Economic historian heads to Harvard as chair of Australian studies

Australian Financial Review, Aug 2, 2021, Julie Hare Education editor

Australia’s parochialism is a blind spot in clearly understanding how it became one of the few nations globally to become a sophisticated and developed economy without a parallel rise in industrialisation, says Simon Ville, the next chair in Australian studies at Harvard University.

A historian and economist with sweeping interests ranging from multinationals in Australia in the 19th century to trade in exotic animal species, Professor Ville will teach his Harvard students about Australia’s economic development compared to similar nations such as New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.

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Professor Simon Ville, the next chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University, is interested in how Australia became a modern and sophisticated nation. 

“I will talk about how Australia fits in with the broader global context,” said Professor Ville, who is associate dean of research in business and law at the University of Wollongong.

“You want people to understand why Australia is important.”

Professor Ville will take up the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard for the 2022-23 academic year. The chair was established in 1976 as a bicentennial gift from Australia to America for its bicentennial anniversary.


The inaugural chair was held by Manning Clark and subsequent appointments have included poet Chris Wallace-Crabb, environmentalist Tim Flannery, journalist Paul Kelly, politicians Gough Whitlam and Mick Dodson and lawyer Helen Irving.

Professor Ville said his work crosses a wide range of fields, including economics, history, management, sociology, engineering and museum science.

His most recent book, which will likely form the basis of the course he teaches while at Harvard, explores how Australia developed as a modern, sophisticated and wealthy nation even though it never went through industrialisation like Britain and the US.

“We are still primarily a natural resource economy. That makes us different because most other natural resource economies have struggled,” Professor Ville said.

“There’s this idea that to be a modern economy you have to gone through an industrialisation process or industrial revolutions. But we’re quite different.