Vice-Chancellor's Report

Extraordinary generosity

Dr Michael Spence

With the sale of Picasso’s wonderful painting Jeune fille endormie, we celebrate an extraordinary moment in the University’s history – extraordinary not only because of the sheer magnitude of the gift but also for its impact on the University and what it says about the transformational power of generosity and the difference one individual can make.

While recognising that government plays an important role in financing tertiary education, many alumni and friends are surprised to learn that our Commonwealth operating grant accounts for only 18 per cent of our revenues, a share that has steadily declined since the mid-’90s. Less widely recognised is the important history of philanthropic support and how it has revitalised the University time and again.

In the late 19th century, John Henry Challis bequeathed his substantial estate, giving it the opportunity to put into place long-standing plans for modernising the University especially by introducing new disciplines and establishing a School of Law. The bequest also enabled us to establish 10 new professorships, and recruit staff in a range of disciplines.

Around the same time a Darlington resident, Thomas Fisher, bequeathed his estate to build a new library, enabling the University to build Fisher Library, the state-of-the-art-facility to which it aspired.

In the early 20th century, the income of the estate of Sir Samuel McCaughey, one of the University’s renowned benefactors, established seven professorial chairs. In the 1920s and ’30s, the aspirations of the medical school – to extend its functions to include research – were made possible by the generosity of George Henry Bosch, who established several Chairs; and the US-based Rockefeller Foundation, whose gift financed the construction of what later became known as the Blackburn Building. In the interwar period, specifically from 1925 until the outbreak of WW2, the University received more from philanthropy than from government funding.

Globally, we are witnessing a period of dramatic social, technological, environmental and cultural change. These are extraordinary times, requiring that we rapidly adapt to keep up with the dizzying pace of change while continuing to fulfil our fundamental purpose as a university: creating knowledge, educating students, transmitting culture.

Amid this, I believe that we are seeing a new era of philanthropy at the University of Sydney, one that future generations will recall as deeply transformational. In addition to the donation of the Picasso painting, we have recently benefited from several other gifts, which promise to be equally significant. As important, we are also witnessing an unparalleled growth in the number of alumni who choose to support the University through their annual contributions.

An extraordinary university is built on extraordinary generosity


As an expression of his commitment to exploring Australia’s Indigenous history, Tom Austen Brown (LLB ’46 BA (Hons) ’74) contributed $8.7 million to the University both during his lifetime and through his estate. With these funds, the University is naming a new Chair of Australian Archaeology and establishing a grant program to support research and fieldwork. This position and fund, endowed in perpetuity, will enable us to appoint a leading expert in the field and ensure that future generations understand and appreciate the legacy of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We recently learned of an $8.4 million bequest by Nancy Roma Paech. Earmarked for the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, the gift will be directed to support research and teaching that benefits the sustainable management of rangeland, pastoral and related inland Australian landscapes. Such low-impact agriculture represents the future of sustainable land management for a large proportion of the Australian continent.

Given their timing, purpose and size, these gifts will influence the University for generations to come. They enable us to recruit and retain leading scholars and researchers, provide state-of-the-art facilities, enrich the student experience and prepare our alumni to contribute to the global community. They support and provide enhanced opportunities to study and create the kind of groundbreaking ideas that transform the world. And they help maintain the University among the top ranks of universities worldwide.

While these visionary gifts move us towards our goals, significant resources – financial and otherwise – will be necessary to achieve our ambitious vision for the future. Our success will rely increasingly on the generosity of all our philanthropic partners.

An extraordinary university is built on extraordinary generosity. On behalf of the staff and students of the University of Sydney, thank you for helping us to respond to our ever-changing world through your transformational giving.