University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne
recently marked two years in the role and Otago Daily
Times tertiary education reporter Vaughan Elder caught up
with her to see how she is finding the job of heading what is
Dunedin's largest business.
University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne is
still enjoying 'every second' of the job. Photo by Peter
The role of University of Otago vice-chancellor is an ''all
consuming'' one, but after two years in the job, Prof Harlene
Hayne is still enjoying ''every single second of it''.
Prof Hayne's tenure - which started in August 2011 - has been
full of challenges. Flat government funding, falling student
numbers and the Christchurch earthquake have been just a few
She has also been faced with the claim from some that her,
and the university's, efforts to tackle alcohol-fuelled
misbehaviour were ''killing'' scarfie culture - a claim she
''It's been fantastic,'' she said of leading the university.
''It's the greatest job on the planet. My whole goal in
applying for the job ... was that I wanted the job to give
back to the institution that had given me such an amazing
career in the first place.''
Prof Hayne said the job required her full devotion.
''This is a seven-day-a week job. It's kind of like having a
newborn. You need to deal with it when it needs dealing
Prof Hayne thought the university had been successful in
tackling booze-fuelled misbehaviour during her tenure and did
not believe it had come at the cost of scarfie culture, as
''The data is clear about how students are behaving. We've
taken a major bite out of the antisocial behaviour that
sometimes accompanies drinking at Otago.''
''I am really happy about that and I think the city's happy
about that and, to be honest, I think the students are happy
The efforts were also making a difference on an individual
''I see every student here at Otago who gets themselves into
serious trouble with drinking.''
About 80% of the people she saw had made a ''one-off, really
stupid mistake'', but for the other 20% the drinking was a
symptom of another problem.
''For those 20%, I think we are making a huge difference in
their lives, because we are making sure that they get the
help that they need either academically [or health-wise].''
''It's important to understand ... and maybe this is where
the psychologist part of my background comes in - these young
people are at a critical crossroad in their lives.''
The efforts the university had made in this area - which
included harsher penalties for people who misbehaved - had
not caused the death of scarfie culture.
It was not the university's goal to eliminate drinking and it
had not ''sucked all the fun out of the place''.
''I think scarfie culture is far from dead.''
Asked if she resented being asked about being responsible for
the ''death'' of scarfie culture, she said: ''I don't resent
getting asked the question. What I resent is people equating
scarfie culture with death and destruction, because I think
that is insulting to my students.
''I think that students recognise that what is great about
scarfie culture is not about setting things on fire and
breaking things and getting so drunk that you fall into the
Dealing with misbehaving students was only part of her job
and one of the biggest challenges Prof Hayne has had to
contend with - the devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake in
Christchurch - came only days after her appointment was
announced in February 2011. By the time she took over from
her predecessor, Prof Sir David Skegg, in August 2011, the
university was still dealing with the consequences of the
quake. Much of its Christchurch campus was still
That was ''not anything that anyone could plan for'' and
there were still financial repercussions from quake. The
university was part way through a $50 million earthquake
strengthening programme of its buildings, a figure the
university would ''probably get away with close to''.
''In fact, much of what happened in Christchurch was actually
covered by insurance, but what most people don't factor in is
the changes to the laws about the strengthening of buildings
and, of course, those are not covered by insurance.''
She was proud of the way staff and students at the
university's Christchurch campus responded to the quakes.
The other big issue she was contending with was the global
financial crisis, which continued to bite when it came to
government funding for tertiary education.
Prof Hayne did not expect the funding environment to turn
around any time soon, but understood the predicament the
Government was in.
''Could we use more money from the Government? Absolutely.
Would we put it to good use? Absolutely.''
''But we also understand that we are working in a constrained
financial environment. The Government isn't just being mean
to us. They are trying to balance a very complicated
financial system, an earthquake recovery, a global financial
crisis and a whole host of other things.
''So I think we need to be very cautious about beating them
She did believe it would be a shame if Tertiary Education
Minister Steven Joyce made drastic changes to the make-up of
university councils, as some were expecting.
''I think it's really important that university councils
maintain their representative nature. It would be an
incredible shame from my perspective if they were lost,'' she
The university did believe it would be able to cope with
reducing the size of university councils, if that was what Mr
Joyce had in mind.
Another issue for the university under her tenure was falling
student numbers. They had declined for three consecutive
years since peaking in 2010 but Prof Hayne said it was
important to put the declines in the context of the
university's strategy to improve academic performance.
''Where the decline has happened at Otago is where we have
been more willing to exclude students who may not necessarily
be prepared for university education, for a period of time,''
''We have made it harder to get into Otago and we have made
it easier to get out,'' she said.
When asked about the university's gradual decline in the QS
world university rankings - it fell from 114th in 2007 to
155th this year - Prof Hayne was critical of some of the
methods used in such ranking systems.
''Unfortunately, some of the ranking exercises involve good
marketing ... more than quality of education.
''So, if you look at any of the ranking systems in depth
there is only a handful of those ranking systems that are
In the objective measures, especially in the number of highly
cited papers in the ''Shanghai ranking'', the university
performed ''remarkably well''.
Prof Hayne said a major part of her role was not to ''stuff
up'' the work of her predecessor. The university was happy
with the course set by Sir David.
''You know that the interview process is akin to being
elected the pope. I went through seven focus groups over a
weekend and then had a final interview with 23 people around
''One of the messages that came through from every one of
those focus groups was that they felt that the university was
in really good heart. ''Things the university wanted to see
continued were its''residential nature'', its focus on
''excellence in teaching and research'' and the fact the
vice-chancellor would continue to carry out research.
''Those were the things that people were really happy about
David's reign and those were the things that I was not
supposed to stuff up when I took the job.''
When Prof Hayne took on the role, she was not only the first
woman in the it but also the first American and psychologist
to hold the position.
''There are different aspects in which those parts of my
background play out in this role. The American bit relates to
the issue of pride.
''I am proud every day about things that happen here and I've
tried to highlight some of the successes of both our students
and our staff [in a way] that is culturally OK for me to do,
because it comes with my accent behind it.''
Getting to congratulate staff and students for their
successes was a highlight of the job.
''The list goes on and on, and almost on a daily basis, I
have the opportunity to write to students on their amazing
Prof Hayne said she could not do the job without the support
of her family, especially her husband, Prof Mike Colombo, a
fellow academic at Otago.
She would not reveal whether she would ask to continue in the
job at the end of her five-year appointment.
''A decision will be made by somebody at the end of five