1980s, 1990s, computer science, dentistry, gender studies, Maori, medicine, psychology, women's studies
In the late 1980s, the powers that be decided it was time to inject a little new blood into the university – some new young scholars working in emerging fields. The general stability of the existing academic staff meant there were few opportunities to appoint new people and the increasing age of staff was a matter of concern. In 1988 the Academic Staffing Committee, which controlled all academic appointments, decided to appoint three “new blood” lecturers, inspired by an Oxbridge model. The posts would be funded from a special Development Fund rather than usual faculty budgets for a three year period. The committee invited the various faculties to propose areas of scholarship for the new blood posts. Priority was to be given to new areas of scholarship or areas seen to be of strategic importance, to the appointment of “women and any other groups under-represented on the academic staff” and to outstanding young scholars for whom there was no current post.
After a few weeks of campaigning and investigation, the three posts were awarded to the fields of artificial intelligence, Maori health and women’s studies. Others which came close to making the cut were bio-organic chemistry and family policy. Intriguingly, all of these fields had a strong interdisciplinary component. That was particularly the case for women’s studies, whose working party attracted support from staff in English, history, classics, Maori studies, German, theology, religious studies, law, education, drama, social and preventive medicine, surgery, psychology, physical education and consumer and applied science. As the proposal pointed out, Otago would soon be the only New Zealand university without a women’s studies programme, and risked losing students to other institutions, including a new extramural course from Massey.
The three new lecturers were appointed in 1989. Anna Smith, a doctoral student in English at Canterbury and critical editor of Landfall, became Otago’s first lecturer in women’s studies. She established a Stage 2 paper in feminist theory and coordinated an interdisciplinary Stage 2 programme in women’s studies. The programme slowly built up and in 1994 it became possible to major in women’s studies for a BA. By then Smith had left (she now teaches English at Canterbury). Annabel Cooper, an Otago English PhD graduate who had been tutoring in women’s studies from the beginning, became a lecturer in women’s studies in 1993, together with American scholar Sarah Williams. The Otago programme may have been slow off the starting blocks, but it proved to have more staying power than others and is today the strongest in New Zealand. It gradually evolved from “women’s studies” into “gender studies”. After being part of various administrative structures, including the Department of English, the School of Liberal Arts and the Department of Anthropology, it now forms part of the Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work.
The other new blood lecturers remain at Otago to this day, and both are now professors. John Broughton, of Ngati Kahungunu and Kai Tahu, became lecturer in Maori health in 1989. He was an Otago dental graduate who had been working in private practice, as well as teaching part time at the dental and medical schools for some years. He was also a well-known playwright and chair of Dunedin’s Te Araiteuru Marae. Thanks to funding from the National Heart Foundation, Otago was also able to appoint Paparangi Reid as a half-time lecturer in Maori Health at the Wellington School of Medicine in the same year (she now teaches at Auckland). Not all 1990s medical students shared the University of Otago’s growing concern for Maori health issues, especially when a dentist rather than a doctor was doing the teaching, but Broughton became a respected educator in the field. In dentistry, he developed an innovative and popular programme of clinics run by students for Maori communities, both in the Dunedin school and far afield. This proved significant in developing the university’s links with various iwi, several of which now have formal memoranda of understanding with Otago; it was also a highly signficant experience for the students. Thanks to his links with mana whenua, Broughton has been frequently called on to consult and advise on things Maori for the university, particularly before the Office of Maori Development was established in 2007. He has been a professor since 2012 and his inaugural professorial lecture, “A Bro-fessor in the Whare,” can be viewed on iTunesU.
The new blood post in artificial intelligence went to Anthony Robins, a Canterbury psychology graduate who had recently completed a doctorate in cognitive science at the University of Sussex, where he studied computational models of categorical structure. His appointment meant Otago could expand into the rapidly emerging field of cognitive science, offering this as a MSc programme from 1990. Robins’ appointment was a joint one between the Departments of Computer Science and Psychology for his first three years; after that he was based in computer science. This was a real interdisciplinary project and the cognitive science course also had papers from philosophy, anatomy, anthropology and information science. It was New Zealand’s first foray into this field. Robins, who was promoted to professor in 2013, continues to teach and research in the field of cognitive science, where his particular interest is in neural networks as a tool for modeling aspects of memory and forgetting. But he also teaches introductory computer programming and has developed a special interest in researching computer science education. He has been involved in the wonderful Robocup and other robotics programmes which introduce school pupils to the exciting world of robots, helping recruit the next generation of programmers. His inaugural professorial lecture – “Teaching, Learning and the Music of Memory” – is available on iTunesU.
The three new lectureships were clearly very successful in bringing “new blood” to Otago and their impact has been long-lasting. They allowed Otago to catch up in the emerging fields of Maori health and women’s studies, and to become the New Zealand pioneer of cognitive science. Not least, they brought some fine young scholars to the university, with two of them remaining for many years to become leading researchers and teachers who are also notable for their community engagement. All credit to the Academic Staffing Committee of 1988!