in contributing to special projects, especially the development of the Lilydale campus. ‘Swinburne had to create that campus on what was just mostly empty land and both Richard and I wanted it to stand out and not just be another group of buildings,’ she says.
Glenn Murcutt, the Pritzker prize-winning Australian architect, had already worked closely with Jeanne to design the family ‘apartment’ extension to Raheen. ‘We arranged for Glenn to design the main hall at the Lilydale campus to fit in with the rolling bush landscape. It was quite something and attracted a lot of interest as an innovative architectural design.’
During Richard’s years as chancellor, the Pratt Foundation and Visy contributed approximately $1 million a year to the university and its programs. The donations helped shape Swinburne’s direction and its physical environment at Hawthorn as well as at Lilydale.
That said, the Pratt family’s philanthropy is more about effecting change than building monuments. ‘We’re very happy that the Pratt Foundation worked closely with the university and, together with the Myer Foundation, provided the seed funding to set up Swinburne’s Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy. My daughter Heloise, the Foundation Chair, was very supportive of the centre, which has trained a whole new generation of philanthropy professionals,’ Jeanne says.
Swinburne and Raheen
Although she speaks of philanthropy rather than charity, the adage that ‘charity begins at home’ is rarely more meaningful than at Raheen. For decades the sprawling mansion and its tower — built on what was then 44 acres, for beer baron Edward Latham — belonged to the Catholic Church. It was famously the residence of the politically powerful Archbishop Daniel Mannix as well as his successors. When the Pratts bought Raheen in the early 1980s its elegant bones were largely intact but the interior was cold and shabby, needing years of demanding and detailed restoration.
Jeanne found the curators and craftsmen who could best do the job (‘I often say my only talent is knowing talent when I see it,’ she says) and, having brought this 19th-century beauty back to life, put her to work. ‘We have something here twice a week,’ Jeanne says. ‘Something’ typically means a party of some description — perhaps a dinner or cocktail function. Raheen has hosted receptions for luminaries ranging from Muhammad Ali to the King of Sweden but more often the occasion will be a fundraiser or launch for one of Jeanne’s and her immediate family’s many philanthropic projects and passions.
Swinburne is among the beneficiaries of Raheen’s fabled hospitality. The glorious ballroom, with its original stained glass and view over the drive and front lawn, has been the scene of many university gatherings. ‘We had the annual dinners and receptions for the Swinburne alumni at Raheen for about 15 years,’ says Jeanne. ‘We launched quite a few Swinburne projects there too. An important one was the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA), which has been part of Swinburne for 20 years and is the only one of its kind at any Australian university. When we launched it at Raheen, with the late Dick Hamer as the first chairman, Richard welcomed everyone by singing "Send in the Clowns" by Stephen Sondheim.’
Recognition for Jeanne
In 2011 Jeanne returned to the Hawthorn campus to accept an honorary doctorate for her contribution to the arts, Australian society and Swinburne. A lover of words since childhood, she’d begun a law degree at The University of Sydney after leaving school. Life intervened before she could finish it: Jeanne was offered a job in journalism, a career that led her to meet Richard on a work trip to Melbourne.
‘It was rather a fun day, being robed and marching in with the academic procession. And it’s always great to see the young graduates and their families on such occasions. But I couldn't take myself too seriously because, as I said in my acceptance speech, even Kermit the Frog had received an honorary doctorate in the USA. On the more serious side, it was very meaningful because it was Swinburne, where we’d had so much to do with the university in so many ways.’
Jeanne was especially pleased to have former Vice-Chancellor Linda Kristjanson preside over the August ceremony ‘just a few months after she’d taken up the position in May of that year as the university’s first female vice-chancellor’.
An enduring relationship
The Pratt association with Swinburne endures. Visy still works with the university on supply-chain planning and manufacturing technology, while the Pratt Foundation continues to support NICA and other Swinburne programs. It’s not all about business or philanthropy — there’s a personal connection, too.
‘As universities go, barely 25 years since its beginning, it’s come a long way in a relatively short time,’ Jeanne says. She notes Swinburne has become a global institution. ‘The fact that it’s become a university of choice for so many students tells you something, too. One of my grandchildren, Ben, is studying there — not because of the Pratt connection, but because it offered him what he wanted to study.’
Words by Cathy Gowdie.