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For the record

After 30 years at Otago, almost 10 of them as Vice-Chancellor, Professor Harlene Hayne is moving on. She reflects on the challenges and rewards, a few crises and many great joys.

When Professor Harlene Hayne became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago she was surprised how much was made of the fact that she was the first woman at the helm.

She had expected more to be made of the fact that she was the first American, not only to lead Otago, but also to take the helm of any of the country's eight universities.

But looking back over her two terms in office, neither gender nor nationality has had as much influence as her academic background – the first psychologist in the role.

“My leadership style has been guided most by my psychology background -– understanding how behaviours are shaped and a deep interest in staff and students,” says Hayne.

That understanding has been tested over a decade bookended by the crises created by the Christchurch earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic, and touched by controversy and criticism over restructuring.

But the University has come through strongly and is now in much better shape than most, both nationally and internationally, which Hayne considers is a good way to farewell it after almost 30 years of service.

In 1992 she left a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton – basically on a whim – to take up a lectureship in the Department of Psychology at Otago.

“Research is an intellectual respite for me where the skills I have mastered give me complete control over what happens next. That doesn't describe some of the other challenges I face as Vice-Chancellor.”

“It was a big decision to step out of the Ivy League track I was on in the US to move to the other side of the world just after my first daughter was born. Moving from one of the best universities in the world to come to Dunedin may have sounded like a risky idea, but in hindsight it was inspired.

“The career I have had here has been second to none in every respect: from my teaching and research to my leadership at Otago and my opportunity to work closely with government, all while living in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I feel like I have won the lottery.

“Originally I thought I might stay for three to five years at the most, but almost 30 years later I'm still here. It's a story that's repeated time and again at Otago. Academic and professional staff come from overseas for a bit of an adventure and then they stay.”

Hayne was a reluctant leader at first. When she was asked to become Head of Department in Psychology she initially said no. “What I really wanted to do was to teach and to conduct research that made a difference. I found real joy in my academic appointment in Psychology – so why would I want to change that?

“In order to step up as Head of Department, I had to do some cognitive restructuring, expanding my academic ambition to include an ambition for my wider department. Once I accepted the role, I found that I loved every minute of it.”

At the end of her three-year term as Head of Department, Hayne was asked to take on the role of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise). Again, she was initially reluctant. “I was ready to go back to my lab full-time. Once again, I had to restructure my thinking, expanding the ambition that I had for my department to include the wider University's research and commercialisation efforts. And again, when I took the role I relished it.”

When Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Skegg stepped down he suggested that Hayne might want to apply. This time she was not reluctant and entered into a protracted selection process that she likens to picking a Pope. “The more I learned about the University the more I fell in love with it. I really did want this job and I thank God they picked me. It's been an amazing ride.”

Hayne says her two predecessors' leadership styles were perfect for the University's needs at the time.

“Graeme Fogelberg brought the University into the 20th century in terms of systems and buildings, and focused on sustainable growth and fiscal responsibility. The fiscal side of the University makes many academics cringe, but the reality is that none of us gets to do our jobs unless the finances are in order.

“David Skegg worked hard to strengthen Otago's research culture, which continues to this day. We are rare as a University in that every senior academic leader is still research active. David also took the first brave steps in improving student safety and behaviour in North Dunedin through the development of the Code of Student Conduct and the introduction of Campus Watch.”

Since arriving at Otago, Hayne's own research has had uninterrupted funding, including seven successive Marsden grants – two during her terms as Vice-Chancellor. “Research is an intellectual respite for me where the skills I have mastered give me complete control over what happens next. That doesn't describe some of the other challenges I face as Vice-Chancellor.”

As Vice-Chancellor, Hayne aimed to build on the legacies of Fogelberg and Skegg. “In addition to fostering continued capital development, fiscal responsibility and an emphasis on research, I have particularly tried to elevate the standard of our world-class teaching. None of us should ever forget that the University is a school and that our students are the lifeblood of this institution.”

Hayne devoted considerable time to students. Her active support of the Code of Student Conduct helped to reduce anti-social behaviour, especially around alcohol, but – as she points out – only so much can be done without support from government. “Many of the problems we currently face regarding alcohol will only be solved by changes to legislation and culture.”

She also moved more broadly to address issues of student behaviour that are either partly attributable to, or are exacerbated by, excess drinking. For example, in 2018, following extensive research into best practice, Te Whare Tāwharau, Otago's sexual violence support and prevention centre, was opened on the Dunedin campus. Internationally unique in its integration of research with education, prevention and support, it is tackling an issue that is common to universities around the world, but which few – if any – have yet to successfully address.

In 2020, following the tragic 2019 death of Otago student Sophia Crestani, the University, together with the Crestani family, launched The Sophia Charter. This is a shared commitment from key stakeholders to enhance the safety and well-being of the student community in North Dunedin.

“I will always be grateful for the amazing grace and courage that Sophia's parents have shown in the wake of any parents' worst nightmare. They have been the catalyst for the charter and we can already see that it is making a difference in our student community.”

Throughout Hayne's term as Vice-Chancellor, many students who found themselves in trouble were summoned to her office for a chat – more pastoral care than punishment (though perhaps not always seen that way by those students at the time).

“The psychologist in me understands that most of the students who do bad things here at Otago are not bad people. They are good people who have made a bad mistake. Sometimes all they need is a kind, caring and firm adult to set a boundary and explain that their behaviour is not appropriate. They also need someone to listen to them and to understand the challenges they are facing.

“I'm proud that every troubled student I have met in my office has eventually graduated. That might not have been the case had we not had those conversations. And I'm incredibly proud of the overall positive change in the way the students treat each other and our community here at Otago.”

Hayne promoted good citizenship and altruism among students, establishing the University's Volunteer Centre, now the Social Impact Studio, which fosters student-driven change through leadership and volunteer work.

“I was the only person in my family who went to university and I was able to do so only because of a scholarship. I benefited from the kindness of strangers and I am a firm believer that there is a great obligation that comes with that privilege. New Zealand taxpayers pay a large portion of the cost of our students' education. In my view, students have an obligation to give back.

“My watch at Otago demanded being courageous enough to make decisions that were difficult. I don't need to be beloved, but I do hope people think I led the University with integrity and courage. That's how I'd like to be remembered.”

“Volunteering is now part of the DNA of Otago students and long may that continue. Young people are receptive to the message of obligation and we often see students at their best when they are working together to give back to the community.”

Hayne also championed the interests of Māori and Pacific students. On her watch Otago has seen year-on-year increases in their numbers and their successes, particularly in the Health Sciences, with considerable long-term positives for them, for whānau, for communities and for the country as a whole.

Otago also became New Zealand's first university to secure Fair Trade status and became a signatory of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. The University also received the rainbow tick and became a signatory to the Say-No-To-Racism campaign.

These initiatives were driven by “a great passionate partnership between students and staff who are in very strong agreement about working towards sustainable actions, abiding by consumer responsibility and creating a campus environment where everyone feels welcome”.

Hayne is proud of the work-hard-play-hard ethos of the average Otago student. “Students who participate in sports like rowing and rugby and netball and soccer, or take part in business case competitions or debate teams bring huge mana to the University through their hard work, all while maintaining good academic progress.”

Hayne's legacy includes her oversight of some $400 million worth of major capital development on campus, which is regarded internationally as one of the most beautiful in the world. Improvements include a state-of-the art dental school and dental hospital, new research facilities, a new performing arts building, and renovation of the Commerce atrium.

“We have to invest in facilities to accommodate our people, allow them to conduct world-class research, and make our campuses attractive to both staff and students. Although there are always valid questions about spending on buildings rather than people, in my view this is a false dichotomy. Our great people need great buildings.

“The University currently has an assets base worth more than $2 billion. These assets require constant upgrading to meet health and safety regulations and the growing needs of staff and students.”

Hayne has also overseen considerable growth in Otago's scholarship support for students at postgraduate and, particularly, undergraduate levels.

"The purpose of these awards has been three-fold: firstly to help ensure we attract the number of students we desire; secondly to secure a good share of New Zealand's high-calibre students; and thirdly to secure an increasingly diverse student cohort for Otago, including many more students from backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in University study in this country."

Otago's status maintained its standing in a number of influential world rankings. The University has received constantly mounting accolades for both research and teaching excellence and is now attracting the highest level of research income in its history.

During 2019, the 150th anniversary celebrations attracted some 100,000 people, with the Clocktower picnic so successful that it has been added to the annual calendar. The bell that was originally housed in Otago's first premises in the Exchange was relocated to the historic precinct behind the Clocktower, where students ring it to celebrate submitting their PhDs.

As Hayne leaves, the University is developing its new strategic direction, Vision 2040. “We all recognise the unbelievable contribution that the Scots made to the University of Otago, but as we go forward we also recognise the huge contribution that Māori and Pasifica will make to our future. I am proud that Otago is now in a position where we no longer need to look to models in Europe or the United States. We are now strong enough to celebrate and speak about our particular place in the Pacific.”

The positives mount up, but Hayne has had a lot of negatives to deal with.

“My time has been bookended by crises. First, the Christchurch earthquakes rendered our campus there uninhabitable for two years. But our staff and students in Christchurch rose to the challenge. We taught students wherever we could and they actually performed better than their counterparts in Dunedin or Wellington.

“Very early in my first term, the earthquakes taught me how resilient the University can be and how kind and generous people can be under very difficult conditions.

“Now, at the end of my time as Vice-Chancellor, we are experiencing COVID-19, but again everyone has just got on with the job.

“At the beginning of the pandemic we set our moral compass with two poles: to provide the best education we could under unprecedented conditions and to save as many jobs as possible. In the end, we achieved both of those things. Overall, our students performed better in 2020 than in 2019 and we have not suffered the job losses that have become common across the globe. We will emerge from this international pandemic much stronger than many other universities.”

Hayne believes that the University was well-prepared for the pandemic because of difficult decisions made over previous years.

She is well aware that decisions involving restructuring through the Support Services Review and in the academic divisions attracted considerable criticism of senior management.

“As Vice-Chancellor you sometimes have to make really difficult decisions. Every day you have to consider the needs of one group over the needs of another. As is the case in most universities around the world, we operate in a constrained funding environment, which means that one group will be the winner and one group will be the loser.

“It's the Vice-Chancellor's job to make the tough calls to put the University and its staff and students in a stronger position for the long term. If you are not willing to make those decisions you should not sign up for the role. But it's not easy, especially when you are leading people you have worked alongside for so many years.

“There were some people here at Otago who were unhappy with my decisions – some of them loudly so – but there were also many who understood what we were trying to do. In the wake of the pandemic, I am hopeful that more people are beginning to see the value in the changes we made.

“Leadership cannot be solely about making everybody happy. It's about making the best decisions you can with the information that you have in front of you and that is what I have tried to do.

”It's impossible to describe the level of responsibility that is inherent in leading a university. At any one time there are only seven other people in New Zealand who know what it's like to be a Vice-Chancellor.

“My term was marked by natural disasters, a global financial crisis, demographic decline, expensive changes to legislation, decades of deferred maintenance of our buildings and facilities, and some very, very painful human tragedy.

"Every day for almost 10 years it has been my responsibility to sail this ship through these rocky waters. We are currently entering a safe harbour. Looking back, I really hope that reaching that harbour will be one of my legacies.

“Given the roles I have held at Otago, I appreciate the University as a business and the University as an academy. I am confident that I will leave both these aspects of the University even better than I found them.”

Hayne says the challenges she has faced at Otago have prepared her well for her new role as Vice-Chancellor of Perth's Curtin University, the largest in Western Australia. “They have strengthened my skills and my confidence in my leadership. I feel blessed that this amazing opportunity for a new leadership role has come along just as my time at Otago comes to an end.”

Although the future at Curtin looks bright, leaving Otago will be heart-breaking, says Hayne.

“I have lived in Dunedin and loved this University for half of my life. I'm proud of it as an academic and as a leader and it will never be far from my thoughts

“Otago is bolder and braver than I ever thought possible. It's full of people from all walks of life who are kind, generous, resilient, creative and helpful, and who want absolutely the best for the University and for our students.

“My watch at Otago demanded being courageous enough to make decisions that were difficult. I don't need to be beloved, but I do hope people think I led the University with integrity and courage. That's how I'd like to be remembered.”

That seems fitting for the outgoing leader of a University whose motto, Sapere Aude, demands integrity and courage to Dare to be Wise.


Professor Harlene Hayne: “I am proud that Otago is now in a position where we no longer need to look to models in Europe or the United States. We are now strong enough to celebrate and speak about our particular place in the Pacific.”
Photo: Alan Dove

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