Otago has lost a leader who has been at the forefront of Pacific development at the University over the past decade. Dr Tasileta Teevale passed away at the Otago Community Hospice in April aged 50.Teevale regarded herself as having two “homes”. She was born in Samoa in 1973 and emigrated to Dunedin with her parents, Reverend Fuifui Teevale and Roberta Leisam-Teevale, and siblings, after her father received a scholarship to study at Otago. “I am a Dunedinite,” she later explained. “We left our Island shores for this very University.”
Teevale’s broad career in academia and public service also began at Otago, from where she graduated with a Bachelor of Physical Education degree in 1995. She then lectured in exercise science at UCOL – Universal College of Learning (now part of Te Pūkenga – New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology) in Palmerston North and completed a Master of Business Studies degree in Sports Management at Massey University in 2001. This included writing a thesis on Pacific women’s netball participation in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Employment in the tertiary education public sector followed. She was Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) regional advisor for Counties Manukau; national advisor in the TEC’s Research Evaluation Unit in Wellington; and member of the Manukau City Council Strategic Development Unit. She returned to academia to complete a PhD in Community Health at the University of Auckland in 2009, submitting a thesis on Obesity in Pacific adolescents; and worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in that university’s School of Population Health.
Her research focused on Pacific family and adolescent health. After nearly two decades away from Dunedin, Teevale returned “home” in 2013 as the University of Otago’s first Director, Pacific Development, responsible for monitoring the progress of the Pacific Strategic Framework the University had just launched, which set aspirational targets for Pacific student achievement at Otago. Teevale explained at the time: “My role entails monitoring all Pacific-related activities the University delivers in all areas – academic, services, curricula, research, staff development, international relations and so on.”
During her 10 years as Director, Pacific Development, she was closely involved in the University, establishing an Associate Dean Pacific role in each academic division, a Pacific Leadership Group, support for a Pacific student voice in University governance, and the creation of the University of Otago Pacific Islands Students' Association.
Teevale was also a founding member of Universities New Zealand Komiti Pasifika, established in 2018 “to advance and promote the collective national interests of New Zealand universities for any matters relating to the advancement of Pasifika”, and to provide strategic advice to the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee. The Komiti comprises the people holding the most senior Pacific position at each of the country’s eight universities.
Teevale became a go-to person when all manner of advice was sought by the public sector on matters to do with Pacific education: from a Ministry of Education Summit; to a Ministry of Pacific Peoples Vision Summit; to reviews of National Certificates of Educational Achievement, Tomorrow’s Schools, and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority
Her ongoing research activity at Otago included a study she led – on what enabled and disabled first-year Pacific student achievement at university – which resulted in the development of a credit-bearing university preparation programme for first-year Pacific students.
The many tributes that flowed following her death included one from Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson who described Teevale as “a much-loved leader and respected member of our community” who was “central to advancing the progress of our Pacific teaching and learning”.
“The positive impact she had in creating Pacific success both here at the University, and within the wider community in Aotearoa and the Pacific region is astonishing,” Nicholson wrote in a message to staff.
Professor Rose Richards (Va’a o Tautai Centre for Pacific Health) says memories that stand out for Teevale’s small but dedicated team in the Pacific Development Office, past and present, include her unwavering belief in the work of the Office and its potential to drive innovation at the highest levels of strategy and policy at the University.
“Her team also remember her courage in never backing down from a difficult conversation, but approaching these with care that the mana of all involved was upheld,” Richards says.
Tasileta's passing is a gaping void left in the Pacific heartbeat of Otago University.
An Otago graduate, Dr Charles Radclyffe, who was recently appointed as the first Pacific lecturer in Archaeology at Otago, says: “Tasileta was one of the most passionate and caring advocates for the academic success of Pacific tauira at Otago. As many strong Pacific mothers do, she led through action and humility, and represented a warm but powerful role model for Otago graduates fortunate enough to work with her, such as myself.”
Radclyffe, who is also a Pacific Islands Student Support Officer, says: “Tasileta’s passing is a gaping void left in the Pacific heartbeat of Otago University. Her presence, advocacy and gift of connecting people will be sorely missed, but her legacy remains in the countless stories of success and growth of Pacific tauira and staff at Otago that Tasileta enriched over the last decade.”
Similarly, Professor Patrick Vakaoti (Te Tumu – School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies) describes Teevale as “your quintessential Pacific woman leader” who “nurtured early career staff and created leadership possibilities for senior Pacific olleagues”.
Family, friends, and colleagues of Leta, as she was known, also refer to her empathy, open nature, level headedness, calm demeanour, poise, grace, kindness, sense of stye, ready laugh and “really good hugs”.
A more formal acknowledgement came in the 2021 New Year honours, when Teevale was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit ( MNZM ), for services to Pacific education and public health research.
Teevale is survived by her husband, Dr Matiu Ratima – a fellow Otago alumnus and former senior lecturer at Otago, now Canterbury – and their three children: Tai, Tama and Toa. Her family says that, despite her many accomplishments, her three boys were her greatest source of pride and joy.
Obituary written by Ian Dougherty