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Professor Jim Mann, director of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre, with donors Jan and Eion Edgar at the official opening. It was the first project funded under the Leading Thinkers scheme. Image courtesy of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre.

Professor Jim Mann, director of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre, with donors Jan and Eion Edgar at the official opening. It was the first project funded under the Leading Thinkers scheme. Image courtesy of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre.

Inspiration for policy and practice at Otago has come from many different places. Canada may not be the first country that springs to mind, but that was where the concept for a significant new initiative for the university was sparked!

In the 1990s and 2000s, as student numbers surged while the government tightened its belt, the university sought to diversify its funding. Unlike some countries, notably the USA, New Zealand did not have a strong tradition of large-scale philanthropy to tertiary education, though there were of course many gifts and bequests which established scholarships, prizes and the like through the years. During the early decades of the twentieth century Otago also benefited from some more substantial donations and bequests which enabled the teaching of new subjects (home science, anthropology and music), a boost to teaching and research in others (physics, chemistry, economics, English, dentistry) and the establishment of several new professorial chairs (physiology, medicine and surgery). Reaching out to Otago’s growing body of alumni was one way to attract a new wave of generosity. Functions for graduates around the world began to take off at the time of the university’s 125th anniversary celebrations in 1994.

In Toronto the dynamic Gill Parata, first head of Otago’s alumni office, met Brian Merrilees, an Otago graduate who had a distinguished academic career as professor of French, also holding various administrative roles at the University of Toronto. He told Gill of the university’s very successful fundraising campaign and arranged for Graeme Fogelberg, Otago’s vice-chancellor, to meet with Toronto’s president and other key figures in the campaign. One aspect of Toronto’s campaign was to raise funds to attract ‘superstar’ academics to the university. Though they suspected the ‘superstar’ idea might not work in New Zealand, the Otago group liked the idea of focussing a fundraising drive on increasing the university’s intellectual capacity; they believed this would have more appeal than bricks and mortar, comments Graeme Fogelberg. Otago’s executive and council liked the concept, and so a scheme for ‘knowledge leaders’, later known as the Leading Thinkers initiative, was born. In 2002 Clive Matthewson, a former member of parliament and cabinet minister, was appointed as Otago’s Director of Development to oversee the project.

The government was also keen for tertiary institutions to attract more funding from the private sector and established a Partnerships for Excellence scheme, which matched dollar for dollar funds raised for major capital developments. The scheme was targeted at building development; one of its best-known outcomes was the University of Auckland’s large business school, funded by a multimillion-dollar donation from expatriate businessman Owen Glenn. However, after much hard work, in 2003 the Otago team managed to convince a sceptical government that human capital was also worth funding under the scheme. The government agreed to match funds raised over the next 5 years up to a total of $25 million, a goal the university eventually exceeded 6 months ahead of time.

The ‘advancement’ team had already raised funds for some new Otago projects before the government came on board, but projects funded through the official Leading Thinkers scheme eventually totalled 27. It took a gift of $1 million, matched by another $1 million from the government, to fund a permanent chair, and most of the projects enabled the university to establish a professor, often with an associated research centre. The initiative got a great kick-start with a generous donation from the charitable trust of Dunedin businessman Eion Edgar, who happened to be the university’s chancellor; this funded the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre. Donations came from a range of individuals, charities, businesses and other organisations. Some provided permanent funding for existing projects with precarious sources of income; for instance, Cure Kids funded a chair in child health research which enabled Otago to retain Stephen Robertson, the gifted paediatrician and clinical geneticist whose post had been based previously on short-term funding. Cure Kids also funded a second chair in paediatric research under the scheme, awarded to Christchurch neonatologist Brian Darlow.

Children in the Apple programme, one of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre's first projects. This seminal study showed that community-based initiatives could successfully reduce the rate of excessive weight gain in primary school-aged children. Image courtesy of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre.

Children in the Apple programme, one of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre’s first projects. This seminal study showed that community-based initiatives could successfully reduce the rate of excessive weight gain in primary school-aged children. Image courtesy of the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre.

Not all of the initiatives were in health sciences, indeed, they included all of the university’s academic divisions. And not all related to existing fields of teaching and research at the university: some took it in brand new directions, sparked by the particular interests of the donors. A good example is the Legal Issues Centre and associated chair. This was endowed by philanthropists Grant and Marilyn Nelson through the Gama Foundation, inspired by their frustration with a drawn-out legal case. It aimed to act as a ‘critic and conscience’ of the legal profession and system, and provide insights to ‘reorient the legal system so that it works better for people’. The Gama Foundation also funded a research fellowship in bipolar disorder through the Leading Thinkers scheme. One interesting donor was the Stuart Residence Halls Council, the organisation which founded and ran Arana and Carrington Colleges. Having sold the colleges to the university, it generously donated much of the money back to endow two new chairs, in science communication and Scottish studies. There was just one exception to the rule that the Leading Thinkers scheme was about people. It wasn’t precisely bricks and mortar, but the ocean science research vessel Polaris II certainly wasn’t human! There isn’t space here to describe all of the initiatives, but you can read a little about each in an article published to celebrate the scheme’s tenth anniversary.

The Polaris II, a former fishing vessel purchased and refitted to serve as a reseach vessel for a wide range of marine and environmental science activities. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

The Polaris II, a former fishing vessel purchased and refitted to serve as a research vessel for a wide range of marine and environmental science activities. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

The Leading Thinkers scheme proved an enormous boon to research, teaching and public engagement at Otago, bringing inspirational scholars of international reputation to the university and helping retain other excellent minds. The dynamism of these people led to impressive results, quickly achieved, and drew other good people, both staff and students, to work with them. Thanks, Canada, for the idea!

Staff and students of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (plus a few from tourism) at Otakou Marae in 2013. Foundation professor Kevin Clements is the tall figure with white hair in the middle. The centre began in 2009 as a Leading Thinkers initiative and quickly developed a great record of research, teaching and public engagement. By 2014 it had 6 academic staff and 24 PhD students from 19 countries. Image courtesy of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Staff and students of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (plus a few from tourism) at Otakou Marae in 2013. Foundation professor Kevin Clements is the tall figure with white hair in the middle. The centre began in 2009 as a Leading Thinkers initiative and quickly developed a great record of research, teaching and public engagement. By 2014 it had 6 academic staff and 24 PhD students from 19 countries. Image courtesy of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

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