Last Friday night, at a dinner celebrating its 125th anniversary, the University of Tasmania awarded Richard Flanagan its Distinguished Alumnus Award. This is the speech he made in reply …

IT says something about our university that on a night when snow lies low on the mountain and last drinks have been called at Knoppies that 400 people choose to come out to this dinner.

It was interesting too watching Princess Mary’s video message just now given that long before the Donaldson family lay claim to the realm of Denmark they had no small claim on the university here. Back then the university seemed to me to be run by the avuncular, the autistic, and the alcoholic.

Or an endearing combination of all three.

I recall when the bars were all closed that there were sometimes still drinks to be had with one of the senior university administrators if his office lights were still on in the Admin Building.

In his office one morning at three, the administrator passed out on the carpet, I recall opening the drinks cabinet – more a large wardrobe in scale – and finding inside there dear Jim Gordon, an arts school student we’d lost earlier in the evening, asleep in a foetal position curled around an empty bottle of Glen Fiddich, in the manner of a hibernating pygmy possum.

Amidst all this, many things can be said to have happened but sound administration was not necessarily one of them. For that, there was one person to whom you turned, and that person was Etta Donaldson – mother of Princess Mary. In the Mad Man-ish world that then prevailed, Etta, the Vice Chancellor’s secretary, from a small alcove off the VC’s vast office, armed only with an IBM Selectric typewriter and a not inconsiderable charm, was reputed to run the university.

If you wanted anything done, if you wished for advice, if you needed to know who to lobby and who to avoid, Etta was at once your guide, your saviour, and the woman who made things happen, wisely suggesting the VC’s most original ideas to him.

Etta was good to me, as was Etta’s husband John Donaldson, a mathematics lecturer who cared about universities in general, and ours in particular.

I remember John defending academic freedom on a small but significant matter at the University Council, presaging his comments by quoting St Augustine’s prayer – Lord, grant me sobriety and chastity, but not just yet.

Universities matter …

Like John, I think universities matter and I think our university matters in particular. I am grateful to all that I was introduced to here, for the friends I made, for the invitation to talk and think and listen and read and debate and above all to be free.

I think Tasmania needs this university more than ever. And at the same time, though bound to nationally determined policies and financing models, this university – our university – needs to once more seek its destiny through Tasmanians. Because in the end, if it fails us, it cannot go on.

This event, in my honour, in all part of a conscious and necessary movement on the part of the university to recognise that the university needs our good will, our money, our names, to continue to prosper.

That is both reasonable and wise. But if the university wishes for things from us, it is not unreasonable that we should say what we would like from our university.

An example: in recent weeks there has been much public and private discussion about the proposal to move the Art School from its Jones and Co location to somewhere else in order to release the property for commercial development, thereby allowing the bankrolling of a shortfall in the budget for the new Conservatorium.

Not one person I’ve heard speaking about this thinks it’s a good idea. All think it’s a very bad idea in every way – a bad idea for Hobart which needs something other than hotels in Sullivans Cove.

A bad idea for the future Macquarie Point development which, recognising the need for an artistic leaven in the area, has entered into an agreement with Mona for projects and ideas that bring the area alive.

If the Art School wasn’t at Jones & Co, they’d be arguing to put it there.

And it’s a very bad idea for our university, which should be making the case to find the money in other ways. In the Jones & Co building we have the beginning of one of our great traditions. Oxford wouldn’t sell Christchurch College for international tourist accommodation.

And nor should we. Why would you sell your kitchen to pay for your bathroom?

Building on the Mona effect does not mean the university acquiescing to building more hotels. Otherwise we will become the Cairns of the next decade. There the shoreline is a death mask of a boom long gone.

We must not make their mistake.

We shouldn’t be happy just having tourists come to see a Gilbert and George exhibition here, marvellous as that is. We should be creating a society where the Gilbert and Georges of the future want to live.

And in creating that sort of society our University has a large role to play.

For some decades – because of the harsh realities of seeking to survive, through the daily necessity of just getting courses taught, infrastructure renewed or built – the University has too often sided not with Tasmanians, but with the power that so often retards the prospects of our island home, too often seeking to endorse the latest attempt to sell our soul for a mess of pottage, rather than question it, to question power, and propose other ideas.

Dare to dream …

What sort of ideas, you might ask?

To which I would answer as many as an institution as gifted and resourced as this might dare dream.

Strong ideas like making Tasmania a tax-free zone for five years for all artists earning under $50,000 a year, by rebating them the difference. Will that cost much? No, because we know from Australia Council research that the great majority of artists earn less than the taxable income. We also know that where artists go, commerce follows.

Here are some other dreams. Share them or dismiss them, I don’t mind.

But imagine if, for example, instead of looking at the continued subsidisation of, say, the forestry industry, the state government promised every child who completes six years of secondary education here a rebate on the first three years of their HECS fees at Tas Uni – think about what that might do for keeping young families here and bringing young families here. Think of what that might do for our university.

Here’s another idea: go to Google and Tesla and offer them the city of Hobart.

Say we will give you our city for five years and you can use it as a test case for the sustainable city of the future – driverless cars, charging stations, public transport, conversion of public buildings to zero emissions through smart technology.

Offer them the road budget for southern Tasmania for the next five years. Dare Malcolm Turnbull to back his rhetoric on innovation and back us by finding money for this university to enter into partnerships to achieve these goals. I could go on, but I won’t. Perchance to dream, muses that other regent in waiting of Denmark, terrified of what nightmares await him if he chooses death. We need our university not to die, but to dream, and we need its dreams to be ours.

Our university was created by Tasmanians 125 years ago to make better an island just beginning to drag itself out of the nightmare of a totalitarian slave society and an unprecedented war of extermination.

This university exists not to seek a successful business outcome but to change this place and to change our lives for the better.

This university changed my life. And I am grateful.

Tonight, on behalf of all alumni, of the broader Tasmanian community who support the university, I ask those who have the honour of being our university’s present stewards to choose life, to choose dreams, to help us, to become us, to be the champion of our island’s destiny that the university has not always been. You need us. And more than ever we need you.

Thank you for this honour, thank you for listening to me. And don’t sell the kitchen.

*Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Man Booker Prize

• Peter Adams in Comments: As usual, Richard writes with a passion and vision that makes one’s heart and soul melt.