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March 17, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Grant Guilford: the GC, the VC

Salient: Thanks for meeting with us.

Grant: I left my Aviators and boots at home.

S: Good to see you’ve been reading the magazine.

S: The vibe we’ve got from students is that no one knows who the Vice Chancellor is or what he does, or that he is just a boring old white man. Are you a boring old white man, or are you exciting?

G: Well I’m an old white man (LOL). I like to think I’m not boring. I have a lot of fun in my life. I enjoy my job, I enjoy the people. I lead life to the full so there’s never a wasted hour. When I’m not working I’m doing stuff I really love, like I’m in the bush. Our family’s got a couple of blocks of native bush that we look after. I’m a trout fisherman. I love getting out and listening to music and that sort of stuff. I really have a lot of joie de vivre.

In terms of the management of the University, is it a lot of boring stuff? Yes. You have to be very serious and conscious about process to make sure everything works well.

I do try to be, and have a reputation for being, strategic. I’m a Kiwi, so I don’t like to say these things, but people like to tell me that I can be reasonably inspirational. I’m uncomfortable about saying it myself, but that’s what people say. I do like that side of university leadership.

If you’re going to be a good VC, you have to articulate a vision and get people excited about it. You have to marshal people around that vision. If you can get everyone on the same page, you can achieve great things. To lead you have to be out there doing it.

G: As a government and as a community, you have to listen to the fact that the humanities are precious. No one’s been making that case well enough. Even though it’s early days in my tenure here, I need to be out there saying stuff. I want people in this university to be saying stuff. Universities are the critic and conscience of NZ society. We are paid to do that. It’s tough; you put yourself in the media and someone will knock you around. You’ve got to be thick-skinned but we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to do more, we have to lead thinking. Media research is quite consistent about the fact that Vic is the university that leads thinking on the major issues.

S: Top three hobbies?

G: My top three are basically kaitiaki (Māori word expressing the concept of guardianship over the sky, the sea, and the land). My wife and I have got bush blocks just south of Auckland, the Waikato Valley, and we’ve got one in Nelson Lakes, and I’m never happier than when I’m in there, ripping out gorse. I have a real strong sense of conservation and environmental ethics. I have a real kinship with our fellow travellers in evolution. Being a biologist, the evolutionary side is very close to me. I think we have a moral and ethical duty to our fellow travellers that come through with us. To take a Māori whakapapa perspective, meshes with evolution: animals are partners in life. I always feel very good about life doing conservation work.

I like to trout-fish. I’m a trout fisherman. When I really need to relax, that’s what I do. Working on the bush blocks helps a lot too. But getting over and fly fishing in Nelson Lakes, in the backblocks where no one can get to you – it’s the river, it’s the wildlife, it’s the sound, it’s the light. It’s my stress relief, my happy place.

My third is not really a hobby, but I love getting family and friends around dinner and shooting the breeze. When I was in the UK, I missed that a bit, because the English aren’t quite as orientated to that as the Welsh or the Scots or the Kiwis.

S: Favourite meal that you cook?

G: I’m not much of a chef, I’m afraid. I’m a fish pie kind of guy – my mother taught me when I first went flatting, and that’s about the level I’ve risen to.

S: Favourite drink?

G: I’m a wine drinker. A Central Otago Pinot is my favourite. Was Pat Walsh’s favourite too.

S: Favourite sport, are you a sports man?

G: I am. I spent 20 years as a rugby player and I still enjoy that. Perhaps less so in recent years – perhaps I’ve been saturated in rugby so I haven’t been quite as engaged in that. Not much of a golfer like Pat, I’m more of a get-out-in-the-bush-and-go-tramping kind of guy.

S: How do you get to work?

G: I’ve got a little electric car. A Volt. It’s a cool car. I plug it in at home, just into the wall socket overnight, and that gives about 80 km worth of driving which covers all my Wellington driving. When I want to go out into the country, it’s got a little petrol motor that acts as a generator that keeps the battery going, so you can do 600 km. I’ve driven Wellington to Auckland and back a couple of times. The other thing is it’s not a pussy car; it gets up and goes. *macho eyebrow-raise* You put your foot down and it really really shoots off.

S: What do you do for lunch?

G: I head over to Vic Books at the moment.

S: Do you have a favourite movie?

G: Not really. I watch videos with my wife and she picks them. I suppose The Matrix is up there.

S: Favourite campus of Victoria’s four?

G: Kelburn obviously at the moment, because that’s where the history is. But I am going to create a room down at the Pipitea campus in the top of Rutherford House. We’re going to find a room and tart it up a bit. It will have good reception facilities, because I want people of the city to be able to have more access. We’ll be down there two or three times a week for a morning or an afternoon. People, politicians, members of the city, businesses – they’ll all be able to find us more easily.

S: A lot of students smoke pot. Have you ever smoked pot?

G: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. In my uni days. I stopped once I got into working life. I wasn’t a big smoker but I did smoke from time to time. Once I got working, I found the ability to snap into work mode on a Monday was compromised. (LOL)

S: That’s why a lot of students miss Monday-morning lectures.

S: What are your feelings about the Government’s plan to remove guaranteed spots on University councils?

G: I think representational governance in a university is critically important, in particular the student voice on those councils. I’m not concerned about reducing the number of seats, so long as we keep the student voice. I am determined to ensure that we’ve got a good student voice there. If the Government carries on and we no longer have a legislated seat for students, then there’s no way as Vice-Chancellor I would countenance not having a student voice there. I feel very strongly about it, because you want the knowledge of students so you can know the impact of your decisions on that group of people. Otherwise you have to go out and seek student opinion, and you’ve got to do that through your management team, and sometimes that opinion comes back a little garbled or diluted.

We’ve got to ask a difficult question about who the main client of the University is. The impression you get from the Government’s tertiary-education strategy is that the employer is the main client. I don’t think so. Education’s not just about employment readiness. Success as a university is not just measured in money terms; it’s about a sense of self-worth.

A university education is partly a public good – students will be going out into communities as well-educated problem-solvers, critical thinkers and people who are creative-thinking. If we don’t have bright young people heading out into the world and bringing new thought to the country, social entrepreneurship, business entrepreneurship falters, and we don’t go forward as a country.

S: What are your plans for the University?

G: When you think about making your way as a university in the world and you’re thinking about strategy to get better year on year, it does come back quite quickly and coldly to revenue. I’ll put that on the table right from the word go, because the accounts will save your way to excellence, basically. If you’re going to be serious about the University having a better impact on our communities through quality education, better faculties, better support of students, better quality research, unfortunately, revenue comes into it pretty quickly. So then you have to ask how to work around that, and part of it is having a distinctive and unique proposition for people. Otherwise, why would they go to Vic? All universities do the same thing – they teach and they carry out research. The fundamental mission is the same. So you have to think about what vision might distinguish you. Coming in here, it seemed to me that we are a capital-city university and that gives us a big influence in other global capital universities. If we can get that, we can massively magnify the impact we’re going to have on the world. That’s the cornerstone of it: let’s use our status as a capital-city university as an advantage. When we expand our influence, when we expand our reputation, we expand our rankings. This all flows back to our graduates in terms of the esteem in which they’re held.

Our big strength is Law, humanities and the social sciences, as it should be in a capital city. Wellington is more onto it than Auckland. We help shape the national identity, which is why humanities are important. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is important too, but it can’t subsume the humanities. We will grow Science and Engineering, but not at the expense of the humanities. Science and the humanities are completely compatible. Any good Faculty of Science believes in the value of a good Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. It’s not, and it can’t be, that you only want to grow one side of the University and not the other. If science is going to have a place in the community, it can only do so through people. You have to inform a community through social sciences, through journalism, through law. They work in complete synergy.

Because of the funding system in NZ, we’re not going to be looking at massive growth in the humanities, that’s for sure. It’s just not there. It’s going to be hard to maintain what we’ve got. But I’m determined to maintain what we’ve got, I’m determined to make sure the Government sees the value of it all.

S: Cuts…

G: No-one is owed a living. If you’re a staff member at this university and your courses are in an area that is not attracting any student interest, not attracting any research grants, then you have to ask yourself why this university should continue to support you. You have to take responsibility for your own future. If the student interest isn’t there, if the research programmes aren’t there, then sometimes you’ve just got to make these hard decisions and say we can’t keep cross-subsidising you from someone else. Because someone else has got to work harder to keep you going. Unfortunately, that will come up. From time to time, we’ll say: “Okay, well, it’s not paying for itself, but it’s an entirely strategic programme that this country needs and we will put up with the cross-subsidisation”. But I’d rather we don’t have staff in that position in the first place, which brings us back to the revenue question.

S: Research funding…

G: They don’t work in the favour of Vic as we currently are structured, because our focus has been very much on public-good research funding, which is likely not to acquire the same degree of co-funding. But it’s quite clear the Wellington community wants Vic to move toward applied research with a view to supporting our local economy. So we’re heading in that direction anyway. That’s not at expense of fundamental curiosity of research, because you can do both together. I’ve found in my own career that I was able to do applied research for companies that allowed me to support me asking questions that I wanted to ask that were curiosity-led. That’s the sort of culture we will end up with at this university.

S: Drops in rankings…

G: You have to be fairly philosophical about these sort of things. When you start talking about rankings, you’re better off talking in bands rather than individuals. The Law Faculty is one of the top 50 in the world. The rankings are not set up to judge teaching quality. They have a go at it, but they use very coarse measures which are manipulatable. From a student perspective, there’s not much difference if you are ranked number 22 or number 49. The problem is that rankings do relate to mana, and your ability to say you’re from a top university. We have a sort of perverse interest in rankings: we know they’re flaky. The basis upon which they are put together is dubious. But unfortunately, in spite of that knowledge, our students take pride in rankings. Recruiters take a strong interest in the rankings; international students, governments take an interest. It’s hard work to get involved with networks of universities that are ranked higher than us, even though they’re flaky rankings. It really does suck in that regard. We’ve got to pay attention to them. It’s disappointing that that’s happened. Not too surprising. Next year, it could easily bounce back up again. We just don’t know, but we will work hard. I want to be ranked against other capital-city universities, other humanities universities. Because if you compete with science and technology and medical schools, you’re always going to lose. Citations are massive in those fields and they drive a lot of the rankings.

S: International students, Shane Jones…

G: No, I don’t agree. You don’t want to end up in a place where you are exposed to great financial vulnerability; the international students don’t like it because they don’t get a New Zealand experience; as a country we don’t benefit because we don’t engage those international students. In Auckland, we would set a maximum of around 20 per cent to avoid those issues. We’ve got room for growth still. There’s a great effort here to engage the international students in the community. If we don’t do that, we would be inappropriately using them as a cash cow. There can be too many, but I don’t think Shane Jones is quite right. I suspect that was an off-the-cuff remark.

S: Would you change the flag?

G: Yes I would. I hope this is a clarion call for national-identity discussions. You do see growing pride in what we do – our heritage, our landscape, our pride in our sporting and literary and musical successes. There is a need to move on from the Union Jack. I would like to see Māori heritage. I don’t think I’d like to see the silver fern on the black background as it’s already a symbol of our sports teams, and I’d like the flag to go deeper than that.

S: On women…

G: 60 per cent of women in Biology, you can only have 40 per cent of women somewhere else. If some disciplines are overrepresented by women, then by definition you will see disciplines that are underrepresented by women. It’s not as though women are a commodity. It’s not as if they don’t have the ability to make their own choice. We don’t have to have a paternalistic white-male view on this and say we need to have an exactly equal split in every course.

My concern is that we have more women being appointed to lecturer, more coming through into senior lecturer than males, but at the professor level they are dropping out. Partly it’s history, because we’ve had white-male-dominated faculties for years. There’s also the unfortunate issue around the childbearing years when women drop out. They raise families, our society asks that of them, and often women make that choice. Our female staff have said that they desperately don’t want a different standard to become a female professor than there is for a male professor. Ideally, we would accept trajectory differences between male and female staff. It might take you longer to get the body of knowledge which says I have international leadership in my discipline, I genuinely am a professor. This will also apply to males who choose to be the caregiver.

 

So you there you have it: Grant Guilford is a man of many talents. Environmentalist, passionate defender of the humanities, advocate for the student, prudential manager of the University. He may be an old white man, but he’s certainly not boring.

——

To view his opinion piece, follow this link:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/columnists/9811702/Humanities-on-path-to-identity

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About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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