Yesterday, as has happened many times before, a large group of people, all dressed to the nines, gathered outside the Dental School. They then paraded down George Street to the Dunedin Town Hall, where they received their University of Otago degrees and diplomas. As ever, the Otago Daily Times published the names of the graduates, along with a story featuring a particularly interesting or quirky graduate. This time around it excelled itself with three stories: one about family members graduating together, another about the first graduate of the new Master of Fine Arts (theatre studies) degree, and the inspiring story of a law graduate who overcame special challenges to get where he is today.
As the booklet published for each graduation notes, the essential features of Otago’s formal graduation ceremony took their present form in the 1920s, though there have been various small changes and one particularly notable one: since 1995 there has been a Maori element, with a welcoming korero from the Maori orator on behalf of tangata whenua.
Undoubtedly the biggest change to Otago’s graduation over the years has been the ever growing number of ceremonies. Until the 1950s there was just one graduation per year and it was a major event for both university and town, with other festivities alongside the formal ceremony making up the ‘capping’ season. In 1951 Otago added a second annual ceremony in December. This was to cater for medical and dental graduates, who seemed to find it particularly difficult to return to Dunedin for May graduation. Now they could graduate in person immediately after their results came through, before departing Dunedin for places far and wide.
As the university grew, further ceremonies became inevitable. In 1951 there were just over 2000 students at Otago, but by 1991 there were just over 12,000 students and over 2000 graduates per year. This large number of graduates, along with their family and friends, could not squeeze into the biggest venue in town, so around this time a second May ceremony was introduced, making a total of three graduations per year. After that, further changes came quickly. In 1993 the university added another ceremony in July (in subsequent years in August). In 1995, following student complaints about being refused the opportunity to graduate in December – a ceremony at which health science students continued to have priority – a second December graduation was added.
A more innovative change happened in 1997 when the University of Otago held its first graduation outside Dunedin – in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian students have been a feature of Otago life since the 1950s, when they were among the early Colombo Plan students. Though numbers have fluctuated over the years, they have always been one of the largest groups of international students at Otago, and their numbers peaked at over 700 in 1996 and 1997. The Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Public Orator and Registrar all attended the ceremony, held at the Shangri-La Hotel. Fourteen people received degrees in medicine and commerce, and Mazlan Binti Othman, a 1970s graduate and well-known astrophysicist, received an honorary doctorate. Over 150 other Otago alumni were ‘presented’ at the same ceremony. Several subsequent graduations were held in Malaysia, including at Kuching. If you know the name of the piper in the photograph, please let me know – unfortunately he is not named in the graduation booklet!
In 2012 Otago held fourteen graduation ceremonies – five in May, one in August and eight in December. Two of the December graduations were in Southland, and resulted from the university’s merger with the Dunedin College of Education. Some teaching graduates from the Southland campus received their degrees at an Invercargill ceremony, while there was a graduation for those with degrees endorsed in bilingual education at Te Rau Aroha Marae in Bluff.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first July/August graduation. Hearty congratulations to all the newest graduates! I wonder how many of you were photographed in front of the iconic clocktower building?