Vice-Chancellor's Report

Centre to change people's lives

Dr Michael Spence

In 2010, a quietly spoken philanthropist flew to Australia with a rarely seen painting by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso in his hand luggage. The visitor walked into the office of our Director of Development, Tim Dolan, donated the artwork and said, “This is going to change the lives of many people.”

The small 1935 masterpiece, Jeune fille endormie, was sold at Christie’s auction house in London a year later for more than $18 million. The University of Sydney put this anonymous gift towards the cost of a new research centre which now stands as the embodiment of all that our university wants to be.

The $385 million Charles Perkins Centre, which opened in January, represents a new frontier in the world of teaching and research. It will create a community of researchers, unprecedented in this country, which aims to ease the burden of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Our “Picasso moment” of serendipity has grown into the realisation of a long-held vision for the University of Sydney: our best minds, from all disciplines, working holistically on health issues to generate real solutions and better results. We will bring together scientists, doctors, dieticians, physiologists, sociologists, philosophers, technologists, architects, educators, environmentalists, economists – even artists – to find 21st century answers to three of our most insidious modern-day killers.

As a large and diverse institution with a broad range of disciplines and a strong shared identity, the University of Sydney is the perfect place for such a project. At the heart of our strategy is our common purpose to create and sustain a university in which, for the benefit of both Australia and the wider world, the brightest researchers and the most promising students can thrive and realise their full potential.

Huge possibilities for innovation are opening up as we break down the barriers between faculties and disciplines, remembering what it means to be a University, and investing in multidisciplinary collaborations on a significant scale.

Of course, it has taken more than a Picasso to make this vision a reality. The unique research opportunities created by the Charles Perkins Centre have inspired many organisations and philanthropists to make a substantial contribution towards its work.

This includes a $5 million donation from the Australian Diabetes Council to establish a chair in diabetes to lead research alongside professional, industry and government bodies in the area of diabetes prevention and treatment; the Francis Henry Loxton bequest, which provides annual income to the University for research projects and scholarships in the faculties of Engineering, Agriculture and Environment, and Veterinary Science; and a $4 million gift from Janet Dora Hine, an alumna, to examine the impact of politics, governance and ethics in managing diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

More recently, we used a $2 million donation from Judith and David Coffey to establish a world-first research hub within the Charles Perkins Centre. The Judith and David Coffey Life Lab is a unique training environment at the intersection of the life, social, economic, and physical sciences.

In David’s words, “We chose the University of Sydney because it is a community of unorthodox thinkers and brilliant analytical minds. As an alumnus of the university, I have seen firsthand what graduates are capable of, given the chance. I want to support the discovery of new approaches to problem-solving, and we believe the Charles Perkins Centre is best positioned to take on the challenge.”

The Charles Perkins Centre is a striking piece of architecture itself, and it will become home to some remarkable discoveries. To quote my colleague, and Academic Director of the centre, Professor Steve Simpson: “To challenge societal norms, to improve world health, is about as big as it can get when you’re an academic researcher.”

The Charles Perkins Centre represents a new concept in how the university will remain a venue for world-class research. It is also the first of many new buildings that will transform and reinvigorate the campus of the University of Sydney. Others include the new School of Business in the Abercrombie precinct, and the Australian Institute for Nanoscience.

It will be 50 years ago next year that Charles Perkins, while studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney, organised a group of 30 students to travel to Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey to protest against discrimination and poor living conditions in these communities.

Charles was a man who ignored traditional limitations, and worked across boundaries to create new partnerships, new opportunities, and new ideas to change the way Australians view themselves. This will be the hallmark, and the impact, of the teaching and research centre that carries his name as it works to ‘change the lives of many people.’