50th Anniversary Fundraising Campaign Gala Dinner

"On behalf of the University, thank you so much for being here this evening. It means so much that each and every one of you has made the time to be here.

Aunty Joy, the University Elder, Professor Richard Larkins, our Chancellor, and Caroline Larkins, Members of the University Council, Professor Adrienne Clarke, our immediate past Chancellor, Sir Andrew Grimwade, Chairman of the Felton Bequest, The Honorable John Brumby, former Premier of Victoria, and Dr Rosemary McKenzie, Mrs Olga Tennison and Mr John Richards, two of our most generous supporters, Mr Ahmed Fahour, Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, and Dionnie Fahour, Mr Ash Haran, representing our major sponsor, SAP, Senior members of staff from La Trobe, Mr Andrew Abercrombie, Chair of the Campaign, Ladies and gentlemen,

This is certainly an exciting year for La Trobe. We’re fifty, and of course we’re celebrating. But also preparing for the next half century. Our anniversary events are highlighting what’s so very special about our University.

We’re a bit different to the others – in many respects. We were set up in a unique period of change and upheaval.

By 1967, the idea that young people from places like the northern suburbs didn’t need a university education had reached its use-by date. So we were set up to prove something. Something incredibly important. That social equality and academic excellence could go together. And thrive.

And from those early days, we attracted incredibly bright young people. Questioners. Free-thinkers. Radicals. Some of whom are here tonight as our esteemed alumni. It was an amazing generation that has set the tone ever since. I’m only speaking briefly this evening, but I hope you can indulge me for a brief story. Some of you may have seen the terrific piece that the ABC’s 7:30 Report did on La Trobe recently. It told the story of the La Trobe Three – Brian Pola, Barry York and Fergus Robinson – who were jailed in the maximum security division of Pentridge in the 1970s for refusing to obey a Supreme Court order banning them from setting foot on campus during the Vietnam Moratorium campaign.

It was a terrible thing to do to young men barely in their twenties, putting them alongside hardened criminals in a prison notorious for its brutality. Unforgivable really. Two of them recently came back to campus – to the Vice-Chancellor’s office that they once were so familiar with, having occupied it… several times! And told me how terrifying it was, listening to the screams of other inmates being beaten and assaulted.

One of the young men had just come out as gay, which made it doubly terrifying to be somewhere like Pentridge in 1972. They’ve suffered for it for a long time, psychologically and career wise. But the thing that was most notable was that when they were first jailed they were told they would be released… if they apologised. If they apologised. How easy it would have been.

They refused. They were there for what they regarded as an important principle: the right to free speech, so they served their time. They’ve never even asked us to apologise to them – which involves a certain magnanimity that says a lot about their characters. They knew what the consequences of speaking out would be, and accepted them.

This is what one of them said to the 7:30 Report. "I think the best kind of compensation this university, 45 years later, can make … is to make sure it is a truly radical, cutting-edge university that fights for the rights of oppressed people all around the world." I would of course put it slightly differently – we’re not a political organisation but a university – but in the broadest sense it’s a challenge we can accept.

Radical, cutting edge, unafraid – a new type of university, pursuing a new type of excellence – that’s what I want La Trobe to be. The older and more established universities have had a monopoly on the concept of university excellence for too long. We are challenging them. Successfully.

Those young people in 1972 had a lot indeed to be worried about. Students of course face different problems today. Not life and death, but serious problems nonetheless. They face a new work order that demands new skills and knowledge, and new ways of working together, with fewer career certainties.

Starting out in adult life for them can be a long and arduous journey, often burdened by debt – worries our generation didn’t have. I’m sure you know many young people going through all this right now. Children, grandchildren, neighbours. And I’m sure that your heart goes out to them.

But you also probably see something you remember from your own younger selves: the courage young people are capable of in a hostile world. It seems our world is getting more hostile every day, including for universities.

We live in an era in which goodwill is disappearing. In which progress, science, facts, the very concept of the truth are being questioned, in ways we perhaps haven’t seen since the 1930s. All of us – supporters of universities especially – have to show leadership. Moral leadership. By championing knowledge and demonstrating its benefits to society.

There are some stunning examples on display this evening of what we’re doing at La Trobe to fulfil these promises. You’ve already gotten a taste – quite literally – of some of the important health a dietary work our dietics experts are doing.

Emeritus Professor, Nick Hoogenraad AO is here – and I’m sure you’ve already heard of his and Dr Amelia Johnson’s amazing work tackling the cancer-related disease Cachexia. The archaeological mapping exercise put together by our Department of Ancient History demonstrates how La Trobe is deepening the human race’s understanding of our common and shared ancestry. What could be more timely?

And you’re going to be hearing from one of our scholarship winners, to see how even a small amount help can make a huge difference to a young person’s life. To continue this sort of extraordinary work, we need your help. So we’re embarking on our first ever comprehensive capital raising drive: Make the Difference.

Our target is to raise $50 million to support our scholarships, our research and our infrastructure – to ensure we’re not standing still in the face of strong competition and public funding constraints. Andrew Abercrombie is going to be giving you more details shortly, but there’s something I want to stress first. Something very important.

This isn’t just about helping the university achieve its aims – it’s a way for you to achieve your aims too. Your philanthropic aims – by helping young people through scholarships, or by supporting research into medical or social issues that you care about. Or your business aims – by partnering with us to do the research and teach the skills your company needs.

Together, we can show that equity and excellence do indeed go together. That the people of the north of Melbourne and our regions have what it takes to succeed. That our young people can thrive in this new era of change.

That they can provide the skills industry needs, and answer the big questions facing our planet. To that end, I am proud to announce that both our Chancellor and I are committing $100,000 each to the Campaign we so deeply and passionately believe in. Thank you, Richard. We are delighted to join with longstanding champions of La Trobe. People like Olga Tennison, who has given so generously so that we can help people with autism. Olga has given us almost four and a half millions dollars over the years. She provides such a shining example of the power we all have to support truly life-changing work. Thank you, Olga.

And people like John Richards, who has very generously given us more than a million dollars and supported our work for many years. John’s generosity means we can address issues associated with ageing in rural communities, and support agriculture students through scholarships. Thank you, John. Before I finish, let me once again thank SAP for being our major sponsor tonight.

And finally – I hope that like Richard and me, you will be inspired to join our campaign and make a difference. Alan and his team will be in touch over the next few weeks to talk with you about the ways that we can help you to get involved in our work – so that you can see your passions come to life in our research, or by supporting the students you care about.

Together, we show that La Trobe can thrive in the next five, ten and fifty years, without forgetting who we are: a university of excellence and of social responsibility. A university that will never forget the northern suburbs and will never forget the new communities in regional Victoria that depend upon us so much.

Thank you.