Tēnā koutou katoa
It was obvious to me from even before I started as Vice-Chancellor in February that I was arriving during a time of major change for the University of Otago and, indeed, for universities globally.
One month after taking up my new role, Stephen Higgs started as the new Chancellor of the University. It is unusual to have both Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor commencing in such close proximity, although both of us know the University very well.
We are also dealing with what we hope will be the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, we are emerging from an Omicron outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand that has affected the lives and the work of our students, staff and the communities we serve. This has created challenges for the start of 2022, with another return to online learning instead of face-to-face lectures, and has caused significant disruption to the usual activities that celebrate the start of a new academic year. Many events have been postponed or cancelled or have shifted to different formats.
Yet again, our staff have worked tirelessly to welcome students and to provide the best possible learning experience for them all. The student body have shown considerable leadership and initiative in supporting fellow students, including with the delivery of thousands of care packages for those in isolation. Our residential colleges have responded well to the added challenges of managing large numbers of COVID-19 cases and contacts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the important role universities play in society … Solving the world’s toughest problems demands innovation as well as broad and deep thinking, and universities have a critical role and duty to the communities we serve.
Needless to say, student and staff welfare has been a priority focus for the year so far. Once again, I would like to thank all of you who have donated to Pūtea Tautoko, the student hardship fund.
Globally, COVID-19 has forced changes in the way universities deliver teaching and learning activities. Many of these changes were simply necessary to keep our programmes going in the face of lockdowns and other public health interventions. However, there was a compelling argument for universities to become more adaptive even before the pandemic. Our task now is to capture the good lessons from the pandemic to create resilience and emerge stronger from this time of change.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the important role universities play in society. University of Otago staff continue to contribute disproportionately to the COVID-19 response in Aotearoa New Zealand, providing technical expertise, strategic advice and expert commentary to the public. This collective expertise will continue to be needed as we emerge from the pandemic and refocus on the world’s other big challenges. Solving the world’s toughest problems demands innovation as well as broad and deep thinking, and universities have a critical role and duty to the communities we serve.
For the University of Otago, this is the time to define our place in the world. We are developing the University’s future strategic direction document Vision 2040, strengthening our partnership with mana whenua and understanding better what it means to be an organistion led by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The recent appointment of two wahine Māori deans, at our Christchurch campus and at the Dunedin School of Medicine, is a real milestone for the University.
I would like to end with another couple of important acknowledgments. This year marked the end of Dr Royden Somerville QC’s 12 years on the University Council, including as Chancellor since 2018. Royden has been an absolute champion for the University of Otago and I am confident this support will continue in other ways. I would also like to acknowledge Professor Helen Nicholson’s role as Acting Vice-Chancellor for the 10 months until January this year. This was a big job to take on and Helen’s work in this role has been greatly appreciated by staff and students. A huge thank you to both of you, and a personal thanks from me for helping ease my transition to the Vice-Chancellor role.
Professor David Murdoch