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Wellington Dean prepares to sign off from ‘best job in the world’

Tuesday 3 December 2019 10:04pm

Sunny-Collings-image
Dean and Head of Campus at the University of Otago, Wellington, Professor Sunny Collings will finish up at the end of the year - moving to a new role as Chief Executive of the Health Research Council.

After almost nine years at the helm as Dean and Head of Campus at the University of Otago, Wellington, psychiatrist and researcher Professor Sunny Collings leaves the role at the end of this year.

Professor Collings, who takes up a new position as Chief Executive of the Health Research Council in February, says leading the Wellington school has been the best job she’s ever had.

“It’s been an honour and very enjoyable. I hope that one of the things I have been good at is lighting the touch paper and then standing well clear. I saw my role as capturing people’s imaginations about what we could achieve.

"It’s been an honour and very enjoyable. I hope that one of the things I have been good at is lighting the touch paper and then standing well clear. I saw my role as capturing people’s imaginations about what we could achieve."

“When you see the excitement and the thrill in people’s faces when they’ve achieved something that is a really important goal for them, whether it’s a grant application or an amazingly successful engagement with school kids, conducting science lessons in te reo for example, then to have not got in the way of that happening is a really good thing. It’s quite possible for managers and leaders to get in the way.”

Professor Collings has been a student or a staff member at Otago for all but five years of her adult life and says the University has given her enormous opportunities.

“I was the first in my family to finish at university. I wasn’t particularly encouraged by some of the teachers at school, who thought I should do nursing or teaching or things that were regarded as suitable for girls in the 1970s.”

Throughout her tenure as Dean, Professor Collings has continued to work on both her research and to practice psychiatry. She is a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, and directs the Suicide and Mental Health Research Group in Wellington.

She felt it was important to continue to practice her craft, she says.

“If you are leading an organisation and one of its main reasons for existence is teaching a craft, I think it keeps your head in the right space.”

Professor Collings says that while becoming Dean was not a particular ambition, she had always been interested in leadership. This crystallised when she worked in the Department of Public Health.

“I saw people achieve things, not just through their research, but also through leadership roles. It’s about getting yourself into a position where you can be in the conversations that you need to be in to achieve change.”

"I have wanted to nurture our talent from inside. I always tried to create an expectation in staff that these roles were possible for them to attain."

Her tenure as Dean has been characterised by a focus on diversity, inclusion and participation.

Sometimes, this has meant doing things just a little differently, such as when she decided to hang rainbow and trans flags over the stairs leading to the lecture theatres to celebrate the 30th anniversary of homosexual law reform in 2016.

“We were the first campus on the University to have the rainbow and trans flags up. We just did it. We bought them off the internet and hung them up. It probably cost about $40.”

It may not have been ‘University policy’ at the time, but the colourful flags remained.

Her desire for diversity in participation to become just “the way we do things around here” meant she considered candidates for head of department roles from within the school – placing importance on the personal qualities required, not just the CV.

“We have a lot of incredibly talented staff who aren’t medically trained, and who aren’t clinicians, and I really wanted to see them more represented in the leadership community in the school.”

Professor Collings has had a conscious awareness of “sending the lift down”, encouraging staff to consider head of department roles even before they felt they were ready.

“I have wanted to nurture our talent from inside. I always tried to create an expectation in staff that these roles were possible for them to attain.”

From the beginning, heads of department have been encouraged to come to her office with ideas, and thinking outside the box for solutions was welcome. It was one of these innovative solutions that led to the role as head of the Department of Public Health being shared between two of the academic staff.

“Nobody in public health wanted to abandon their research to become head of department, so I said, ‘this is a problem, find a solution’ and they came to me with the idea of a job share. So for a few years, Professors Richard Edwards and Diana Sarfati job shared it. It worked extremely well.”

One of the highlights of her tenure as Dean has been the unveiling this year of the Wellington school’s Māori cloak, a kākahu named Te Iti Kahurangi (The Most Treasured).

"... this year at the opening of the Pacific Office, all the Heads of Departments were invited to come up and sing a waiata and they all did, and I thought, ‘that’s it, I’ve done it, I can go’."

The commissioning of the kākahu was part of an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, but also of her desire to give the northern campus a tangible symbol reflecting its status as an institution of substance and longevity.

“The symbolic value of the cloak is that it protects you, but also that it confers mana. The kākahu is going to be on display in a public place and it is being used. Receiving it was a big moment for the school.

“I want to see Te Ao Māori as part of our normal life. We have got a long way to go, but it is much more accepted than it would have been eight or nine years ago.”

Another highlight was the opening this year of the school’s Pacific Office, an acknowledgement of the strong and growing Pacific presence on campus.

The event also saw the fulfilment of one of her long-held ambitions.

“I always said we didn’t sing enough and that when we had everybody singing then I would have done my work and I could go. But this year at the opening of the Pacific Office, all the Heads of Departments were invited to come up and sing a waiata and they all did, and I thought, ‘that’s it, I’ve done it, I can go’.”

Professor Collings starts her new role at the Health Research Council in February.