Robertson a promising appointment

The Yeo cartoon in the Otago Daily Times on Wednesday about the new vice-chancellor was apposite. It had former Labour Finance Minister Grant Robertson leaping from the frying pan of politics into the fire of the University of Otago.

Mr Robertson will lead the university at an especially difficult time. While student numbers this year look like they could be holding up, the finances are grim.

The fundamentals of tertiary funding have not changed, along with the acute and cruel pressures that brings. Government support over many years has lagged well behind inflation.

Staff morale, meanwhile, which was low in the later years of vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne, has sunk further to distressing depths.

This is alarming for all attached to the institution — directly, through past associations or for Dunedin itself. A thriving university is a thriving city.

The first positive about Mr Robertson is his obvious and genuine affection for the university. He studied there (BA in politics with first class honours), and he was an Otago University Students Association president. He even flatted one year in Castle St.

Second, he has been away long enough to be an outsider and bring new viewpoints. While there were, no doubt, strong internal candidates, it would have been extremely tough for them to change perceptions, to provide what can, hopefully, be a renewed start.

Third are his personal characteristics: his intelligence, his positivity, his wit, his ability to mix easily, his general likeability.

Fourth — while there has been criticism that he lacks an advanced academic background like some predecessors with long and distinguished records — his experiences and skills in the politics bearpit are advantageous.

No doubt, he will have his battles with academic staff. In that, he will not be the first and he will not be the last. His understanding of finances is obvious, and he was nearly once Labour’s leader.

Grant Robertson
Grant Robertson
He rose to the Covid crisis, even though contributory blame is, fairly or unfairly, thrust his way for the extent of Labour’s spending and the degree of inflation.

In effect, he has a PhD in life and politics.

Mr Robertson comes with profile and a certain prestige, useful both nationally and internationally.

Perhaps he could be more effective if he was ex-National because it is in power. However, despite his searing repartee, he was known for respectful relationships. Prime Minister Mr Luxon and key National ministers do not seem vindictive or likely to make Mr Robertson’s job any more difficult than it will be anyway.

The other recent university ex-Labour minister, David Clark, has a senior role as registrar but, for appearances sake at least, he is not one of the pro-vice-chancellors overseeing various course and academic staff "restructurings". Another ex-Labour minister, Clare Curran, is on the council of the university. One imagines she would, as a minister of education appointee, drop out when her term is due in 2026.

A fear around the university was that, because of the financial woes, a business-type appointee without an authentic feel for what makes a university would be chosen.

There will be relief on that score. Mr Robertson’s background means he should understand academic ethos and freedoms and that running a university fundamentally differs from ruling a large company. As it happens, his two brothers are professors in the United States.

Views are mixed. Some, if they are that inclined, think he helped wreck the country and university is next. Others believe he will be wonderful. Many are hopeful and willing to give him a chance. Some, too, will think that nothing fundamental will change no matter who is vice-chancellor.

There is also a widespread feeling that at least, and at last, a decision has been made.

Mr Roberston is a promising appointment. He brings the opportunity for fresh perspectives and a relatively fresh beginning.