Sydney University's Charles Perkins Centre a world first for collaboration

Charismatic and controversial, Charles Perkins was long recognised as one of the most influential political activists of modern times - and he is now being lauded as one of the great Australians.

For his wife, Eileen, daughters Hetti and Rachel and son Adam, the University of Sydney's decision to name a new $385 million research and education hub after its first Aboriginal graduate is recognition of this place in history.

Perkins, who died from renal failure in 2000, is the symbolic face of a facility bringing together 900 researchers, clinicians and students from all 16 faculties to find solutions to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and related conditions.

While his Aboriginality was central to much of his advocacy and sense of being, the university says Perkins' larger character will become the touchstone for the centre's work; ground-breaking, innovative and exhibiting a willingness to kick down some doors.

Professor Steve Simpson, the centre's academic director, said the activist showed that new ways, partnerships and ideas changed the way Australians thought and acted.

''He sought to lead collaborations in situations where a single person or agency could not deliver,'' he said. ''In the same way, the Charles Perkins Centre looks beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to improve the health of individuals, communities and the nation.''

Hetti Perkins said her father would have been moved and honoured by the recognition given at a black-tie function at the university on Wednesday night, when the Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) Aboriginal men's dance group from the Arrernte country south of Alice Springs, and singer Megan Washington performed.

A former football star, Perkins led the 1960s freedom rides through NSW, became the first Aborigine to gain a university degree and went on to be the head of the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

''This centre shows that this country can be inclusive,'' Ms Perkins said. ''Aboriginal people have been here for countless generations with more recent arrivals joining us to be part of this land and this centre is another innovative and exciting part of that story. In some ways, using technology and medicine and interconnecting with the environment is an Aboriginal thing and the story will continue.''

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence said the centre, designed by Richard Francis-Jones from Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp architects, would house a multi-disciplinary approach to research unparalleled in Australia and internationally.

Dr Spence said the centre would integrate solutions across disciplines and at their junctions - clinicians, nutritionists and health scientists working with philosophers, marketers, agriculturalists, architects, economists and many others.

''Together with many of the university's best minds, outstanding researchers … from across Australia and internationally are working to develop research and education programs that do not just add incrementally to the knowledge base, but generate major shifts in our understanding,'' he said.

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