In the 67 years since Otago appointed its first full-time academic head, eight people have held the role. But who were they? Each brought valuable skills and experience to a job critical to the shaping of the university. Three were named Robert or Robin – beware of confusion!
The modern role of vice-chancellor was created in the 1940s. Before that the university was administered by its council (chaired by the chancellor) and the professorial board,(renamed the senate in 1961); much of the day-to-day work fell to the registrar. A staffing crisis during World War II forced a rethink of Otago’s management. When the chancellor fell seriously ill, his deputy – known as the vice-chancellor – had limited ability to take over because he was a busy parish minister. Meanwhile, some of the registry staff were away on war service, pushing the registrar to the limit as he coped with the needs of the growing organisation. In 1944 the council decided the time had come to appoint a full-time academic head of the university, though they had to wait until the war ended and the government came up with the necessary funds. Rather than the term ‘principal’, popular in some countries, the council selected the more familiar ‘vice-chancellor’ name for the new role; the new vice-chancellor would chair the professorial board and report to the council.
Otago managed to persuade one of its own star graduates, Robert Aitken, back to New Zealand to become first vice-chancellor in 1948. Aitken was a son of the Presbyterian manse, born in Wyndham; he graduated top of his medical class in 1923 and headed to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. After completing a doctorate in respiratory physiology he practised medicine and taught at Hammersmith for some years before becoming professor of medicine at Aberdeen in 1939, still aged in his thirties. At Otago, Aitken furthered his reputation as a good administrator, already established at Aberdeen, earning support from those who had been sceptical about the position. When he left in 1953 the student publication Otago University Review commented: ‘He has shown us that vice-chancellors are, if not an essential thing, at least a very good one’. He also won plaudits from the arts faculty, which noted he ‘fully appreciated the central position of an Arts Faculty in a University and his keen analytical mind quickly gave him a grasp of Arts Faculty affairs’. Ironically it was probably the medical faculty which least appreciated Aitken: though initially enthusiastic, the more conservative forces of the medical and dental schools did not appreciate his progressive views on medical education or his abolition of their special sub-committee of the university council. Aitken was recruited back to Britain to become vice-chancellor at Birmingham in 1953. Wise, fiercely intelligent and thoughtful of others, though somewhat austere, he set a high standard for his successors to live up to; he was undoubtedly a success in pioneering the new role.
To replace Aitken the council looked closer to home, appointing Frederick Soper, who had been professor and head of one of Otago’s largest departments – chemistry – since 1936. Soper was a Welshman who served in World War I and lectured at Bangor before migrating to New Zealand to take up the Otago chemistry chair. He became known for his research into wool and, as I’ve written previously on this blog, he took a key leadership role in New Zealand’s scientific work during World War II. Soper later noted that the main features of his ten years as vice-chancellor were ‘the beginning of the upwards surge in student numbers’ and the planning and completion of several new university buildings (the library, the union and the dental school, among others). Soper kept on good terms with the growing student body: ‘student unrest and claims for a greater say in the running of the University had not yet crossed the seas, although political interest was alert and lively’, he recalled. He had morning tea with some of the OUSA executive every week and entertained them at the VC’s official residence, the Lodge, a couple of times a year; he was delighted to be made a life member of OUSA when he retired in 1963.
The next VC was also a Welshman, coal miner’s son Arthur Beacham. Beacham, an economist with research interests in mining and in monopolies, visited Otago while on sabbatical from Aberystwyth in 1956 and liked the place enough to return as vice-chancellor in 1963. He stayed only three years in the job, but they were significant ones. Otago was adjusting to the new administrative model which replaced the old University of New Zealand: individual universities were now funded by a five-yearly government block grant, managed locally by the university council. The ‘special’ schools particularly disliked having to compete with other sections of the university for funding, and Beacham proved unpopular with the medical and mining schools (the metallurgy course closed down in this period, marking the beginning of the end for the school of mines). But Beacham was a fierce advocate for Otago, falling out with prime minister Keith Holyoake over inadequate funding of universities, and some issues were beyond his control. The fiery VC had, according to university historian WP Morrell, ‘an alert, analytical mind, a persuasive tongue and great energy and drive’.
The challenges of growth and tight funding continued under the reign of Beacham’s successor, Robert Williams (known as Robin). Williams was recruited to the Otago leadership role in 1967 from the State Services Commission. He grew up in a Christchurch vicarage and studied mathematics and physics at Canterbury before taking up radar development work with the DSIR in 1941. He was seconded from that role to work on the US-led Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. After the war Williams studied at Cambridge before returning to the Wellington DSIR. At Otago, Williams oversaw the reforms which led to the survival of the medical school; it was, on his arrival, under threat of relocation. He was a far-sighted leader, with a deep and life-long concern for ethics and social justice, but his Otago term was also notable for the first stirrings of student unrest at the university. The student roll grew from 4300 to 6100 during his six years in office and among those students were some who embraced a new youth culture which resisted the conformity of earlier generations. Arguments over mixed flatting and new student discipline regulations prompted protest. Robin Williams left Otago to become vice-chancellor of Australian National University, Canberra, in 1973; he then returned to New Zealand as chair of the State Services Commission.
After two vice-chancellors who came from outside the university, in 1973 Otago appointed an insider, Robin Irvine, then clinical dean of the medical school. Irvine had proved his administrative skills when he took on the new role of clinical dean and helped develop the new clinical schools in Christchurch and Wellington. He was an Otago graduate who worked in Auckland and London before returning to the medical school as a researcher; his key field was kidney disease and hypertension. While previous vice-chancellors had faced the challenges of a growing institution, this reached a new level during Irvine’s 21 years in the role: when he started out Otago had just over 6000 students and when he retired it had over 14,000. In addition to the administrative difficulties of dealing with this growth, Irvine faced the complications of the neoliberal government reforms of the 1980s, which revolutionised – and placed under threat – university funding. Irvine restructured Otago in 1989, creating the system of four academic divisions which was controversial at the time but proved effective and survives to this day. Like Otago’s other medical VCs, he consciously took a wider view of the medical school’s role within the institution, an attitude not always popular with the school! Irvine’s appetite for hard work became legendary, as did his immaculately tidy office.
As extensive government restructuring of tertiary education and its funding continued through the 1990s, it was perhaps appropriate that the next vice-chancellor, Graeme Fogelberg, had an academic background in business, then rare in New Zealand university leadership. Fogelberg graduated and lectured in accountancy at Victoria University of Wellington before completing an MBA and PhD at the University of Western Ontario. He returned to Victoria as professor of business administration and was deputy VC there before taking on the Otago job in 1994. In the new competitive era of user pays and funding measured by ‘bums on seats’, Fogelberg’s ambitious strategic vision for Otago proved critical in keeping the institution afloat. Under his watch Otago attracted a new generation of international students beyond its traditional base (which was heavily dependent on students from Malaysia) and developed its alumni relations as part of the search for new sources of funding; it developed a base in Auckland and marketed itself aggressively around the country and around the world. Fogelberg was uncompromising and not everybody approved of his managerial approach. Small departments came under threat in the new funding environment and the closure of the small Russian programme was particularly unpopular with staff and students; meanwhile, the VC’s strong advocacy helped get the popular Spanish programme underway. Fogelberg retired in 2004, leaving behind a university with more students and a more diverse funding model than he had inherited. One of his proudest achievements was the magnificent new library building.
The next vice-chancellor was the third to boast an Otago medical degree. David Skegg, who featured in a recent post on this blog about Rhodes scholars from Otago, was the popular and long-serving head of Dunedin’s department of preventive and social medicine when appointed as Fogelberg’s successor. Skegg brought a strong focus on research and academic excellence to the role, continuing his own research into cervical and breast cancer during his time as VC, and encouraging others in the senior leadership team to continue their research. After many years of rapid growth, student numbers began to settle a little, though the post-graduate contingent continued to expand, as did the proportion of Maori and Pasifika students. Skegg was delighted with Otago’s success with the Marsden Fund and Performance-Based Research Fund, and the development of new chairs and research centres through the Leading Thinkers Initiative, commenced under his predecessor. Increasing staff collegiality was one of Skegg’s priorities – he was himself an Olympic-class networker – and there was a distinct lift in morale under his leadership. Dealing with the ‘high-spirited behaviour’ of students proved a challenge, with the Undie 500 attracting particular notoriety; Skegg led the university through the development of a controversial new student code of conduct, introduced in 2007 along with the Campus Watch system.
Harlene Hayne, vice-chancellor since 2011, is another distinguished researcher; she came to the role after a couple of years as Otago’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and development. Hayne first arrived in Otago from her home country, the USA, in 1992; she completed her doctorate in psychology at Rutgers, followed by three years as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton. She was promoted to professor in 2002 and, as well as heading one of Otago’s largest departments, psychology, she built up administrative expertise through various committees and as chair of the board of UniCol. It is not yet time to assess Hayne’s achievements as vice-chancellor, but in line with her psychology background she quickly demonstrated a particular concern for student well-being. She is well known for appearing in a hands-on role at major student events.
Otago has been fortunate in the calibre of its vice-chancellors, who have brought a range of skills and experience to this challenging and powerful job. We can only hope that future vice-chancellors continue the tradition of skilled leadership, and that the appointment of the first woman marks the beginnings of increasing diversity in Otago’s flagship position.