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Vice-Chancellor’s comment

Harlene Hayne banner

Vice-Chancellor’s comment  

Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne discuses the positives – and negatives – of Orientation Week, and the problem of easily accessible and inexpensive alcohol.

As I write this, we have just finished Orientation Week [O-Week] here in Dunedin. Once again, the press was filled with unsavoury photos of glass-strewn streets and burned-out furniture. I have received the usual string of letters from business owners in North Dunedin, members of the general public and parents who were understandably concerned about the noise, mayhem and general threats to safety in the area.

At the same time, I have also received the usual string of comments from individuals who have argued that the press coverage is unfair because it only highlights the negative aspects of the rituals that accompany the students’ annual migration to Dunedin and gives far greater prominence to misbehaviour by students than to the misbehaviour of other groups.

Both sides of this story are true. As I recently reported to the University Council, we have made major headway in taking a bite out of the anti-social behaviour that is exhibited by some of our students. The number of fires, the amount of broken glass and the number of students summoned to appear before the Proctor has declined year after year. But we still have a long way to go.

We live in a country with a dangerously unhealthy relationship with alcohol. If we are serious about making additional changes to the student behaviour we don’t like, we have to tackle the issue of dangerous drinking per se, not only in Dunedin, not only at Otago, but throughout New Zealand. The University is more than prepared to do our part, but to turn things around we require the support of everyone who has a voice.

On a related matter, the University is often accused of closing the pubs in North Dunedin. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pubs closed because the students no longer went there to drink, choosing instead to pre-load on cheap alcohol purchased in supermarkets and off-licence premises located on every street in their neighbourhood. We acknowledge that students are much safer if they are drinking in pubs and we applaud the efforts of Chris James, Noel Kennedy and Greg Paterson to refurbish the Captain Cook Hotel because the international literature clearly shows that students are safer if they do their drinking in well-managed on-licence premises.

The other unfortunate side to the O-Week coin is that because the press and the public are understandably distracted by the negative aspects of the week, they miss out on all the good things. I have a unique vantage point during O-Week. I spend five days (and nights) with our students, in formal Orientation speeches and information sessions, and during recreational activities on the sports field, around campus and at the stadium.

This year, we held our inaugural Academic Convocation Ceremony in which we officially welcomed the incoming class of 2015. More than 4,000 students who were new to Otago were welcomed by Ngāi Tahu, OUSA president Mr Paul Hunt, Dunedin Mayor Mr Dave Cull, Prime Minister the Rt Hon. John Key, and me. These 4,000 students sat without making a sound, taking in every word of advice that was offered. Throughout the rest of the week, I spoke to dozens and dozens of students who wanted to share their reflections on what they had learned at the convocation. Countless students also approached me to discuss their dreams and aspirations for the year ahead, and to marvel at the physical beauty of their new home city.

I have no real forum in which to share these stories. They are not the kinds of things that the media cover. But for me, they are salient reminders of what we are dealing with. Yes, there are some trouble-makers and they are always dealt with appropriately, but the vast majority of these rowdy, messy and sometimes even mouthy students are not the bad people that the press portrays – in fact, they are remarkable people who will eventually become great partners, great parents, productive professionals, and good citizens of New Zealand and the rest of the world.

I know this, not only because I spend time getting to know them, but because I have also spent time getting to know you, the alumni of the University of Otago who – let’s face it – were also periodically troublesome as well.

I recommend that we keep the spotlight sharply focused on the problem that we face during O-Week – that problem is large quantities of easily accessible and inexpensive alcohol. Once and for all, this University, this city and this country need to work together to make it possible for our students to spread their wings in an exciting, but safe environment. When it comes to the University and the city, I know that everyone is up for the challenge. While we are at it, I would also like the spotlight to occasionally shine on the other things that I get to see, the little bits of “scarfie magic” that happen each and every day.