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Diversity and inclusion are deep in our DNA

When William Charles Wentworth spoke in the NSW Legislative Council in 1849 about the founding of the University of Sydney, he hoped that it may be a place whose “gates will be open to all, whether they are disciples of Moses or Jesus, of Brahmin, of Mahomet, of Vishnu, of Buddha”. Although Wentworth himself had a chequered racial and colonial record, he wanted Australia’s first university to be a place enriched and not weakened by a diversity of ideas and people.

University of Sydney students celebrate International Day, April 20, 2016. Photo: supplied

That vision has been thoroughly contested over the last ten years, in Australian politics and society. It is therefore crucial that we as a culture-forming institution re-express our deep commitment to Wentworth’s vision, and the educational experiment it implies.

The University is made up of staff and students from 140 countries around the world. They come here because of the excellence of our teaching and research. Our domestic students are also culturally, religiously, socio-economically, as diverse a group as you can possibly imagine.

“Well done,” William Charles Wentworth might say.

But with the terrorist attacks in Christchurch earlier this month and the recent political conversations we are having on the left and the right, Wentworth may question how well our great experiment is working.

Sydney is a multicultural society, but it is also unbelievably ghettoised, in terms of ethnicity and socio-economic status. We are a deeply fragmented community, a community of parallel monocultures. And, unsurprisingly, the University reflects that.

It does not have to stay this way. Over the next few years we’re putting a huge amount of work into our Student Experience, into making our students feel part of a diverse community. We are thinking deeply about how we take our students – whatever their background – and make sure that at university, they encounter somebody different, somebody with different interests, a different way of looking at the world, a different religion, a different heritage.

Our students will hopefully learn two important skills: the first is to look past the difference and to see the person, the second is the skill to listen, to understand and to disagree well.

The challenge that we have put before us is: how do we make sure our students who go on to be leaders in the Islamic, Chinese, LGBTI or Christian communities – whatever it might be – how do they have the skills to listen to people who disagree with them? The skills to have meaningful encounters with leaders from across our communities, perhaps to make life-long friends.

That is a task that has deep ties to the DNA of the University of Sydney. Living with diversity requires that we learn to disagree well. It’s tough, but the future of our country depends on it. And it is the foundation upon which the University was built. It’s so deep in our DNA: we just have to be true to who we are. It is a task that we think worthy of Wentworth. And if we make good on those commitments, we can make a difference to Australia, our region and to the world.

Authorised by Michael Spence …

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