Celebrating global achievements: 2012 honorary degrees ceremony

14 November 2012

Five exceptional individuals including an Academy Award-winning actress, a Nobel Laureate, an internationally recognised astronomer, an Australian literary icon and an exceptional Aboriginal musician assembled at the University of Sydney on Saturday 10 November to accept honorary degrees.

With the University's much-loved jacaranda in full bloom, Cate Blanchett, Dr Robin Warren, Lord Martin Rees, Kate Grenville and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu donned academic caps and gowns in the University's iconic sandstone Quadrangle before accepting their degrees in the Great Hall.

From Dr Robin Warren's tips on how to win a Nobel Prize to Gurrumul Yunupingu's hauntingly beautiful song 'Bapa', dedicated to his father and the role fathers play in society, the five honorands shared their wisdom on what keeps them motivated, how they reached their goals, and what the future holds in their fields.

In congratulating the honorands, Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence recalled the reaction of a group of students at the first honorary degree ceremony in 1901.

"They were excited by the mission of this place: a mission of excellence in service; a call to make a difference. Each of this evening's honorands has been chosen by the University community because we think that they are standard bearers for that fine tradition."

Honorary degrees are awarded to individuals who have achieved exceptional academic or creative excellence, or who have made an outstanding contribution to the wider community. Previous honorands include Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Germaine Greer, Charles Perkins, Margaret Olley, James Wolfensohn, Gough Whitlam, Yvonne Kenny and Nancy Bird-Walton.

Text of the Vice-Chancellor's address

Chancellor, honorands, ladies and gentleman: I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, paying my respects to elders past and present, and thanking the Freeman family for their wonderful acknowledgement of country.

Well I have to say that this has been a rather more sedate affair than the award of what was effectively, though not technically, the first honorary degree at the University of Sydney. In 1901 the Prince of Cornwall and York, the future George V, was here to open federal parliament and the University honoured him with an award ad eundem gradem. The University history, drawing on the language of contemporary sources, records that "to the credit of the independence of Young Sydney the students were rather worse behaved than usual." But it was bad behaviour prompted by good humour that the prince, though perhaps not the Chancellor and Senate, enjoyed very much. They sang poems that they had written in Latin and English so that no-one could hear what was going on, and throughout the ceremony they chanted "Where is John See's knighthood?" John See was the popular NSW legislator and premier who abolished sweating in clothing manufacture, set up the system of industrial arbitration and introduced women's suffrage.

They were standard bearers, those students, of a proud Sydney tradition: not a tradition of bad behaviour per se - we have no place for traditions of that kind - but a tradition of unashamed social activism in the service of the community for which the University was established. It is a kind of intellectual engagement. And the prince, who it is reported enjoyed the occasion enormously, must have listened, because John See was awarded a knighthood the following year.

This is a University that makes things happen. A snapshot of 2012 gives a picture, not just of excellence, but of impact.

Research achievements

This year our researchers helped develop a crystal that will revolutionise computing, enabling computers to perform calculations that currently stump the world's most powerful machines. When a multinational company recently sent out teams to determine where the most exciting work for the future of computing was happening anywhere in the world, all the teams put work at the University of Sydney first on their list. Scientists at the University of Sydney this year led an international team to discover a molecular structure in the body that functions as a kind of 'shock absorber' for us, paving the way for improved versions of human blood vessels and repair to skin damage. Our engineers have just entered into a partnership with Qantas to develop a new flight-planning system that will optimise routes, reduce fuel consumption for the benefit of the environment and improve operational effectiveness. Paradigm-shifting research at the University will change the way in which concert pianists approach the music of Brahms, Chopin and Saint-Saens.

I hope that you have found a seat, but that you are not sitting for too long. Researchers at the University have shown that adults who sit for 11 hours or more a day have a 40 percent higher risk of dying in the next three years than those who sit for fewer than four hours a day.

(L-R) University of Sydney Chancellor Professor Marie Bashir, Robin Warren, Kate Grenville, Martin Rees, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Cate Blanchett and Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence. [Image: Ted Sealey]
(L-R) University of Sydney Chancellor Professor Marie Bashir, Robin Warren, Kate Grenville, Martin Rees, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Cate Blanchett and Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence. [Image: Ted Sealey]

New strategies and partnerships

Did you know that the foreign policy of the governments of the European Union is going to be coordinated largely through a project in our new China Studies Centre? We have one of the largest concentrations of China expertise, not just in Australia, but in the world. We continue to harvest the academic resources of the University in large-scale interdisciplinary projects addressing the questions, not just that academics are asking, but that our community is asking. Our 450 million-dollar Charles Perkins Centre for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease has published a strategy that could revolutionise the way in which we approach weight management; our Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, involving 190 staff from the across the University, has already had significant policy impact in the countries of our region. We have entered into a multi-year multidisciplinary agreement with the town of Broken Hill in which both students and researchers will be able to partner with residents, government and business of that town in a range of research and community projects. It was humbling to be out there earlier this year, and to hear local businesspeople talk of the way that they took in these students to help the University, but the students had helped them increase the efficiency and the effectiveness of their work. We have adopted a new approach to indigenous education and research, one that makes engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and cultures the core business, not just of some, but of the whole University. In doing so, we have entered into agreements with local organisations such as the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Metropolitan Land Council, working together to serve local communities.

Research funding

We were this year more successful than any other Australian university in securing ARC discovery grants. Government and privately funded work will help manage climate change and food security; increase the detection of money laundering schemes; radically improve koala conservation; assist in the wellbeing of mothers and newborns; explore the use of mobile phone technology in health education both at home and overseas; reduce building emissions; contribute debate around immigration policy; develop better ways to use fruit and vegetable waste and much, much more. The winner of this year's ARIA for Best Classical Album was a collaboration between the Aboriginal musician William Barton, with whom we work very closely, and Matthew Hindson, an associate professor at our Conservatorium.

Student achievements

Those students at that first honorary degree ceremony would be proud. They would be proud that we are being true to the Wentworth tradition. They would be proud that we are being true to that distinctive Sydney tradition: a tradition of excellence in service.

And they would be proud, too, of what our students are achieving. They are also carrying on that tradition of making a difference. So a team of undergraduate inventors won an international competition in Denmark, with a digital display intended to encourage cyclists and mollify motorists. As a cyclist, I think that's important. Two of our honours students helped a parched shanty town in Peru by installing an innovative 'fog harvesting' system that will increase the availability of drinkable water. Seventy-four of our students were co-authors of a long-term project that involved breakthroughs in saltwater crocodile genetics. Our debaters continue to be ranked in the top two in the world. One of our PhD students even danced his way into victory in the fifth annual international 'Dance your PhD' competition, explaining his discovery of a super-strong aluminium alloy through a circus burlesque show. University of Sydney students and alumni won eight medals at the London Olympics and seven medals in the Paralympics.

But our student body is diversifying. We are increasingly true to Wentworth's vision that this should be a University uniquely accessible to students of promise, regardless of their background. We have introduced new admissions pathways for students from underrepresented groups. We have never before had as many students from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds and our completion rates for such students are the envy of many other universities. Our completion rates for indigenous students are equivalent to our completion rates for non-indigenous students. We have launched a new program to make university study accessible to students with intellectual disabilities as we challenge prejudice around the question of who has the capacity to make an intellectual contribution.

Working closer with industry

In our education programs, we are listening to employers. For example, we have developed a new program of training for our PhD students to help them better to prepare for employment; we have launched a new MBA that involves close cooperation with a recruitment firm to identify the precise educational and career needs of each student, designing a curriculum that is best suited to them individually. Our new Centre for Project Leadership, founded with a $20 million gift from businessman John Grill, will better prepare leaders for large-scale projects of all kinds.

But what is perhaps as gratifying as all this success in 2012, is that our community is acknowledging the remarkable work of the University. We are being recognised for the contribution that the University is making. Our donor numbers, for example, were up this year by 33 percent on last year, with particular increases amongst the young. This year, for the second year in a row, we raised more money than any other Australian university has ever raised. Our community can see that remarkable things are happening here.

Staff achievements

And, of course, more broadly, the individual achievements of our researchers, teachers and students continues to be recognised by their peers. Take history as a discipline. This year a University of Sydney researcher won the American Historical Association's 2012 Award for Scholarly Distinction, the highest honour in historical studies in the United States, and closer to home, a Sydney historian won the Prime Minister's Literary Award for non-fiction, the Victorian Premier's Award and the Queensland Premier's Award. I could recite a similar list for disciplines across the University.

Wentworth founded an extraordinary place and those students back in 1901 knew it. They were excited by the new prospects that federation was to bring; they, like every generation, had enormous blind spots that it is the work of a university to challenge. They were, for example, barely aware that this country they thought of as so young was the home of the oldest continuing culture on earth. But they were excited by the mission of this place: a mission of excellence in service, a call to make a difference. Each of this evening's honorands has been chosen by the University community because we think that they are standard bearers for that fine tradition. They are people of talent and of courage, (as I usually say to our graduands) of hard heads and soft hearts. I think that if those students from 1901 were here we would barely be able to hear ourselves think with the roaring, so proud they would be of what we have become, and so keen they would be to honour these extraordinary people. Congratulations to our honorands. Congratulations to the University of Sydney on another remarkable year.

Speech delivered by University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence on Saturday 10 November 2012.

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