Professor Tom Calma awarded honorary Doctor of Letters

24 May 2024
The renowned advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been recognised for his work to shape a better and fairer Australia.
Professor Tom Calma stands between Deputy Chancellor Richard Freudenstein and Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson

Professor Tom Calma (centre) with Deputy Chancellor Richard Freudenstein and Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson

From his first job working to improve employment opportunities for remote Indigenous communities, to his leadership in the campaign for the Voice to Parliament, Professor Tom Calma AO has spent a lifetime advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  

The University of Sydney has awarded an honorary doctorate to the Kungarakan elder and member of the Iwaidja people. The award recognises Calma’s work in human rights and social justice, as well as his contribution to the public sector.  

Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson AC presided over the ceremony, where Calma received the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa).  

"Throughout his life, Professor Calma has been a champion for empowerment and inclusion, improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and working for a better, fairer Australia," the Chancellor said. "We’re delighted to recognise his extraordinary contribution with this honorary degree."

Calma grew up in Darwin. When he completed high school in 1971, he had little thought or opportunity for further study. Five years later, a desire to help others drove him to enrol in a community development and social work course at the South Australian Institute of Technology.  

He began his career working with remote Aboriginal communities as a vocational officer, then moved to the Aboriginal Task Force at the Darwin Community College/Darwin Institute of Technology, which he led from 1981-86. There, he worked to improve educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Throughout his life, Professor Calma has been a champion for empowerment and inclusion.
Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson

Calma’s work across employment, education and training culminated in his role as Director of Employment and Training in the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Training. He served as a senior Australian Diplomat in India and Vietnam from 1995 until 2002, advancing Australia’s education and training interests, and was later appointed Senior Advisor for Indigenous Affairs to the Honourable Philip Ruddock MP, then Minister of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.  

He served as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, and as Race Discrimination Commissioner. As Social Justice Commissioner, he reported to Parliament on issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, highlighting the discrepancy in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. He went on to work with peak health bodies and human rights organisations to establish the Close the Gap campaign, advocating for governments to commit to eliminating the discrepancy within a generation.   

He played an important role in Federal Parliament’s National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples through his involvement in consultation with the Stolen Generation’s representative bodies. As Social Justice Commissioner, he gave the formal response to the Apology. "By acknowledging and paying respect, Parliament has now laid the foundations for healing to take place, and for a reconciled Australia in which everybody belongs," he said.  

With Professor Dr Marcia Langton AO, he co-chaired the Senior Advisory Group that oversaw the co-design of the Voice to Parliament.  

Calma returned to the education sector in 2008, joining the University of Canberra Council, where he later served as both Deputy Chancellor and Chancellor – the first Indigenous man to hold the position at any Australian university.  

He has a long association with the University of Sydney and in 2015 was appointed a Professor in the Medical School to chair the Poche Indigenous Health Network. He continues to act as a key member of the Poche Centre’s research team.   

He is a member of the Australian Medical Research Advisory Board, of the Australian Genomics Independent Advisory Board and of Cancer Australia’s Indigenous Leadership Group.  

Calma is the inaugural Indigenous Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and holds honorary academic appointments at ANU, the University of Queensland and Macquarie University. He was recently appointed to Universities Accord Implementation Advisory Committee, which will engage with the higher education sector to inform the federal government’s reforms. 

He was awarded an Order of Australia, Officer of the General Division in 2012, was named ACT Australian of the Year in 2013, and ACT Senior Australian of the Year in 2023. He went on to become national Senior Australian of the Year. 

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