This year the Otago University Students’ Association celebrates 125 years of existence. To mark the occasion, I thought it would be interesting to look back at 125 years of student presidents. On 20 May 1890 a general meeting of Otago students decided to form an association and at a second meeting on 30 May it was formally established, with William Edward Spencer as the first president. Spencer, a 26-year-old postgraduate science student, was an “able and energetic” president. There was “no man who was more enthusiastic at [the association’s] inception than Mr Spencer,” commented his successor, Alexander Hendry. Like many students of his era, Spencer had a career in teaching. He had already worked as a pupil teacher for some years before starting university study in the mid-1880s and may well have continued to teach while completing his degrees in arts and science. After completing a year as OUSA president he became a school inspector. He later worked in senior positions for the Department of Education in Wellington, including 11 years as editor of the School Journal.
Many “able and energetic” young men and women have followed in Spencer’s footsteps as president, though of course there has been the occasional rogue among them. I’ve heard stories that one 1990s president, who shall remain nameless, could always be detected approaching by the perfume of marijuana. Others have made dubious financial decisions. Most, though, have been upstanding characters in a very demanding role as chair of the association and public spokesperson for Otago students. In some years there was stiff competition for the role, and winning the election required considerable charm, ambition and political nous.
As the photo of presidents gathered for the 1990 centenary suggests, the presidency was pretty much a male Pakeha preserve until the 1980s. There were some notable exceptions, one being the most famous former president, Peter Buck, also known as Te Rangi Hiroa, after whom an Otago residential college is now named. He was OUSA president in 1903 while completing his medical studies. He became a key figure in the Maori renaissance of the early twentieth century, represented Northern Maori in parliament, and was later a distinguished anthropologist. Another trailblazer was 1971 president Ebraima Manneh, the first international student in the role. He led OUSA during a turbulent year of student protest over the university’s discipline regulations. He later became a senior public servant in the Gambia, his home country.
For many years women served on the OUSA as “lady vice-president” – a role popularly abbreviated to “lady vice”. In 2006 the OUSA, which bestowed life membership on its former presidents, extended the privilege to Nola Holmes (nee Ross) as a representative of “all of the women who served OUSA on the executive and in assisting roles since our beginnings whose contributions, before the 1980s, were largely unacknowledged.” Ross, the lady vice-president in 1947, was remembered for holding the association together when the University Council forced president John Child to resign after he made controversial speeches about sexual and religious freedom. Finally, in 1983, Phyllis Comerford served as OUSA’s first female president and she was succeeded by another woman, Robyn Gray. Since they broke the barrier, a third of the presidents have been female. They include the only person to serve two terms in recent times, Harriet Geoghegan, who was president in 2010 and 2011.
Quite a few people served two terms as president in the association’s earlier decades, but only one has served for three years – the gloriously named Philippe Sidney de Quetteville Cabot (best known as Sid). Cabot was president in the mid-1920s; he had previously been president of the Teachers’ College Students’ Association. He was also one of the instigators of the national organisation, the National Union of Students, serving as its founding president. Cabot completed several degrees at Otago and overseas, eventually becoming a clinical psychologist. He was very good at sport, playing a game for the All Blacks in 1921. Other presidents known for their sporting prowess include Colin Gilray (1907 president) and Frank Green (1936) in rugby and Bill Hawksworth (1934) in cricket. 1988 president Jon Doig, the first from the School of Physical Education, became Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Games Council for Scotland.
Unsurprisingly, several presidents continued in politics beyond their student days. Besides Te Rangi Hiroa, the best known is Grant Robertson, OUSA president in 1993, who is now member of parliament for Wellington Central and a highly-ranked member of the Labour caucus. Those who have worked long-term for the association remember him as one of the most capable presidents. A few others from recent decades have directed their political skills towards the public service, with several working for Foreign Affairs and Trade: David Payton (1974 president), Kirsty Graham (1992), Chris Tozer (1996) and Renee Heal (2007). From an earlier generation, Doug Kennedy, 1937 president, renowned for his pranks and radical politics, became Director General of Health for New Zealand. Until the 1960s many presidents were, like Kennedy, medical students (though few of them shared his radical politics). After that medical presidents became rare, and in recent decades law and/or politics students have been prevalent among presidents.
Some presidents went on to mark their mark in the academic world. Alexander “Swotty” Aitken, the 1919 and 1920 president, was a famous mathematician. Others had distinguished academic careers in demography (Mick Borrie, 1938), physics (Jack Dodd, 1946), economics (Frank Holmes, 1947) and medicine (Jack Stallworthy, 1930-1931; Ken North, 1953; Murray Brennan, 1964). Many became well-known doctors or lawyers, and 1968 president Bruce Robertson was a Court of Appeal judge. Some, like 2001 president Ayesha Verrall, are at earlier stages of careers which hold much promise.
Congratulations to OUSA on reaching its 125th anniversary! Do you have any stories to share of former presidents? And I’d love to get in touch with Phyllis Comerford or Ebraima Manneh if you’re out there! (my email is ali.clarke at the university).