Otago alumni and staff reacted with shock and surprise, and felt humbled when they heard they had received New Year Honours for 2023.
The 24 alumni and staff recognised for their exceptional contribution and service are drawn from a wide range of professions, communities and areas of interest, including sport, health, education, Māori health, the Pacific community, migrant communities, ophthalmology, alcohol harm reduction, wildlife conservation, art, pharmacy, senior services and sexual violence.
Among those honoured are Rugby World Cup-winning captain of the Black Ferns, Dame Farah Palmer; Otago's Pacific Community Engagement Manager, Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai; the first female Professor of Opthalmology in New Zealand, Helen Danesh-Meyer; Silver Ferns coach, Leigh Gibbs; former Chief Executive Officer of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, Kereyn Smith; advocate for evidence-based alcohol policy, Professor Emerita Jennie Connor; and MBA lecturer and Otago University Rugby Football Club legend, Richard Higham.
Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DNZM)
Dame Farah Palmer (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato) ONZM was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sport, particularly rugby.
Dame Farah says it is both humbling and an honour to be considered worthy of the recognition. She says the honour is “a chance to shine a light on how far we've come in rugby, which is working hard to reflect the values and aspirations of a more diverse Aotearoa New Zealand”.
Dame Farah, who graduated from Otago with a BPhEd(Hons) in 1994 and a PhD in 2000, is a three-time Rugby World Cup-winning captain of the New Zealand women's rugby team, the Black Ferns.
She has held a variety of governance roles since retiring as a player in 2006, including serving as an independent member of the Māori Rugby Board and a member of the Women's Advisory Committee of the International Rugby Board.
She became the first woman on the New Zealand Rugby Board in 2016 and was elected Deputy Chairperson in 2021. Dame Farah currently chairs the New Zealand Māori Rugby Board.
In 2022, she was appointed as Pou Ākonga Executive Director - Māori Student Success at Massey University and was previously Associate Dean Māori for the Massey Business School. Her research and service focusses on the intersection of Māori and gender identities in high performance sport, sport for development, and how a mana wahine approach can be applied in organisational and leadership contexts.
Dame Farah is also a member of the Sport and Recreation New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa Board and was a founding trustee for Manukura, an education programme with a Te Ao Māori approach to excellence in sport, culture and education.
Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM)
Four alumni received the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit; Hamish Bond MNZM for services to rowing; Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer for services to ophthalmology; Leigh Gibbs ONZM for services to netball; and Kereyn Smith MNZM for services to sports governance.
Kereyn Smith, who was Chief Executive Officer of the New Zealand Olympic Committee from 2011 until 2022, says she felt a “real combination of feelings and reflections” on receiving the honour.
“I was of course surprised, as well as proud, honoured and grateful,” she says. “My sport leadership and governance career has spanned global and national roles, and I have been blessed with opportunities to carry New Zealand's voice, values and perspective into these various Olympic and Commonwealth arenas.”
Since 2015, Smith has overseen New Zealand's representation at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and 2018 and 2022 Winter Olympics, as well as the 2018 Commonwealth Games team. She has focused on athlete wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, with development of an integrity and human rights framework, organisational and team kaupapa and a culture of manaaki, the establishment of Te Urunga Tu Māori Advisory Committee and introduction of a new haka pou tangata.
She was a driving force behind establishing the Olympic Women's Leadership Academy in New Zealand, has been a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Sport and Active Society Commission, and Vice-President of the Commonwealth Games Federation since 2015. Smith is also a founding member of the International Working Group (IWG) on Women and Sport.
She says her “kick start” in developing an awareness and understanding of the wide world of sport – its issues, impacts and opportunities, began at the University of Otago, where she graduated with a Diploma in Physical Education.
“Learning about social, geopolitical and integrity matters, as well as the science and structure of sport and recreation, at Otago, was a great foundation for me personally, and for that I am grateful.”
Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM)
Otago Professor Emerita Jennie Connor was named Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to alcohol harm reduction, along with John Darby for services to wildlife conservation and science; Dr Natalie Gauld for services to pharmacy and health; Bernard McKone for services to the pharmaceutical sector; and Dr Apisalome Talemaitoga for services to health and the Pacific community.
Professor Connor says her reaction to the award was both surprise and gratitude. “I appreciate the recognition that this award gives to the purpose of my work, rather than particular achievements,” she says.
Professor Connor has been an advocate for evidence-based alcohol policy, in order to improve health and wellbeing, and equity among and between communities. Her work was used extensively by the New Zealand Law Commission in the review of liquor law in 2009, she helped establish Alcohol Action New Zealand in the same year and was a founding Board member of the Health Coalition Aotearoa.
“I have wanted my research and teaching to have direct applications to the health and wellbeing of our communities. Reducing harm from alcohol in Aotearoa is still a work in progress, but I am optimistic that there is increasing understanding of what needs to be done, and of the extent of the gains that will make the changes worthwhile.”
She says her aims are shared by others, and their work is also reflected in this award.
“My privilege as an academic has allowed me to research the nature and extent of alcohol harm and understand the evidence about which policies will be effective. Others contribute complementary knowledge and skills.”
Professor Connor was the Chair of Preventive and Social Medicine at Otago between 2010 and 2020 and Professor Emerita since 2020. She has also provided mentoring, support and supervision for young women in public health.
“During my working life, I have seen and felt impediments for women progressing in medicine and public health, and have tried to give my students support that is more appropriate for their needs.”
Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM)
The eight alumni to receive Members of the New Zealand Order of Merit are Dr John Armstrong for services to Māori health; Wallace Bain for services to health and the community; Dr Tim Bevin for services to health; Dr Heather Came-Friar for services to Māori, education and health; Anna Harrison for services to netball and volleyball; Bonnie Robinson for services to seniors and social services; Margaret Tai Rākena for services to victims of sexual violence and the community; and John Tait for services to education and Māori.
Queen's Service Medal (QSM)
Five alumni and staff were awarded the Queen's Service Medal; Lynore Farry for services to the community; Afife Harris for services to migrant communities; Richard Higham for services to rugby and education; Kenneth Morris for services to the community; and Helen Whittaker for services to art and the community.
Richard Higham is the Otago MBA Director New Ventures Programme and has been a member of the Otago University Rugby Football Club (OURFC) since 1973, including time as Club Captain, Vice-President and President between 1978 and 1995.
He has been on the Executive of the University of the Third Age (U3A) Dunedin and been active with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra Friends.
“What a fantastic surprise!” he says. “As you can imagine, it means a hell of a lot to me to have been able to serve on these committees since 1973 when Jane and I came to New Zealand with our three daughters!”
However, he does not regard it as his honour.
“It belongs to the rugby club committee officials who drive the playing club so successfully, the Light Blues, whose 100 club members donate to John Burke's $10/month fund to help with scholarships and club improvements, and the [OURFC] foundation which manages the saved-up capital of club and Light Blues.”
An Honorary QSM was awarded to Otago's Pacific Community Engagement Manager, Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai, for services to education and the Pacific community. Tofilau was the Manager of the Pacific Islands Centre at Otago for more than 20 years, focusing on engagement and success of Pacific students, exploring the spaces where there are gaps in services to support the students and staff. She also graduated with a Master of Indigenous Studies from Otago in 2021.
Tofilau says when she was first contacted about the honour, she “froze then closed the laptop”.
“I mean you don't get such emails every day. I read it again carefully, so that it's not spam, and I shed a few tears. I am still in that shock moment.
“You don't do your daily job chasing such honours. The biggest honour is to see students come in do well, graduate and go back to help our families, communities and Aotearoa.”
Read more New Year Honours stories here:
Dame Farah Palmer – New Year Honour a chance to shine a light
Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai - the biggest honour is to see students do well
Helen Danesh-Meyer– Honour for ground-breaking eye surgeon “a team effort”
Richard Higham – Belief in a sound mind and a sound body
John Tait – Success is always about joining the kaupapa and working together
Heather Came-Friar – Honour recognises advocacy for equity, social justice and anti-racism
Wallace Bain – In Pursuit of the Public Good
Alumni and staff New Year Honours recipients with links to their citations
Professor Farah Rangikoepa Palmer, ONZM, of Palmerston North. For services to sport, particularly rugby. BPhEd (Hons), PhD.
Mr Hamish Bryon Bond, MNZM, of Durham, North Carolina, United States of America. For services to rowing.
Professor Helen Victoria Danesh-Meyer, of Auckland. For services to ophthalmology. MB ChB.
Mrs Leigh Helen Gibbs, ONZM, of Nelson. For services to netball. DipPhEd.
Ms Kereyn Maree Smith, MNZM, of Auckland. For services to sports governance. DipPhEd.
Professor Emerita Jennie Lynne Connor, of Auckland. For services to alcohol harm reduction. MB ChB, DPH, MPH.
Mr John Terence Darby, of Wanaka. For services to wildlife conservation and science. BSc.
Dr Natalie Joan Gauld, of Auckland. For services to pharmacy and health. MPharm.
Mr Bernard Joseph McKone, of Cromwell. For services to the pharmaceutical sector. MPharm.
Dr Apisalome Sikaidoka Talemaitoga, of Auckland. For services to health and the Pacific community. MB ChB.
Dr John Douglas Armstrong, of Rotorua. For services to Māori health. MB ChB.
Mr David Wallace Bain, of Rotorua. For services to health and the community. LLB(Hons).
Dr Timothy Robert Bevin, of Napier. For services to health. MB ChB, DCH, PGCertHealSc(End).
Dr Heather Anne Came-Friar, of Auckland. For services to Māori, education and health. CHProm.
Mrs Anna Maree Harrison, of Auckland. For services to netball and volleyball. BPhty.
Ms Bonnie Jane Robinson, of Auckland. For services to seniors and social services. BD.
Ms Margaret Teresa Tai Rākena, of Christchurch. For services to victims of sexual violence and the community. CertComPsC.
Mr John Maxwell Tait, of Kaikōura. For services to education and Māori. BA, MA.
Mrs Lynore Ann Farry, of Dunedin. For services to the community. Graduate of Dunedin College of Education.
Mrs Afife Skafi Harris, of Dunedin. For services to migrant communities.
Mr James Richard Strachan Higham, of Dunedin. For services to rugby and education.
Mr Kenneth Michael Morris, of Cambridge. For services to the community. BCom(Hons).
Ms Helen Whittaker, of Whangārei. For services to art and the community. LLB.
Mrs Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai, of Auckland. For services to education and the Pacific community. MIndS.
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