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A southern man

John Ward banner

A southern man

From the the pomp of ceremonial events to the nitty-gritty of finance and Council meetings, John Ward relishes his role as University of Otago Chancellor.

University of Otago Chancellor John Ward is thought to be the first Chancellor appointed from outside the province in the University's 145-year history: nevertheless, he is very much a man of the south.

Raised and educated in Invercargill, Ward gained a BCom at Otago before, like so many other graduates, broadening his horizons by working overseas in London, New York and Johannesburg.

On his return to New Zealand in 1980 he headed south again to catch up on family, but soon realised the opportunities the Otago/Southland region had to offer and took on an accounting practice partnership. In the intervening three decades he has embraced the chance to be part of the region's commercial and academic fabric.

"There can be significant benefits in living in a smaller city. Sometimes I am staggered by the debt that people take on to buy first homes in northern cities. Regional centres provide substantial lifestyle and commercial opportunities. Of course, these aspects are just part of the fabric of life, but they are key components of the mix and worthy of serious consideration."

Ward's own CV is proof of that belief, listing key directorships and chairmanships in numerous high-profile national and local organisations. In 2001 he stepped aside from his substantial practice at Ward Wilson Ltd to concentrate on a range of projects and interests, including becoming the 18th Chancellor of the University of Otago in 2009 after serving two years as Pro-Chancellor and four years as a Council member.

Ward has developed a wide range of external appointments that keep him busy, such as chairing the board of SBS Bank – another 145-year-old southern institution – and he also chairs entities such as centurion retailer H&J Smith Group and the tourism icon, Bungy New Zealand Ltd, established by AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch.

While being Chancellor has its ceremonial aspects – such as presiding over some 12 graduation ceremonies each year for around 3,500 students – Ward has a very inclusive role which includes chairing the University Council, the governing body of the University of Otago, as well as the Finance and Budget Committee.

"The University has a turnover of more than $600 million with assets of almost $1.5 billion and, whilst we currently have reasonable surpluses on an annual basis, they are required to fund capital expenditure and internal development within the University. For example, we have development projects worth more than $500 million on our Priority Development Plan."

Ward also chairs Otago Innovation Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary that is charged with the responsibility of commercialising and seeking commercial opportunities for some of the intellectual property (IP) and research that emanates from the University.

It is an area that he finds particularly exciting and satisfying. "We've been going now for 12 years and, whilst we've always known it would take considerable time and resources to get it established, we've had significant successes in recent years and promising opportunities are being worked on," he says.

"There is a close working relationship with the Research and Enterprise Division of the University and Otago Innovation Limited. Both parties are committed to creating commercial opportunities from the research and IP that are developed within the University."

Another of Ward's roles revolves around alumni associations, both in New Zealand and overseas, with a particular emphasis on Malaysia, Australia, UK and US. Attendees at these functions are so appreciative of their time at the University of Otago.

He is keen to acknowledge those donors and alumni who have contributed so much to the University and specific projects.

"Increasingly, many of our alumni recognise that the opportunities that have arisen through their working lives are directly attributable to having had an education at the University of Otago."

"There's also the social component acquired from enjoying Otago's unique campus lifestyle and environment, and the fact that this aspect has enabled them to create and maintain significant personal relationships that have served them well after graduating."

Ward says the contribution that graduates can now make, on a tax-effective basis too, should not be underestimated. "Eight years ago the University introduced the Leading Thinkers Initiative which was a phenomenal success as a result of central Government matching internal funding from donors to the extent of $25 million, creating a $50 million fund.

"That fund has been a significant boost to the University and some of the research emanating from that now has global presence. Regular annual contributions are greatly appreciated and valued too."

He is also quick to acknowledge the role of teamwork in the success of the University and enjoys a close working relationship with current Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne, as he did with her predecessor Professor Sir David Skegg. He also has immense respect for the contribution to the University made by the other Vice-Chancellor of his time, Dr Graeme Fogelberg.

"The University is a complex model. It has in excess of 3,800 employees over several campuses and teaches close to 19,000 full-time-equivalent students, representing more than 100 countries from around the world."

Ward also recognises there are issues to be addressed. He chairs the New Zealand Chancellors’/Vice-Chancellors’ Group which discusses various issues impacting on the delivery of education. Currently, discussions are being held with the Tertiary Education Minister regarding the proposed streamlining and downsizing of all university councils.

"From my perspective, I certainly don't see the current system as flawed. If it was we would have pushed for change some time ago. We support the representation model and I am hopeful that we can reach a compromise on numbers.

“Intellectual freedom, however, cannot be compromised. We are responsible to all of our stakeholders, including government, but universities must be protected in a way that preserves independence, autonomy and academic freedom.

"All Council members are there for the greater good and the contributions from Council members have been a significant factor in the success of the University over many years."

A recent change to the governance model has been the move away from a Court of Convocation voting mechanism where low voter turnout prevailed at a significant cost.

"Council felt a better way to handle this aspect would be to seek out alumni who have the interest of the University of Otago at heart and who have appropriate skill sets. We feel that is a better way of having the alumni represented in a more pragmatic manner."

But Ward is quick to counter concerns that such a move could make Council too business orientated.

"Clearly, it is a substantial business and you have to have commercial people around the table, but we will be seeking people who can make a contribution in other areas too. The financial operations are not the only aspects of University affairs that we ponder over."

Looking ahead, Ward can see plenty of challenges and opportunities for Otago. "Our research continually attracts headlines and brings benefits to sectors such as health and the sciences. Our Māori and Pacific attainment rates and numbers continue to progress. Graduates are eagerly sought after as employees.

"We are gradually improving and adapting our research and work spaces yet still retaining the unique campus environment. Funding is always an issue, but the positives are many, the negatives few," he says.

"I am not sure how I ended up in the Chancellor’s role, but I relish the opportunities that it provides me with, the relationships that I have with many academic and general staff, and the students I meet on a regular basis. It is a very rewarding position."


Photo: Alan Dove