“When I was a very little girl my grandfather would take me to the roof of their warehouse in Elizabeth Street, Redfern, up in the elevator. He would point to the spires on the hill and say, ‘that’s the university, and one day you’ll be going there.’
“And because I was tiny, about four or five, and my mother and aunty were often talking about Oxford and Cambridge, I used to think this was Oxford and Cambridge on the hill. Look at our motto, ‘sidere mens eadem mutato’, the same intellect, mind and ideals but under different stars. There’s one window in the Great Hall from Oxford and one from Cambridge, because they were their gifts. All of these things make you tingle with excitement, don’t they?”
Marie Bashir is an outstanding woman with a strong affection for the University of Sydney. She graduated as a medical student in 1956, lived on campus at the Women’s College for six years and was a member of the academic staff. She also studied the violin throughout high school and university at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. “All of these aspects have strengthened my love and commitment to the university,” she says. In 2007 Bashir was elected the seventeenth Chancellor of the University of Sydney, a position which she is “deeply honoured” to have held. Her term was not due to expire until mid 2013 but in July she announced her retirement at the end of this year.
“What I find is happening now since my term as Governor of New South Wales was extended up to 2014, is that our citizens are increasingly wanting me to be available to them in the rural and regional areas as well as the cities,” she says. “That too is a great honour, and the duties associated with being Governor afford one the privilege of bringing people together. It’s been helpful to have a background in medicine and education. And having been born and grown up, spending my early childhood years in a rural area, there’s a sense of affinity with the region. My concern is to give the university as much time as I would hope, as well as fulfil my duties as Governor.”
It has become increasingly demanding for Bashir to balance her roles as Governor and Chancellor of the university. She tells me she accepts almost every invitation to visit rural areas and to attend schools or educational institutions.
“I’m not suggesting I need any recreational time, not that I’m a martyr, but certainly adequately fulfilling the role of both is difficult. I wouldn’t wish one to detract from the other in terms of my loyalty and availability. It hasn’t yet, but another aspect that I must bear in mind is that in the absence of the Governor-General overseas, I act as Administrator of the Commonwealth. This is by no means onerous but it’s an added commitment during the year.”
Appointed Governor of New South Wales in 2001, Bashir is now the second longest serving Governor after Sir Roden Cutler. “The privilege of being Governor is being out amongst the people – out at the coalface, listening to what concerns them most and drawing people together,” she says. “This is a time, I believe, of incredible growth for Australia and it’s important to make sure no one gets left behind and that all young people are given the opportunity to fulfil their potential – it’s very important for this nation.”
“I have never, ever had any discrimination as a woman. I can’t explain why,” Bashir says. “It would never have occurred to me to consider being Governor. Never. After all, to be the first woman, in the oldest public office in Australia, it wouldn’t have occurred to me.” The role was suggested to her by the academics in her faculty and when she first found out she had been appointed, “I was so overwhelmed I thought it couldn’t possibly be true.”
Marie Roslyn Bashir was born in Narrandera in the Riverina. During her childhood years she spent time with Aboriginal children at school. “I could see that poverty and marginalisation were preventing them from fulfilling their potential and in fact they were an outstanding people.”
This sparked her special interest in Indigenous communities and in later years she has since travelled throughout Australia to further her involvement.
“I had the privilege of working with Aboriginal people and communities both in the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service and at Kempsey in rural areas and I still retain strong links with Aboriginal communities across New South Wales. It’s a source of continuing enlightenment to me,” she says.
Bashir believes one of the great achievements the university has moved to in recent years is the increasing number of students from Indigenous backgrounds attending university. She cites the “wonderful AIME scheme initiated by Jack Manning Bancroft”.
“The beneficiary of this scheme will be Australia,” Bashir says.
Altruism and philanthropy come naturally to Bashir. She decided to study medicine at university following in the footsteps of a beloved grandfather, great uncle, and cousin. But the main reason which inspired her to study medicine was a desire to “do something that would ensure that I could not wait to return to whatever employment I was doing each day, something that would engage and challenge me and at the same time would be of use to others in need.” But Bashir tells me she originally “very much wanted to study journalism…because I thought journalism helped people too. It provides valuable information.”
After becoming aware of the significant levels of depression among young people, Bashir decided to study psychiatry in her postgraduate years. She also became very concerned about the mental health of young refugee children arriving from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos following the war in Vietnam.
“It was certainly a privilege to see the many youngsters for whom we provided programs achieve resilience and go on to make a contribution in various professions and trades,” she says. “Many of these young people remain in contact with me to this day. I just spoke to one on the phone now.” Bashir’s interest in these young refugees stimulated an interest in their countries of origin and Bashir has travelled extensively throughout these nations.
“As a result of this, and meeting people in medicine and education there, we were able to initiate scholarships actually funded by the university to assist in the continuing education of some of the young professionals. This has now been expanded by the current Dean of Medicine, Professor Bruce Robertson, into the very valuable Australia-Vietnam Medical Foundation which the Vietnamese have called ‘Hoc-Mai’ meaning ‘Forever Learning’.”
“Education is the most empowering acquisition of all,” Bashir tells me. “As I often mention in my address at graduation, Winston Churchill said on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree at Harvard University ‘The empires of the future are the empires of the mind’. And Nelson Mandela has said, ‘The most powerful weapon of all is education’.”
When her husband Sir Nicholas Shehadie was knighted in 1976, Bashir was given the title Lady Shehadie but she has chosen to never use this title, preferring her own name.
“I’ve never used that title because for the most part of my medical life I had been working with young people and their families who had suffered a great deal by disadvantage, by marginalisation, by poverty, with Aboriginal communities and I thought that was an unnecessary component to add on,” she says.
Her official title now is Marie Bashir AC CVO after she was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2001 and a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 2006. But Bashir continues to conduct herself with humility and poise as she fulfils her public duties.
“I’ve always been busy,” Bashir says. “Each day has had interesting challenges. Added to which I had a marriage and a family life that kept me busy…the commitment of Australians generally has been perhaps one of the most inspiring and fulfilling aspects of the roles I’ve had – whether it’s been as Governor, as a teacher, as a medical practitioner, as a member of a community.”
We reach the end of our interview and Marie Bashir smiles warmly. “It’s been a joy and a privilege being Chancellor of the university,” she concludes.
Kira Spucys-Tahar is on Twitter: