The USyd mansion you’ve never heard of

The house, once part of 'Millionaire's Row', now houses Joe Hockey and family

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The Vice-Chancellors’ current residence in Woollahra is but the latest in a short but impressive list of stately abodes afforded to our beloved campus Principal. Though the tradition is “standard practice” among Universities, Australia’s oldest ivory tower makes sure to bring their usual touch of expense, exorbitance, and inexpedience to the affair. But despite its impressive features, Spence’s digs is neither the grandest dwelling of the lot, nor the most distantly located.

There is no record of the Vice-Chancellor being provided a dwelling until 1967. Prior to that it’s not clear how VC’s managed like the rest of the population, although some of the earlier campus administrators revealed their anarchistic proclivities by squatting in the attics of the Quad.

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That all changed when Professor Bruce Williams was appointed VC in 1967. In an effort to win Professor Williams’ return to Sydney, the University agreed to provide him with a lodging. A Sydney Morning Herald disclosing the arrangement at the time also reported that USyd was the “last to supply a VC with housing.” As if to compensate for the delay, the University purchased the famous Hunters Hill mansion ‘Wybalena’ at 3 Jeannerett Avenue.

Built in 1874 out of sandstone quarried nearby, the mansion has housed many distinguished members of Sydney’s ‘elite’ over the years, in a tradition that continues today: in February just this year it was purchased by former Australian treasurer and USyd SRC President Joe Hockey for nearly $8 million. But a tradition Mr. Hockey no doubt hopes he hasn’t inherited, activists once spray painted political economy slogans outside the residence as a protest.

With the retirement of Professor Williams in 1981, the University realised that 19th century sandstone manors cost a lot to maintain and are altogether quite ridiculous, selling the property for $605,000 ($2 million in today’s terms). With the appointment of Professor John Manning Ward to the ViceChancellorship, the Senate began looking for a new place, but took so long to find an appropriate one they undertook to compensate poor Ward for his living expenses.

Doing little in the way of reducing commute times, the University purchased a property at 14 Serpentine Parade, Vaucluse for $507,000 ($1.76 million today), making a profit from the ‘Wybalena’ investment in the process. When the place was listed on the market in 1995, the property advertisement in the SMH boasted of its “harbour views from the city to Manly”, its “5 bedrooms”, and its “1,100m2”” footprint.

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The first Senate Finance Committee Senate report to mention the purchase was on the 7th of June 1982, which noted, “some alterations would be needed.” The logic, it appears, was to provide good kitchen and recreational amenities so the VC could entertain, reducing the need (and cost) to venture elsewhere. Alas, their promise to “have further information for Senate later” was either broken or realised in a manner lost to history. Not letting the lack of transparency stop them, activists from the early 90s recall that the Vaucluse house was incorporated into a ‘Fat Cats’ campaign targeting the hypocrisy of fee rises.

The appointment of Dom McNichol to VC in 1990 saw another change of address. Clearly impressed with the East, the University bought up in one of Woollahra’s most prestigious streets in 1990, and the VC has been gifted that property ever since. A report from the front of the SMH’s ‘Sunday Notebook’ on the 11th of November 1990, noted the houses’ $2.6 million cost ($5 million today), adding that the Finance Committee minutes disclosed the allocation of a further $3 million for repairs. According to the University, the purchase was financed by the sale of the Vaucluse property sold in 1990.

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But when the Vaucluse property was sold in 1995, presumably by its next owners, it netted $1.45 million ($2.48 million today), close to half the Woollahra houses’ upfront cost. With inflation figured, it’s unlikely that any difference in housing market conditions explain such a large deficit. As such, it seems the University must have sourced money elsewhere for the purchase. It is also unclear where the millions of dollars spent on a 2013 renovation came from.

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In a recent correspondence, the University was quick to note the provision of a residence was “standard practice for many universities in Australia and around the world”, echoing the same arguments given in 1967. But it’s neither tradition nor principle that keeps this expensive habit aflame. In their haste to issue a defence, the University revealed the true force at play: a desire to provide the most attractive offer to get the ‘best’ possible VC. And with Vice-Chancellors increasingly drawn from the private sphere, or acting as if they are operating within it, inducements like an enormous expenses sheet, a free house, and a large wage are crucial.

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Quoted in that same SMH article back in 1990, USyd SRC President Vanessa Chan offered a condemnation of the Woollahra purchase that strikes even harder now than it did then: “it is ridiculous, especially when higher education is so underfunded and teaching staff are being forced to undertake industrial action to obtain proper wages and conditions.”

It is said that when he was Vice-Chancellor Professor John Ward wanted to have every USyd staff member over to his house for dinner at some point. My only hope is that Michael Spence is struck by a similar rush of generosity, and is moved to have your humble Honi editors round sometime.

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