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University of Sydney Chancellor and VC back Voice to Parliament

Dechlan Brennan -

The University of Sydney's leadership has thrown its weight behind the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, acknowledging the "pivotal importance" behind constitutional recognition for First Nations people in Australia.

Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson AC and Vice-Chancellor and President Mark Scott AO wrote to staff on Wednesday, informing them in a personal capacity they would both be supporting a Yes vote.

They noted it was a "vital step in healing and reconciliation" as well as ensuring Aboriginal voices continue to be heard on matters that affect First Nations people - especially "education, employment and health."

"In recent weeks, Australians who have had an essential role in shaping this proposal have spoken to our community at the University. Noel Pearson, Professor Marcia Langton and Professor Tom Calma told of the history of the Uluru Statement and the significance of the proposition that will go before the Australian people in the coming months," they said in a joint statement.

The University has previously declined to take an institutional position on past referendum and public debates, including the same-sex marriage plebiscite and the 1967 referendum.

In the statement released by the University senate, it argued the importance of the upcoming referendum, and the role the insitution wanted to play in it.

"The University of Sydney acknowledges the pivotal importance of the national referendum to recognise the First Nations peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution."

Australia's first university also acknowledged the role it plays in facilitating freedom of speech and discussions that take in all opinions.

"In the spirit of promoting open and honest discourse, we will continue to encourage our staff and students to exercise leadership responsibly, should they choose to do so – and to seek information about the Voice, to ask questions and express their views, always respecting the rights of others to express different opinions safely," the statement said.

"We are committed to ensuring the important views and perspectives of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, students, and their communities are prioritised in these discussions, and to supporting their overall wellbeing.

"As a public institution and workplace, we are committed to advancing reconciliation, closing the gap, and eliminating racism and all other forms of discrimination. In making this commitment, which is unwavering and enduring, we recognise our own role in the extended process of colonisation and our past in the denial of equal rights – and that we have a long way to go to adequately address our past, present and future."

The leaderships of more than half of the nation's 41 universities have backed the Voice.

Among the elite Group of Eight research-intensive universities, only the University of Western Australia and the University of Adelaide have declined to publicly offer a position on the referendum.

In the case of the University of Adelaide, senior figures - including the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor - have declared their support for a Yes vote, but the University has so far declined to take an offical position.

Other universities which have not actively backed the Yes vote include RMIT; which stated "we encourage our community to be well informed on the Voice to Parliament," and Macquarie University; who released a statement saying it "...actively encourages our community, and all Australians, to acquire a well-informed understanding of Indigenous Voice to Parliament."

Every state has institutions that back the voice, including the University of NSW, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University.

Universities Australia, the peak body representing the higher education sector, has declined to endorse a Yes vote in the referendum.

A statement said it would "work with members to promote and facilitate sector-wide discussion about the First Nations Voice to parliament underpinned by academic freedom and a commitment to the cultural safety of our Indigenous students and staff".

University of NSW law professor and leading campaigner for the Voice, Cobble Cobble woman Megan Davis, was critical of the higher institutions that chose to sit on the fence during the referendum debate.

"Universities are saying they don't want to be political but the decision not to take a stance for Uluru and the referendum for a Voice to parliament is a political decision. Silence is political," she said in February.

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