Ruth Fincher (Distinguished Fellowship)

Citation for Distinguished Fellowship of the IAG Ruth Fincher
Conferred Cairns, September 2009

Recognising Ruth Fincher as a distinguished Fellow by the IAG is a deserving reward for her contribution to geography, in Australia and internationally. Over an extensive and generous career, Ruth has, and continues to make, an enormous contribution to the integrity and development of geography – particularly human and urban geography. In true Fincher style, here are three reasons why Ruth should be applauded and acknowledged for her outstanding professional and personal commitment to human geography, and geography more broadly. First she has made a significant and profound contribution to feminist and urban geography for many years through her scholarship; second Ruth has demonstrated impeccable leadership of our discipline; and third Ruth has left a powerful legacy through her mentoring and support of young geographers.

Ruth received her undergraduate training in geography at the University of Melbourne. She was one of a small band of Australian scholars in the 1970s that were attracted to the graduate education in geography offered in North America. Ruth obtained her Masters degree in Geography at McMaster University in Canada and then, after a brief stint at Boston University, enrolled in a PhD in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, Massachusetts, USA. Since her return home in the 1980s Ruth has provided an important bridge between Australian and North American geography built on the strong connections she established during her graduate school years and subsequent employment at McGill and McMaster Universities.

Within feminist and urban geography, Ruth is a leader in the field. She has maintained an unwavering commitment to understanding the life chances of those less privileged and proposing concrete solutions to the dilemmas faced by individuals and groups within urban contexts, particularly women. This work is informed by her belief in the principles of feminist and social justice theory. Such political positioning is demonstrated in the publication of her work in prominent national and international journal, including Gender, Place and Culture; Social and Cultural Geography; Environment and Planning A; Urban Studies; Australian Geographical Studies; Environment and Planning D. Her work has also been disseminated in books written with other leading social scientific scholars, both in Australia and overseas. These include: Australian Poverty (with John Nieuwenhuysen) – which helped to renew debate about poverty at a time when, two decades after the release of the Henderson Report, social and spatial polarization were becoming more prominent; Creating Unequal Futures? (with Peter Saunders) — an analysis of poverty and its spatial outcomes that emerge from a real concern at the silence towards disadvantage in Australia at a time of relative prosperity; Cities of Difference (with Jane M Jacobs) – a seminal international collection that brought together leading academics grappling with understanding the notion of difference and its spatial significance. Most recently Ruth has continued her interest in the intersection of disadvantage, social difference and space in Planning and Diversity in the City (with Kurt Iveson).

Ruth’s many academic outputs have always been timely, contributing not just to debates within geography, but also in wider policy contexts. Central to the ability of Ruth’s research to make such a contribution has been her commitment to understanding the role of the state in society. Some of her earliest influential articles (with McMaster colleague Vera Chouinard) used feminist insights to challenge and expand Marxian approaches to the state. Her career is also a practical testament to the relevance of the geographical perspective to policy formation and implementation. In the early 1990s Ruth accepted a secondment to the federal Government’s path-breaking Bureau of Immigration Research. As Manager of Research she set research agendas that ensured a necessary balance of opinion on the often intensely debated matter of migration policy. Notable here was her important publication that systematically and emphatically challenged environmentally justified anti-immigration arguments. Understanding migration has remained an important thread in Ruth’s scholarship. More recently she has turned her attention to the relationship between housing markets, community building and migration, with a special emphasis on the urban transformations that have been generated by the international student migrations. This research has fostered collaborations between a diverse array of colleagues in architecture, urban design, geography and philosophy to expand our knowledge about the changing circumstances within Australian cities and provide solutions to emerging urban issues.

Ruth Fincher has undertaken a number of professional roles throughout her career that have provided leadership in Human Geography and the discipline of Geography more widely. Her dedication to the often-laborious task of contributing to numerous editorial boards, conference committees, professional groups, such as the IAG and SOAC demonstrate her energetic and determined commitment to our discipline. Ruth was on the IAG Council from 1992-2004, including a term as president, currently sits on the IGU Executive as a Vice-President, and was Chair of the Commission on Gender and Geography (IGU) from 1996-2000. She has ensured a voice for geography in other forums including the ARC, and as an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Within the context of The University of Melbourne, the institution where she has spent some twenty years of her career, Ruth has exemplified extraordinary qualities of loyalty, tenacity, collegiality and leadership. When Ruth arrived at Melbourne she came to a job with insecure tenure, accompanied by a young family and a well-known, and rather larger than life, husband who had been appointed to the Chair in her own disciplinary area. Despite these blessings and bothers Ruth made a unique and immediate impact at Melbourne. She established courses in urban and social geography that were relevant and theoretically informed. Together with Michael Webber and Geoff Missen she restructured the entire human geography program at Melbourne to one of the most enlightened and critical in the country. During years at The University of Melbourne, Ruth has shown immense flexibility and resilience in a period of continuous and often dramatic change. She has been in numerous leadership roles (in Australian Studies, Planning and Geography), often being the person the University called upon to manage change and open up new directions, including recently being the establishment Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. She is known throughout the University for her abilities in running committees effectively and generously. Like no other she knows how to use the committee structure to generate wider and fairer participation in change and decision making.

Finally, Ruth has provided mentoring to young geographers for many years. She has been one of the most productive and effective supervisors of her generation and has adopted a model that has been extremely supportive and instructive. When attempting to write this dedication I decided to undertake a small survey of young Australian geographers to ask for words they use to describe Ruth – to verify the voracity of my claims, something Ruth taught me many years ago. The responses can be easily divided into two categories. People responded about Ruth, initially as an academic, then as a person. The people I approached, described Ruth with words such as ‘intellectually ‘incisive’, ‘scholarly’, ‘inspirational’, ‘collegial’, ‘efficient’, ‘tenacious’, ‘compelling’ and ‘dedicated’ – strong evidence that her colleagues hold her in the highest regard and see her as a leader in her field. However, Ruth Fincher’s contribution to geography has not simply been about academic outputs and professional leadership. Many geographers, including myself have been privileged to have Ruth guide, direct and mentor us in a supportive, instructive and collegial manner. In my mock survey, geographers talked about Ruth as ‘gracious’, ‘encouraging’, ‘supportive’, ‘welcoming’, and ‘humble’. I would suggest that the number of professors, who would be described in these terms by their colleagues, would be a very small number indeed.

Ruth’s scholarly work has been dedicated to social justice, about making sure people are treated fairly in every aspect of their lives. It is this philosophy that Ruth has practiced in her treatment and engagement with other geographers throughout her illustrious career. Her commitment to treating young geographers in such a supportive manner ensures the continuation of a strong and vibrant discipline.

Both in Australia and beyond, Ruth is highly regarded and respected. Bestowing the award of Distinguished Fellow of the IAG is a fitting way in which to honour Ruth. It recognises her many contributions to Geography and acknowledges the profound and lasting impact she has had on others working within, and beyond, our discipline.

Lauren Costello, Jane M Jacobs, Katherine Gibson, Janice Monk and Brendan Gleeson.