Vice-Chancellor's Report

Endowed with generosity

Dr Michael Spence

Like great institutions all over the world, the University of Sydney has benefited from the generosity of many foresighted individuals. It is hard to overstate the importance of people like Thomas Barker, John Henry Challis and Thomas Fisher in our first few decades.

More recently people such as Judith and David Coffey, Greg and Kay Poche, the Maple-Brown family, John Hooke, Warren Halloran and John Grill have enabled us to take giant steps. Without their support and that of numerous others, this would be a very different university.

From our very beginning it was commonly expected that as a public institution the University would enjoy support from both government and public-spirited citizens. It was to be “a joint exercise in civic responsibility”, as Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington point out in their recent excellent history, Sydney, the making of a public university.

In some ways, the foundation of the University in 1850 provided an important impetus for ‘giving’ for a new affluent middle class culture, different from the established notion of giving money as a matter of religious duty to hospitals, churches and charities. As Charles Nicholson said at the University’s inauguration ceremony in 1852: “the foundations for the higher branches of learning can only be maintained and perpetuated by permanent endowments”. Although Nicholson was mainly thanking the NSW legislature for providing permanent funds for the fledgling university, he was also encouraging private benefactors.

His appeal was answered almost immediately by Thomas Barker, a self-made man with no university education but who recognised the importance of learning and gave an endowment of one thousand pounds to fund a student scholarship to be awarded on examination results. That single gift was hugely symbolic because it underlined the meritocratic purpose of the new university.

Many more gifts followed and in the University’s first decade there were 21 benefactors who gave a total of 7500 pounds, about the same as the annual salaries of six to seven professors. But it was in 1880, when government funding was severely restricted, that the really significant Challis bequest was announced. Like Thomas Barker, John Henry Challis did not have a university education. He made his fortune in property and pastoral investments and returned to England in 1859.

"Our mission is to create and sustain a community in which the brightest researchers and the most promising students, whatever their social background, can thrive and realise their full potential."

When he died over 20 years later, nobody at the University knew him and his bequest came as a complete surprise, but an extremely welcome one valued at 276,000 pounds (well over $30m today). The funds were used to establish seven academic chairs in disciplines spanning the arts, law and science. The bequest still exists and currently supports nine Challis chairs.

I’ve been reflecting on our past because we’re at another significant moment in the University’s history. Just like our founders we’ve set ourselves an ambitious target, to raise $600m from around 40,000 supporters. We’re faced with some major challenges. It seems highly unlikely the tertiary education sector will see an increase in government financial support in the next decade, whatever the outcome of the forthcoming federal election.

As a leading comprehensive research and teaching university we are committed to the transformative power of education. Our mission is to create and sustain a community in which the brightest researchers and the most promising students, whatever their social background, can thrive and realise their full potential. The foundation of the University as a secular and non-denominational institution was integral to its character as a public institution. Wentworth’s vision of a public university where the students were selected on the basis of merit, is still at the heart of what we are about.

Our research is world class, confirmed by the most recent independent Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) analysis. Sydney is among the top universities in the nation based on the breadth and depth of our research performance. For ERA 2012 all areas of our research were rated at or above world standard, with the vast majority being above or well above world standard. We are making major advances with our new interdisciplinary research initiatives and have some of the world’s leading thinkers in our China Studies Centre, the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre and the Charles Perkins Centre for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease research. With generous support from our benefactors we’re planning new cross-faculty centres in areas as diverse as urban planning, project management and nanotechnology.

Philanthropy plays an important role in helping us be at the forefront of research, ensuring we can attract the brightest students and carry out our research and teaching in the best facilities possible. It makes the difference between a good university and a truly great one. I encourage you to read further details of our campaign elsewhere in this magazine, and I hope you too will be inspired.