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Canadian doctorate complete surprise for former VC

Thursday, 18 May 2017 9:12pm

Professor Sir David Skegg.

Former University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Skegg says an invitation to receive an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University came “out of the blue” but that he is thrilled to be recognised by an institution he greatly admires.

Professor Skegg will receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Science at the Canadian university’s convocation ceremony in early June, at which he will also deliver the graduation address.

Professor Skegg, who is a graduate of Otago and the University of Oxford, held the Chair of Preventive and Social Medicine at Otago for many years. He was also a Rhodes Scholar and has been knighted for his services to the advancement of medicine.

In its citation for his doctorate, Queen’s University notes that he is globally recognised for his research on epidemiology, breast and cervical cancer, contraception, drug safety and reproductive health. It describes him as “a probing scientist, engaging mentor and inspiring teacher”.

The citation also describes Professor Skegg as “a master of the art of university leadership, who successfully led Otago through a time of considerable change in government funding policy to become a first-ranked research-intensive university in New Zealand”.

Queen’s also notes that he has been “an innovative strategic collaborator on international higher education, and the primary driving force establishing the Matariki Network of Universities”. This is a group of leading, like-minded institutions that promote excellence in research-led education, while providing a high-quality student experience.

"Because the seven founding members have so much in common, we can interact and collaborate in much greater depth than would be possible with other university networks."

Otago and Queen’s, along with England’s Durham University, Dartmouth College in the United States, Germany’s University of Tübingen, Sweden’s Uppsala University and Australia’s University of Western Australia are members of this collaborative network which Professor Skegg helped to establish in 2011.

Professor Skegg says when he became Vice-Chancellor, he felt that Otago needed stronger links with like-minded universities, but that the existing networks were mostly far too large.

“They tend to function a bit like the United Nations,” he says. “So I started conversations with a small number of research-intensive universities that also put an emphasis on providing a great all-round student experience, especially those based in “college towns” rather than large metropolitan cities.

“We were able to interest some outstanding institutions, and I am delighted by the progress that has been made. Because the seven founding members have so much in common, we can interact and collaborate in much greater depth than would be possible with other university networks.”

Queen’s University, with about 22,000 students, has a great deal in common with Otago. Established by Scottish settlers in 1841, it is one of the most highly ranked research universities in Canada. It has a beautiful campus based in Kingston, which was named by the BBC as one of the top five university towns in the world.

For Professor Skegg the honorary degree is made particularly special because his father, who died last year, was based in Kingston in the Royal Air Force during World War 2.

“So even as a boy growing up in Auckland, I was aware of Queen’s University because he often wore a Queen’s sweatshirt! He would have been delighted by this turn of events.”