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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Pat Walsh: VC or GC?

Salient chats to your Vice Chancellor. He fails to serve tea.

He was the smiling face on the inside cover of your prospectus when you first decided to go to university, and his signature will adorn the bottom of your degree when you finally graduate. But despite Pat Walsh’s presence at these land-mark points in every Victoria student’s university experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student that could describe exactly what it is the Vice-Chancellor does, let alone who he is. Appointed to the role in 2005, Walsh admits that, as an undergraduate, he himself “was only dimly aware of the Vice-Chancellor, if that, to be honest”.

Born and bred in Christchurch, Walsh began his tertiary education at University of Canterbury in 1971, where he obtained an undergraduate degree in History and Politics, carrying his course of study there on to Masters level. For his PhD, Walsh ventured further afield to the University of Minnesota. Returning to New Zealand, Walsh eventually wound up at Victoria University as Professor of Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations in 1999.

From an initiation to the tertiary sector through his naïve days of student life, Walsh now divides his time between his many commitments tied up with his role as Big Boss of Victoria University. With each meeting-filled day starting with a stint at the gym, and usually closing with some description of social event, it’s fair to say that Walsh’s diary probably puts most students’ social lives to shame.

Intent on finding out a bit more about this mysterious character, Salient writer Molly McCarthy infiltrated the ivory towers to chat to Pat about student life, secret passageways, and why he’s carrying out the role of VC like a GC.

Why did you decide to go to university and choose the course of study that you did? 

I decided to go to university because I think I understood that it offered opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I came from a family where… it was not common to go to university at all. I had an uncle who had done a law degree back in the 1930s, and I don’t think any of my other extended family had been to university. It was quite a big decision, but my parents were very supportive of me going to university because they saw education as a way of opening up opportunities.

In terms of the course of study I did a BA in politics and history, because those were the things that interested me. I was not inclined—whether rightly or wrongly—to take a vocationally or professionally-ended degree. I think I thought that those things would take care of themselves later. Of course it was a different time period. I started university in 1971, and at that time there’d been no really significant unemployment in New Zealand for a long time, so there wasn’t the same degree of angst about ‘Will I get a job?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t worry—of course they did, but there wasn’t the same career motivation driving your choice of study. It was easier for people to feel comfortable about pursuing things they were interested in.

What were some of your best memories of being a student? 

Being in the last cohort of students who studied at the old site in the city… It was a very magical place because of its architecture. It was very compact; it covered, essentially, one large city block, so you were very crammed in together— even more than we are here. It was old gothic architecture, it was a very striking place to study in.

It was even closer to the city centre than we are here at Kelburn… So there was very easy access to—not that there was the same cafe and restaurant scene, but there were the pubs, and plenty of things to do if you were a student.

Was there an equivalent of the Big Kumara in Christchurch? 

No. That was a different time period. [chuckles]

In your role as Vice-Chancellor, what are you doing to ensure that students enjoy a good experience like you did? 

Well, we’ll give them an even better experience! (Students are paying more for it than I did.)

On a number of fronts—one is on the physical structure of the university. Because enrolment numbers have grown from ten or twelve years ago, we were probably around 12,000, now we’re up around 20,000, that’s put huge pressure on facilities. We’ve had to really expand the facilities… we’ve put a lot of emphasis on improving the facilities for students.

But of course, student experience is really only as good as what goes on within those facilities.

It’s been a real challenge, certainly in the time that I’ve been Vice-Chancellor, because government funding has continued to decline in terms of the real value of the funding we receive per student. We’ve had to do things differently, and do things smarter.

…the review of undergraduate education, which the first stage of was last year, started to think about what kind of undergraduate learning experience we offer students… We had wide-ranging and high-quality input from students for that review… this year is the year for thinking about what we’re going to do with it, and what changes we might make. I think that’s quite exciting, potentially, for everyone, including students.

Were there O Weeks at University of Canterbury when you were there? 

Oh yes. 

Were they similar to the O Weeks we have at Victoria now? 

They were similar and different… It was a week of enjoyment and fun, but precisely the way in which it happened was different. There wasn’t the same focus on bands and gigs happening on campus. There was, I remember, a ball at a very large auditorium, I think it was actually the King Edward Barracks, and so there was a band there, but not on campus—that partly reflected the nature of the campus.

The emphasis was similar, in that it was an introduction to university life, you still had all the things about there are these clubs, there are these societies, you might be interested in this—so that was the same, but the way in which parties and social events happened was different. But they still happened. Similar, but different.

Salient’s heard a rumour that you have a walk-in wardrobe and a secret passageway in your office…

It must be very secret! Oh! Walk-in wardrobe? Oh! There’s a little thing in there, which, if you look in, you’ll see it’s an absolute mess. It’s where things get dumped. There are some boxes filed in there… And if there’s a secret passageway, it’s a secret from me.

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