Speech by the Head of College, Dr Donald Markwell, at a reception for new students and parents, St Paul’s College, 26 February 2018
Chair of the College Council, Mr Mark Elliott; other Fellows of the College; parents of our newest students; my staff colleagues; student leaders; and – most important of all – my fellow freshers –
A very warm welcome to St Paul’s College here at the University of Sydney. I am delighted to welcome you this evening.
Today marks three weeks since I started as Head of College, so, like the students we are welcoming to the College for the first time today, I am a Pauline fresher of 2018. I am looking forward to getting to know my fellow freshers, and to our journey of discovery together in this wonderful college.
I hope that parents – who are such valued members of the St Paul’s community – will not mind if I address my remarks tonight to my fellow freshers.
My experience over the last three weeks is that this is a genuinely warm and welcoming community, and I hope and confidently believe that all our new students will find it so as well. It has been a delight for me to get to know the dozens of later-year Paulines I have already met, and – for example – to work with our excellent student leaders on preparation of a balanced programme of activities for this Orientation Week – a week of orientation both to College and to University.
St Paul’s College is a community in which every individual is valued and supported, and encouraged to be the best that you can be. It is a community in which our students achieve excellent academic and extra-curricular success. It is a community in which, although there is a strong community spirit, each individual is free to be genuinely themselves, not being required to conform to a pattern or a mould – a community that respects individuality and individual choices. It is a community marked by a strong sense of belonging, and of what has been called “the fellowship of friends”. It is a community in which if you have problems or worries, as we all do from time to time, there is always someone willing to help – from fellow students to the Chaplain to the Sub-Warden and the Warden. It is a community that this year is entering an exciting new era, including as we prepare for our magnificent new undergraduate rooms becoming available later this semester, and for our Graduate House for women and men postgraduate students opening next year.
Our approach today is very much in line with the vision and ambition with which the College was founded. The College was founded in the 1850s to be an Anglican college – a residential academic community – within the University of Sydney in which students, combining what they could get in the College with what they could get in the wider University, could get an all-round educational experience here which over time would be increasingly comparable with what students could get in the great collegiate universities of the world, above all Oxford and Cambridge. This remains our aspiration today.
This college, this residential academic community, is one in which students can integrate learning and living, with a focus on activities that are academic, more broadly intellectual, cultural, spiritual, sporting, community service, and social. We aim to excel in all these dimensions. As I pointed out in my welcome in the College Handbook – a Handbook which should be of real value to our new students – our values are similar to those of the Rhodes Scholarships: we aspire to excellence in intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service.
We also aspire to breadth – to be an environment where students can learn from fellow students in disciplines different from their own, in which they can engage in broadening extra-curricular activities, and in which they are encouraged to try out fields of study that broaden their horizons.
Broad undergraduate education is often referred to as “liberal education”. The founders of this College had a commitment to liberal education, just as they did to collegiate education, and so we also do today. It can be strongly – I think persuasively – argued that in the world of today – marked by global forces, rapid change, and ever-evolving inter-connections – having a broad base of knowledge and skills, perhaps alongside a narrower professional expertise, is as important as ever, perhaps more important than ever. Certainly developing breadth is necessary, not only for preparing yourself for a career in a world of change, but also for a life as an educated person.
One of the definitions of liberal education is “education for the wise use of liberty”, “the wise use of freedom”. This is referring to the desirability of citizens of a free society having the broad knowledge and the capacity for critical thought and vigorous, informed debate needed to make good use of, and to protect, their freedom.
Most of our new students are entering an educational environment where they have greater freedom than ever before. One aspect of college life is learning to make wise use of that freedom. Coming into college is, for most new students, an important further step from dependence to independence, and from adolescence to adulthood, with freer choices than ever before. Making responsible choices and choosing thoughtfully is very important.
One set of choices is about the use of time. As a new university student, you will have greater scope to choose how to use your time than ever before. Experience, including serious research into this, suggests that the biggest difference between students of comparable ability who do well and those who do badly is how much and how well they think about their use of time. Students who think sensibly about their use of time do better than students who do not.
A related set of choices is about what you participate in and what you don’t. For example, you are required to attend talks arranged by the College tomorrow on the academic programme, on alcohol, sexual harassment and the law. But while you are encouraged to do so, you are not required to take part in social activities, and don’t have to if you do not want to.
You have choices about drinking alcohol. Students 18 and over are free to drink, but no one can or will compel you to drink. If you choose to drink, you must do so responsibly – making the wise use of freedom.
While this is a community characterised by freedom, in which every student must learn to make wise use of their freedom, it is also a community with values and with rules. Of course, no genuine college can be a value-free or rules-free environment because behaving with consideration and respect for others is essential for lively young people successfully to live and learn together. As political philosophers have expressed it, “where there is no law there is no freedom”. Our rules, our laws if you are like, are based on the values for which we stand.
Amongst the values for which it stands, this college has an unshakable commitment to the values of respect and dignity for all – respect and dignity for all individuals within our community, and for all individuals in the wider community. This includes an unshakable commitment to equality of respect for women and men alike.
Sometimes people question whether we uphold such a commitment. Let me assure you that we do and we will. I ask all students to work with me to ensure that we uphold this commitment, and that we live our values – that we live in practice our stated values of respect and dignity for all, including equality of respect for women and men alike. This, of course, includes respect for women in social contexts, such as in the College Bar. Needless to say, nothing that is inconsistent with these values will be tolerated.
To help us understand how we can improve the culture of the College, and truly to live our values of respect and dignity for all, the College is working with the former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, on a review of College culture and on cultural renewal. This will involve opportunities for students to discuss issues with Liz Broderick and her team, and our Students’ Club Committee and I strongly encourage all our students to do this. The Broderick review is a very positive opportunity for the College to understand ourselves better, and to improve where we need to.
Living the values of respect and dignity for all involves making wise choices about how you behave, and also wise and maybe sometimes brave choices about how you react to the behaviour of others. If you see something that is wrong, don’t just walk on by. Do something about it. As is now commonly said, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Choosing to take a stand for what is right, even if it is not popular, is a fundamental form of leadership.
The choices you make – how wisely you use your freedom – will also reveal your character. It will reveal it to others and also to yourself. It will reveal if you have the character to make wise use of freedom. I hope that you will use your freedom wisely, and that this will help you grow into a person of even better character than you are now.
In the fresher Chapel service tomorrow morning, at 9.30am, one of the readings will be from the book of the prophet Micah. It includes the beautiful and immortal lines:
“what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Justice. Kindness. Humility. Walking humbly – humility– is not a quality always associated with our community, but it is a quality I hope to encourage more and more throughout our community.
For most of our new students, today marks not only your entry into College but your entry into the wider University of Sydney, and into tertiary study. The transition to tertiary study can be a rocky adjustment for many people. Not only does it take time to adjust to what I have already called the wise use of freedom, and to do so without the familiar help of parents or school teachers, but it can take time to adjust to the intellectual demands of tertiary study.
Now more than ever, it is essential to aim genuinely to understand the fundamental principles of the disciplines and the subjects you are studying – to internalise them by truly understanding them, rather than memorising them. Thinking for yourself as you develop your own line of argument or interpretation, or developing your own hypotheses for testing, will be increasingly important. Asking questions, often fundamental questions about the basic point of a topic, will help.
Discussing your work with fellow students, here at College or in the wider University, is a great way to help you actually to understand what you are studying. Conversation with fellow students, ideally students from diverse disciplines and backgrounds as well as with students in your own subject and from your own background, is a crucial element of College life. Many of these conversations happen over meals, especially over our Formal Dinners each Monday to Friday, which are a central feature of College life – the College coming together as a community every evening in the dining hall. I urge you to come to Formal Dinner as often as you can.
It is often said that students learn as much from each other as they do from those employed to be their teachers. One example of this is that, when I was a university student, in those long-distant years before the internet and the mobile phone, I learnt from a fellow student two questions that can be very powerful in approaching almost any topic. The two simple questions, to ask of others and also of yourself, are: “what exactly do you mean” and “why do you say this?”
“What exactly do you mean” and “why do you say this?” As you question and as you develop your own analyses, you should increasingly learn to speak in your own voice, and to develop further the powers of clear and effective communication which should be one product of a good university education.
The College works to support your academic success in various ways. They are listed under “Academic Life” in the Handbook, and members of the College’s academic team will talk about them with you tomorrow. Alongside tutorials and mentoring, one of them is provision of a College Library. I have recently placed in the College Library a few copies of two books that I hope will be of interest to you.
One of them is called Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds by Harvard’s Professor Richard Light. It is based on interviews with thousands of students in leading American universities and colleges, and has tips on how to make the most of your years in college and university. I think we can all benefit from reading it.
The other book also comes out of Harvard. It is called Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, and is probably the best book on leadership that I have ever read. I mention it to you because every member of this College has the ability to be a leader in some way or other, in one context or another, and I hope that over your years here at St Paul’s you will think more about how you can be the most effective leader you have the potential to be.
One of the avenues for leadership, and simply for participation in broadening activities, is in taking part in activities in the wider University as well as in College. I hope that you will be active in College, but also use it as a base from which to take part in University-wide activities – from sporting teams to student politics.
I mentioned at the outset that St Paul’s shares with the Rhodes Scholarships commitment to excellence in intellect, character, leadership, and service. I have said something about developing your qualities of intellect, character, and leadership. Let me conclude with a brief word about service.
For generations, members of this College have been active in service, not only within this College community, but in service to the wider community, from our immediate neighbourhood in Newtown and nearby, to far beyond – around Australia and around the world. As I have asked students and others what they most like about St Paul’s and what they think can be improved, one of the themes is the suggestion that there should be a greater outward-looking focus on community service – on giving back to the wider community, and helping those in need. I hope that in your years here you will think about how you can contribute, from this College, to serving the wider community. And I hope that throughout your life you will ask yourself what you can do to make the greatest difference for good that you can in the world, and that you will act to do just that.
To be candid, I hope also that you will think about how you can serve the College. Since the founding of the College in the 1850s, the opportunities which you have today have been built up through the labours and generosity of those who have come before you – including the philanthropic gifts that have built our buildings and help us maintain them, and through scholarships given by generous donors. You are the beneficiaries of the generosity of others, and I hope that you will recognise your responsibility to do all you can throughout your life over the decades ahead to hand it on even better to those who come after you.
You will be a member of this College for the rest of your life, and I hope you will do all you can to help make it the best college we can.
But first, of course, a wonderful opportunity awaits you – as a new student in this College and in this University. It is, again, a delight for me to welcome you, my fellow freshers, to the College, and to say how much I look forward to our years together here.