University anniversaries

Sesquicentenary 1999-2002

Sesquicentenary of the inauguration of the University of Sydney, 11 October 2002

The University of Sydney Sesquicentenary celebrations commenced in 1999 and commemorated various important phases in the foundation of the University.

A formal ceremony was held on 11 October 2002 in the Great Hall to mark the sesquicentenary of the inauguration of the University of Sydney and of the commencement of Higher Education. The Governor of New South Wales attended the ceremony as Guest of Honour.


The ceremony began with an academic procession - the Organ Processional was the Grand Choeur Dialogue (Eugene Gigout).

The National Anthem 'Advance Australia Fair' (first verse) was played by Amy Johansen, Sydney University Organist, and the Sydney Conservatorium Brass Quintet (Andrew Evans & Julian Brun, Trumpet; Gerard Patacca, French Horn; Michael Wyborn, Trombone; Matthew Walmsley, Tuba)

There was an acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples of the Sydney region at this ceremony through a "welcome to country" delivered by indigenous elder Sylvia Scott.

The Chancellor, the Hon Justice Kim Santow, then welcomed the Governor and guests and spoke about the ceremony.

There was an historical feature 'An Act to Incorporate and Endow the University of Sydney - A Performance for Voices' scripted and narrated by the University historian Dr Julia Horne and featuring the distinguished acors Barry Otto and Peter Carroll.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown, spoke about the significance of the occasion and the future of the University and of higher education in Australia and the world.

Musical items included the "White Cockatoo Spirit Dance" which was written by Dr Ross Edwards and performed by Thomas Dundas (violin).

At the ceremony, the Chancellor the Hon Justice Kim Santow conferred the degree of Doctor of Medicine (honoris causa) upon the Governor of NSW, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir.

The Governor then gave the address.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the departure of the Academic Procession was accompanied by the Recessional - Overture and Allegro from the Royal Fireworks Music (G.F. Handel).


Welcome by the Chancellor, the Hon Justice Kim Santow


Before welcoming all of you here and in particular our distinguished guests, I first acknowledge that we stand on the traditional tribal lands of the Eora and Gadigal Peoples. In responding to the Welcome to the Country so generously expressed by Ms Sylvia Scott, I am acknowledging a heritage more ancient by far than this University’s 150 years.

Our contemporary expression of that acknowledgement is this University’s recognition of the aboriginal tradition in our thriving Koori Centre. Under its auspices we were recently honoured by the challenging Charles Perkins Memorial address of Professor Marcia [MARSHA] Langton.

Now may I especially welcome the Governor of this State, Professor Marie Bashir, other distinguished guests, some of whom I will later mention, Fellows of Senate, Professoriate, Staff, Students, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Just 50 years ago the then Chancellor, Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn, said this of a centenary of a university. “From very early times it has been regarded as an outstanding event in its history, a festal occasion to be celebrated with social entertainments and ceremonial observances in which sister universities are invited to take part.” So it is with especial pleasure that I express the University’s gratitude to all of you who have joined us to celebrate 50 years later, including many from our fellow universities.

There is much in the origin of this University 150 years ago that has shaped us, in the vastly different circumstances of today. One of the most influential of our founders was William Charles Wentworth. His descendant William Charles Wentworth I warmly welcome to-day. The first William Charles Wentworth struck a contemporary note when pleading for a University founded in that infant colony. He said (I quote) “the establishment of a university was necessary to train people for increased political responsibility.”

For him, in a struggling colony still living under the benevolent patronage of the mother country, it was essential for the future leaders of our community to find their education here, however close our English ties. The contemporary version of that insight may see us expand at post-graduate level our public administration and government courses, providing mid-career courses for the public sector.

In a report to the Legislative Council in 1849 where Wentworth was a leading figure, it recommended “the founding … on a liberal and comprehensive basis of a university which shall be accessible to all classes …”. In his speech on the Second Reading of the University Bill in the Legislative Council, Wentworth returned to that fundamental value, one which has informed our most recent submission to the Nelson Review of Higher Education. “So far from being an institution for the rich, I take it to be an institution for the poor”. Those values retain contemporary significance, as we struggle to maintain access for all to a university education, despite depleted funding.

When one reads that early history with its close connection between this University and the Government of this State, that linkage is strikingly symbolised by the presence to-day of Her Excellency the Governor of New South Wales. We are proud that she bears the title of a Professor of this University. She epitomises those community values of a deeply compassionate clinical psychiatrist.

[One of the most memorable speeches I heard her give was at a gathering at Sydney University Women’s Rowing Club. She described how as a small child of immigrant background, she could view from her grandparents’ warehouse, the gothic stone of Sydney University, and yearned to be there one day.]

Professor Bashir as she became, was a distinguished member of our Medical Faculty. It is extraordinary that when the University was founded 150 years ago, Medicine was an adjunct of Science, and there were no women either teaching or studying. Medicine required an Arts degree and was taught by a professor of Chemistry who happened also to have a medical degree.

While today it might be thought harsh and unusual punishment to inflict the study of Classics on a budding doctor, we do recognise the need for a broader education for doctors in a number of ways. First, you must obtain another degree, though it need not be Arts. Moreover, the linkage between Humanities and Medicine is recognised in quite subtle ways. We teach Poetry through a course pioneered by Dr Stan Goulston to those doctors who learn how empathy for the patient is a product of our sensibilities sensitised through literature. At our last Senate meeting, we approved a course in “Medical Humanities”. It is a cross-disciplinary program of study which “addresses the impact of modern medicine on society”.

Sweeping rapidly over 150 years of history, I seize on two events of contemporary significance. At that same centenary celebration in 1952 to which I referred earlier, Sir Robert Menzies received yet another honorary degree. Perhaps inspired by it, he embarked on the first step towards autonomy in university funding, when he instituted in that year triennial grants from the Commonwealth, administered (later) through the Universities Commission.

Through these matched government grants, the university could for the first time budget with the assurance of funding for the ensuing three years. We have in our submissions asked today’s government to match that vision.

That assumption of Commonwealth funding responsibility was taken further by the Whitlam Government led by a distinguished graduate of this University; a person whom, with affection, we especially welcome today, the Hon. Gough Whitlam. He abolished tuition fees altogether in 1972. Two years later, by agreement with the States, the Commonwealth took over full responsibility for government grants to universities and colleges of advanced education. Sir Bruce Williams, also present today, as Vice-Chancellor and Chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellor’s Committee negotiated the indexation of grants as protection against the abolition of fees.

Some may say that this was the zenith of Australian university funding and that it has been downhill ever since!

But let us not forget that this ceremony recognises the extraordinary imagination and vision of our founders. They had the courage to build on a scale that transcended our humble beginnings, with but six professors and a handful of students.

Our participation today in this ceremony is an expression of our conviction that great universities are of profound importance for this country. This is because they express certain fundamental values. Those values are first, to preserve and raise high standards of scholarship. There can be no room for mediocrity in a great university. A University should be a place of humane cultivation.

But above all, as was said at our centenary 50 years ago, “the university is the guardian of objectivity of mind, the study of things on their merits, expression of the truth as the truth and not to please anybody else but to serve the truth.” That is what has inspired Sydney University over 150 years and will for its future.

The Governor's address

The Chancellor, the Deputy Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Fellows of the University Senate, Senior Academic Staff and Deans of the Faculties, Students, Distinguished Guests.

I thank you, most profoundly, for the great honour which the University has conferred on me today.

Thank you, Sylvia Scott, dear friend, for your welcome to country. It is a privilege also to express my respect and gratitude to the traditional owners of this land, their descendants and indeed to all Australian aboriginal people who have nurtured this great continent for tens of thousands of years.

I am humbled indeed to follow in the line of those whom this University chose to honour in its 100th year of celebration - names which illuminate the history of our nation - Douglas Mawson, William Morris Hughes, Essington Lewis, Robert Gordon Menzies, Dr Herbert Vere Evatt.

There is no occasion on which one enters this Great Hall, particularly as a former student or academic, that an awesome sense of history is not evoked; but also, a considerable sense of gratitude for the culture of learning and enquiry, for the intellectual riches, and the inspiration towards enlightenment abounding.

The Sesquicentenary year provides a further stimulus for reflection on this University’s culture and the determination of its founders, when the colony of New South Wales was little more than sixty years old, to establish a university which would respond adequately to a society whose burgeoning prosperity was predicted with immense optimism.

Of course, William Charles Wentworth comes immediately to mind. Child of Catherine, a convict mother, and D’Arcy Wentworth, the ship’s surgeon, and born in the colony, Wentworth had been appointed by my great predecessor Governor Lachlan Macquarie, to the position of Acting Provost Marshall at the age of 21 years.

Wentworth’s consistent support for the rights of emancipists, his powerful oratory, his strong rejection of an ethos of privilege, and his unswerving belief in the power of intellect, were fundamental factors in the direction which Australia’s first university would take.

As the official University history points out, (Turney C, Bygott U, and Chippendale P) - this model “would be fundamental to a self governing society”…. and further, that ”if property and intellect were the way out of infamy or idiocy, - essential to these and to the management of the state was an enfettered means to higher learning, open to all classes and to all denominations, and under the auspices of the state”.

Across 150 years of achievement, this philosophy and this model of idealism and integrity has served the nation well.

As a graduate in Medicine, I am grateful also for the considerable legacy of excellence which has followed the Faculty’s establishment in 1856.

It is interesting to note that the Bylaws required that the first medical students were to be twenty-one years old and were to have acquired one earlier post-graduate qualification, such as arts. One hundred and fifty years later, we have returned enthusiastically to that model of a graduate program.

In this University, there is no place for stasis or complacency.

Following in the giant steps of Anderson Stuart and Scot Skirving, Lambie and Dew, this University with considerable commitment by our former and present Dean, has opened the doors for greater participation by indigenous scholars, and has pointed the way to a generation of students in the health sciences to consider their practical commitment to aboriginal health with some indications of more positive outcome.

The University is immensely proud of its priceless Macleay Museum Collection, which tells so much of the pre-colonial history and rich culture of Australia’s aboriginal people, and which reminds us across all Faculties of our continuing obligation to the betterment of Australia’s first peoples.

Equally important, I believe, is the way in which the University has increasingly encouraged the formation of collaborative links with academic colleagues and universities in our region and beyond. These initiatives began shortly after the ending of World War II and we have seen rich cultural exchanges resulting from the Department of Archaeology’s collaboration with their colleagues in Jordan, and the wondrous Pella excavations.

Other links to Universities in the Middle East have been developed.

We are confident that collaborative programs in advanced medical education with University colleagues in Vietnam, China, and Indonesia have the potential to contribute significantly to the building blocks of regional peace and prosperity, to Australia’s advantage.

As Governor of New South Wales, I shall be leading a trade delegation on behalf of the state to these regions next year. I am strengthened greatly by the knowledge of the contribution which our University has begun and is continuing to make.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, colleagues and friends, I am indeed proud to accept this honorary degree, and I can assure you that I shall continue to uphold the ideals of this University and to work for its well-being as a proud and grateful graduate.

Thank you all.