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Vice-Chancellor’s comment

Harlene Hayne banner

Vice-Chancellor’s comment

Professor Harlene Hayne encourages the celebration of academic excellence.

In January of 2016, my husband and I will celebrate the 24th anniversary of our move to New Zealand. When we arrived in 1992, our plan was to spend a few years at Otago and then return to academic life in America, but we soon learned that we could be happier and more successful if we remained in New Zealand. What started as an academic OE quickly became a life in a place that we love. When we first moved here, we realised that we had a lot to learn. Coming from America, we were surprised to find out that Kiwis sometimes resent or criticise other people because of their talents or achievements – a cultural practice that is often referred to as the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Having now lived here more than two decades, we understand that the Tall Poppy Syndrome is complex. There are clearly situations in which New Zealanders do celebrate success. We all cheered for the All Blacks during their nail-biting 8-7 win over France in the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Collectively, we are quick to celebrate the achievement of our Olympic athletes including high profile Otago alumni like Nathan Cohen, Hamish Bond, Annelise Coberger, Danyon Loader, Alison Shanks, Jack Lovelock, Arthur Parkin and Lord Arthur Porritt. In July this year, we proudly celebrated the Highlanders’ Super 15 championship, as they secured their victory with the University of Otago on their backs.  

In addition to celebrating sporting success, many New Zealanders continue to celebrate David Lange’s 1984 decision to ban nuclear ships from New Zealand ports. We also celebrate the actions of many around the 1981 Springbok test match; New Zealanders often consider these protests to be their collective stand against apartheid. More recently, I was in Australia when New Zealand legalised same-sex marriage; many Otago alumni expressed immense national pride in this decision.

Despite these notable exceptions to the Tall Poppy Syndrome, we are still uncomfortable about celebrating academic success in New Zealand. In my view, the academic version of the Tall Poppy Syndrome has passed its use-by date. The time has come for us to celebrate academic success in the same way that we currently give ourselves permission to celebrate sporting achievements and some political decisions.

Why? First, pride is a fundamental human emotion; it has powerful effects on motivation and performance. Giving students permission to be proud of their academic achievements is the first step in fostering world-class scholarship. Creating an environment in which academic prowess is encouraged and celebrated will allow us to continue to attract the best and the brightest students to Otago.

Second, celebrating others’ success allows students to calibrate their own performance during the course of their studies. Academic life is not like mowing the grass. It is sometimes difficult to see what you have done and what you have left to do. Recognising the success of their peers lets students know where they are in the pack; sometimes that feedback is all the motivation they need to work just a bit harder.

Finally, failure to recognise success drives away the successful.

At Otago, we are currently educating some of the best young minds from New Zealand and from around the world. We understand that many of our students will leave the New Zealand nest when they graduate, but we don’t want them all to go and, when they do leave, we want them to come back. Creating an expectation that their success will be acknowledged and encouraged keeps New Zealand in their sights as a future place for employment and investment.

Given the importance of academic Tall Poppies, we are currently taking great strides at the University of Otago to foster and celebrate academic success. For the fourth year in a row, we have welcomed one of the most academically-talented cohort of students in our history. Our residential colleges now hold formal functions to honour academic performance throughout the year – those students who do well are identified and celebrated. We work hard to ensure that student scholars are acknowledged across campus and in the media. We have just launched a highly ambitious New Frontiers Scholarship programme and have increased the number of academic scholarships for Māori and Pacific students. These initiatives are designed to send a clear signal about the value of brain power at Otago.

I constantly remind students that in a university environment, smart people are cool – and in the world outside university, smart people also tend to be successful. At Otago, our goal is to encourage our students to cultivate their inner smart person – and to celebrate all of the wonderful, bright, successful, athletic, talented and politically- and socially-minded smart people in their midst.

As alumni, you are an integral part of our community of scholarship. Please don’t be afraid to share the success of this University – our history, our staff, our students – with each other and with the world. This edition of the Otago Magazine highlights more of the amazing achievements that we can all proudly celebrate. As you are reading, we will get back to the business of growing our Tall Poppies.