If you have ever heard me speak to students, you will know that I think it’s important to remind them about all the things they should be grateful for, both inside and outside the classroom. As I was preparing my introductory remarks for the incoming class of 2013, I realised that I should probably take my own advice and reflect on all the things that I am grateful for. The list is long.
I am extremely grateful for a husband and two children who have warmly embraced my new position, sacrificing much of their own time (and privacy) to support me in my role as Vice-Chancellor. I am also grateful to the senior members of my staff who give me advice when I need it and who continue to support my decisions, even when they disagree with me. I am grateful to my postgraduate students, my research staff and my collaborators who have helped me continue my research programme from the Clocktower. I could go on and on, but for right now, this extended message of gratitude begins with an earthquake.
On February 22, 2011, at 12:51pm, a M 6.3 earthquake rocked Christchurch, killing 185 people, destroying the central city, and disrupting the lives of thousands and thousands of people. The University of Otago Christchurch Campus, which is the home campus for over 200 of our staff and close to 300 undergraduate and more than 500 postgraduate students, was hit hard by this earthquake (as well as the earlier one in September 2010).
Our main building adjacent to the hospital was forced to close, as were many of the buildings we lease in the area. Without missing a beat, people relocated themselves where ever they could. I am grateful to both Canterbury and Lincoln universities and to Canterbury Scientific for hosting Otago researchers over the past two years, and to the Canterbury District Health Board for providing space for a medical student common room and the library.
I am also grateful to our architects, consultants and engineers, who stuck with us despite complex problems and even more complex solutions, and to our staff in the Property Services Division who found new space as required (sometimes on a daily basis), wielding their magic to convert warehouses and portacoms into high-tech laboratories and study spaces. I am also grateful to the general staff, teaching staff and clinicians who made it possible to deliver a full medical curriculum in a range of alternative venues including the netball courts, other sports facilities and the Horticulture Centre.
Was any of this easy? No. Most of it was very, very hard. As the aftershocks continued, previously safe buildings were closed. On multiple occasions, the boxes from one move were not unpacked when a new aftershock forced people to move again. Of course, this wasn’t only happening on campus; people’s home lives were often characterised by similar bouts of disruption. But in the face of all this adversity, people continued to teach, to learn and to conduct the kind of world-class research that the Christchurch campus is known for.
Over the past two years, our medical students in Christchurch have worked harder than ever, more than holding their own against their peers in Dunedin and Wellington. Undergraduate and postgraduate students, taking a lead from their teachers and mentors, have continued to struggle against the odds to successfully complete their degrees. Christchurch-based research teams earned $19.5 million in funding over the past two years, and individuals have been awarded some of New Zealand’s most prestigious research honours including the Rutherford Medal, the Liley Medal and Fellowship in the Royal Society of New Zealand.
As I have reported before in this magazine, I keep a piece of concrete from our damaged main building in Christchurch on my desk in Dunedin. It is a daily reminder of what it takes to strengthen a man-made structure against the forces of nature, but it is also a daily reminder of how grateful I am for the enduring strength of the staff and students who work and study on our Christchurch Campus and to all of our friends in the area who gave us a hand when we needed it most.
Between 20-22 February, 2013, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the University of Otago, Christchurch – two years and thousands of aftershocks since our main building was closed. This celebration will mark 40 years of success; it will also mark the formal re-opening of our main building and it will give me the opportunity to publically express my gratitude for people’s fortitude in the face of personal and professional adversity.
In closing, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the Dean of University of Otago Christchurch, Professor Peter Joyce, for his indefatigable optimism and leadership over the past two years. I would ask staff, students and alumni to join me in celebrating the 40th anniversary of the University of Otago Christchurch and in wishing them the very best for the next 40 years and beyond.
Professor Harlene Hayne, Vice-Chancellor, University of Otago