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Vice-Chancellor's Comments

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Vice-Chancellor's comment

Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne discusses the University of Otago's longstanding culture of volunteering – of giving back to the community.

When I was selected as the Vice-Chancellor in 2011, a considerable fuss was made about my gender. Every interviewer and every reporter was clear to point out that I was the first woman to lead the University of Otago.

This intense focus on my gender surprised me for a number of reasons. One reason was that my 19-year career at Otago had been completely gender blind. No one had ever tried to temper my aspirations because I was a woman and no one had given me any special privileges either. The other reason that I was surprised was that there were a number of other things about me that no one bothered to mention – for example, I am the first psychologist to hold this position and I am also the first American. I think it is now clear that these aspects of my background have had a much larger influence on the way in which I try to lead this fine University than the fact that I am a woman.

But there are other, lesser known, things about my past that shape everything I do here. For example, I did not come from an academically elite household. In fact, like many other Otago staff members, I was the first person in my family to attend university. Although my parents always dreamed that I would earn a degree, they had neither the experience nor the funds to make that dream a reality. I was extremely fortunate to receive a scholarship that covered the cost of my undergraduate education that paved the way for so many other opportunities. In essence, the fact that I am the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Otago is, literally, due to the kindness of strangers.

Not many days go by that I don’t reflect on the privilege of my education and on the daily obligation that comes with that privilege. Here at Otago we recognise that our students, like me, owe a huge debt of gratitude for their world-class education – a large chunk of which is funded by the New Zealand taxpayers. In this issue of the Otago Magazine you will read about our new Volunteer Centre, UniCrew, which was born out of the necessity to organise the large number of our students who have taken on the challenge of giving back to the community that has already given them so much.

In this issue you will also read about another generation of Otago students and the way in which they fulfilled their obligations to the wider community. In 1914, the 5th-year medical students at Otago petitioned the University to bring their final examinations forward from January to August allowing them to volunteer as medical officers for the New Zealand armed forces. These young medical students joined their senior colleagues, including Major Charles Hercus and Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Barnett, on the shores of Gallipoli, some of them paying the ultimate price for their service to their country.

I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be a leader at Otago at the time of World War I. Each year I proudly participate in the Anzac Day service that is organised by OUSA and each year I have to admit that I would have struggled making a decision that paved the way for so many of our students to go to war. In the end, perhaps, I would have plucked up the courage and not stood in the way of the students’ dedication to their country, but I am eternally grateful that the decision was not mine to make. I am certain that it weighed heavily on those who had to make it.

Taken together, the stories in this issue of the Otago Magazine remind us all that an appreciation of the obligation that comes with privilege has been part of the ethos of Otago since the time the University was founded.

These stories also give us the opportunity to reflect on the historical change in the way our students have embraced their obligations. I am sure that we can all agree that the change has been in the right direction.