The common touch

By Alan Cameron AO

The University will reluctantly let Marie Bashir go back to her day job in December. Her colleague and deputy, Alan Cameron, reflects on the special qualities she brought to her five years as Chancellor.
Image of Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir at graduation

Medical Graduation ceremony, 2011

If there were a concept of a Renaissance woman, Marie Bashir would personify it: musical, artistic, well read, well educated. And if there were a concept of a University woman, she has embodied that too, right from the day she enrolled in Medicine and lived at the Women’s College.

Marie is, of course, a psychiatrist by profession. “Of course”, not simply because that is well known, but because those who knew her as a medical student saw in her the characteristics which led her to be so effective and well regarded in that profession – the fact that she listened and was a natural mentor to others, especially the (few) other women then studying medicine. One of those, several years behind, was the now Emeritus Professor Ann Sefton AO.

Ann was elected as the Medicine (Women) representative on the SRC, and found to her surprise and dismay, that that carried with it ex officio membership of the Council of the Sydney University Medical Society (Medsoc). She found Medsoc in those days an intimidating and chauvinist environment, but Marie Bashir was already there, a senior and leading figure in that society (and perhaps the only other woman at that time) – but not an activist, I am assured. She took Ann under her wing, and taught her how to deal with “the blokes”.

Ann Sefton was to repay the favour many years later when, as deputy chancellor, she led the process which resulted in Marie becoming chancellor.

What happens in the Women’s College stays in the Women’s College – apparently, since no-one will talk to me about those days. I have heard Marie do so only once, when she spoke movingly at the recent launch of Damien Freeman’s biography of the late Justice Roddy Meagher (SAM, July 2012). She regaled the gathering with a touching account of being invited out to dinner by the charming and attractive Roderick Meagher of St John’s College. What a power couple they would have been!

“Some students react very warmly – too warmly, I believe; one or two recently have asked to give her a hug to mark the event. She always agreed.”

This was, needless to say, before the arrival of the redoubtable Nicholas Shehadie on the scene. It is said that relationship happened inadvertently, in that she arranged to go out with him in order to introduce him to someone else, only to fall for him herself.

Image of Marie Bashir, 1955

As a student at the Women’s college, 1956

Marie graduated in medicine but could have been a music graduate instead, or these days, in addition. She juggled her violin study at the Conservatorium with medicine, and while the latter won out, her interest in classical music has not waned. We are no longer surprised to hear that she has attended a Ring Cycle performance in Bayreuth, Germany, on her way back from China via the Australian Archaeological Institute in Athens (sic).

She became a staff specialist psychiatrist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and was actively teaching our medical students in that capacity. The late Professor John Young arranged for her to be appointed as a clinical professor, and she was a pioneer in childhood psychiatry both here and in the developing world, especially in China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Indeed, she believed long ago that it was Australia’s destiny to contribute to the development of our neighbours, and put that into practice herself. These three countries were her prime focus in those days. On one occasion, she spent several weeks in Vietnam simply waiting for a visa to enter Cambodia. On at least one occasion, she may well have carried unofficial supplies of lifesaving drugs into other places.

She was in Dien Bien Phu for the 50th anniversary of the Vietnamese victory over the French, when she rang our Dean of Medicine to seek his help for a project in Vietnam, only to find he was already in Hue, in central Vietnam. And she was involved in family reunifications in both Vietnam and Cambodia after the conflicts in those places. She self-selected as the obvious person to be the patron of the faculty’s initiative in Hanoi, the Hoc Mai Institute, and went there on numerous occasions including the official opening, all before she became our Chancellor.

She became Chancellor of the University of Sydney on 1 June 2007, when her term as governor was to conclude in March 2008. Future historians may ponder whether she ever expected or intended to serve in both roles at the same time for quite so long, but no-one other than she was surprised when the then government extended her term, and when its successor in due course extended her term again!

“At times she was holding two day jobs; we only knew she was doing so if plain-clothed people talking into their lapels accompanied her to campus as she continued to perform her duties there.”

The result has been that she has spent five and a half years as Chancellor, while at the same time fulfilling her responsibilities as Governor of NSW, the highest office in the state. While some chancellors are semi-retired or in portfolio careers as company directors, none of her counterparts at other Australian universities currently seems to have a day job quite like that of our Chancellor.

As senior state governor, she often also served as Administrator of the Commonwealth, at which times she was holding two day jobs; we only knew she was doing so if plain-clothed people talking into their lapels accompanied her to campus as she continued to perform her duties there.

It is tempting to assume that the role of a chancellor is just the university equivalent of the chairman of the board in modern corporations. The role is more than that, but especially so for her.

She has thrown herself into what may be thought to be the repetitive task of presiding over graduations, giving them a personal feel, and giving every graduate a word in the ear. I can feel the warmth in the Great Hall for her at those ceremonies at which she presides, almost to the point where I feel the need to apologise when I preside because she cannot.

Marie Bashir with students

At the Women’s College with high school students, 2008

Marie threw herself into the detail of the job, actively chairing the two committees, Nominations and Chair Appointments, which come with the role. Those committees are about maintaining the high reputation of the University, always her first priority.

As she told former Fellow of Senate, ABC presenter Adam Spencer, after announcing her departure, among the special issues she cared about were Indigenous issues and international students.

She was actively involved in creating the role of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) and seemed to know personally all of the shortlisted candidates already. She helped entice Rachel Perkins, Charles’s daughter, to accept appointment to the Senate. And she was and is a great fan of our Sydney graduate, Jack Manning Bancroft, the founder of AIME, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience.

Marie Bashir at a recent event

Marie Bashir at an event at the Women’s College, 2009

Some react very warmly – too warmly, I believe; one or two recently have asked to give her a hug to mark the event. She always agreed. On the very rare occasion that I am asked, I always decline; somehow it’s right for her, but not for me. (But then, nor would I emulate her in addressing a certain senior staff member as “Sweetie”.)

Graduations in the other Great Hall, the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, were a particular joy for her, but also for the graduates and their families. No-one can miss the genuine sense of delight that she gets from sharing that moment with the students.

It was Henry Kissinger who is reputed to have said that “university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. I could not possibly comment, and in any event I believe he was talking about some obscure university in the Boston area. I can say that feelings often run high at our Senate meetings, and consensus, even if defined loosely, has not always been quickly or easily found on many of the diverse issues which come before Senate. What better person to chair a fractious meeting than a clinical psychiatrist, even if some of us occasionally thought those who disagreed (but not ourselves, of course) were being psychoanalysed as the meeting progressed.

Marie Bashir with elder

Launch of the University’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Integrated Strategy, June 2012

As a student at the time of the Colombo Plan and having since met so many leaders in Asia who were positive in their views of our country because of their Australian university education, Marie has warmly welcomed the prominent international presence on our campuses. She felt keenly the anguish of the families of overseas students when several were the victims of violence in recent years, and was personally involved in comforting them and their families. She also strongly supported the strategic imperative of improving access to housing which would be secure and affordable for all of them.

Her international representation on the University’s behalf has not always been at comfortable or convenient places. In recent years she has paid several visits to Mongolia because of her concern with its state of development, and is seeking to encourage links in diverse areas such as engineering and medicine.

Marie Bashir in the Quadrangle, September 2012

At the University, September 2012

Her rationale? Australian mining companies are doing well out of Mongolia, and we should put something back. She has been there so often and to such effect that she is now claimed by the expatriate community there as a ‘mossie’ – an honorary Mongolian Aussie. (Not all her attempts to reach Mongolia succeeded, however. High winds last year prevented her and the Dean of Medicine reaching Ulan Bator, but their advance party had got in, and completed the work at hand while she and the Dean sat, I suspect impatiently, in Beijing.)

No-one could have been a more active, successful and committed chancellor. We shall reluctantly let her go back to her day job in December, when she will resume the title of Visitor, and we shall look forward to her doing so – visiting, that is.