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Sir Neville Jordan was elected Chancellor of Victoria University in December last year, succeeding Ian McKinnon. Sir Neville is a Victoria alumnus with a background in science and engineering, and is founder of MAS Technology, the first New Zealand company to be listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. More recently Sir Neville has served as President of the Royal Society (2006-2010), and was named Wellingtonian of the year in 2012. For the last 25 years he has chaired the Jordan Foundation, which provides tertiary scholarships to those otherwise unable to afford university. Salient met with Sir Neville in the plush milieu of the Wellington club to discuss University Council, stag hunting, and self-actualisation.
What made you decide to stand for Chancellor?
At a certain stage in your life you reach that self-actualisation level, and right now I like to try and do a third business, a third recreation, and a third good works. The University is certainly a good work, it’s an amazing institution and Victoria’s doing really well. So when the opportunity came along I thought I would like to be Chancellor—and I haven’t been disappointed.
Can you describe what a typical day is like in this role?
A typical day is atypical. This week we’ve had a Finance Committee meeting, campus development meeting, preparing for the Toihuarewa meeting and we’ve got a Council meeting in a few weeks’ time. There’s a multiplicity of stuff around the official committees, plus of course keeping up with the complaints that are going on around Weir House and alcohol and stuff like that. There’s a lot of minutia. I don’t have a lot to do with Weir House and those complaints but it’s useful to know as Chancellor what the young people are up to. And last week I opened the Katherine Jermyn hall, which was a fantastic experience.
How would you describe the role of Chancellor to a student and what that role means for the average student?
This is interesting, because the average student doesn’t even know who the Vice-Chancellor is, nor indeed the Council, let alone the Chancellor. The only time they get to meet the Chancellor is when they shake hands at the Graduation Ceremony… so other than that they have no idea. I just liken it to the board of a big charity or company; it’s all about stewardship of the organisation, making sure that we choose a good Vice-Chancellor and have proper goals for him [sic] to achieve and then we support him in every way possible.
Do you see as an issue that students don’t really have the awareness of what a chancellor does and what a Vice Chancellor does?
It is a bit of an issue, and this is a really good opportunity to say hey, this is the organisation at the University, you see it through your lectures and deans and associate deans, through the pro-vice and the Vice-Chancellor. Just be aware there are other levels as well all looking after the University to make sure its successful and that students have a good experience all the way through.
What do you hope to achieve in the position?
Probably two things: I think that our Māori representation needs improving, the number of students needs improving and the number of Māori graduates needs improving. The whole environment for universities is changing so fast. The big Chinese universities are now coming to New Zealand, looking for our bright young people to go Shanghai and Beijing to be taught in English… Australians are coming here to grab our young people, it’s a very hot environment and we need to be changing quite fast. So the other objective is to help build in some resilience to the institution so we can adapt quite fast to the changing market.
What was your university experience like?
I was Dux at my secondary school and so I started at Victoria at age 17, about a year younger than most people. I grew up with a largely solo mother and no brothers and sisters. At 17 when I got to Victoria I found three things: I got in the Judo team and represented Victoria and got into the New Zealand Judo team, and I discovered alcohol and girls.
How do you think the student experience is different today?
At that stage there were probably 8,000 students or so yet there’s 20,000 odd now. The café below the student union was the sole food outlet, the quad was a wet, windy place—the lecturers and professors were fantastic but the environment was pretty bad, things were fairly rudimentary.
When I look at it now and see the quad, the art gallery, all of the McDiarmid labs, the new chemistry labs, the facilities down at Rutherford House, the Design School, they’re fantastic facilities. And there’s the offshore opportunities, 100 or so corresponding universities. In my view the student experience and opportunities are a thousand times better.
Have you lived in Wellington your whole life? How’s it changed since your childhood?
I spent a number of years in UK then came back to Wellington. I’ve pretty well lived here my whole life. I grew up in Petone. I worked in the freezing works as my first full time job at 18, because my father had died when I was quite young and I had to earn money. It was a pretty rudimentary town in those days, a couple of fish and chip shops and that was your lot. In Wellington there were maybe one or two coffee bars and that was it.
My father was in the first world war, was essentially a bush man, when I came along he was 60 and my mother was 25. He decided at 60 to take a welding apprenticeship, with a baby… it’s an unusual background.
What do you for your one third of recreation?
I used to have an ocean racing yacht. I did about 30,000 miles in ocean racing, mostly round the Pacific Islands, the Mediterranean. I learnt how to ride horses while I was in the UK and I did stag hunting and fox hunting on horseback. I’ve scuba dived in the Antarctic under the ice, in the Red Sea, the Galapagos Islands and the caves in Mexico. I had a motor yacht and I lived on that for about two years all around the Caribbean. I’ve ski-mobiled in Alaska. Oh, and I ride motorbikes.
[…] I’ve been to over 100 countries, so I’ve travelled a lot.
What inspired you to set up the Jordan Foundation?
What inspired it was seeing people in difficult circumstances, and I grew up in those circumstances, and knowing that these people needed to be helped. And I was in a position to help them.
I was finding there were a lot of people who heard that I was interested in supporting young people, particularly ones who could not get to university, particularly younger woman who had children.
The foundation funded a young Vietnamese violinist who couldn’t afford performance course at Auckland, a young Samoan boy at age 5 who turned out to be a piano prodigy, and it grew from there.
What sort of work is the foundation doing now?
A lot of scholarships, particularly at tertiary level. It’s all mostly anonymous and we hear of people from high schools where they can’t afford equipment through to mostly undergrads, because after that there are mostly plenty of scholarships around. We fund lot of mature people who haven’t had the chance. Bright, but haven’t had the chance so we work with them. Plus the performing arts, they’re not known for being highly paid so there’s been some work there with theatre.
What can you tell us about your business interests?
My academic background is electronics and maths so that was my graduating major… and so I worked in IBM for a while and in air-traffic control, then I got a Rotary Scholarship to go to the US and that totally opened my eyes. I came back and said I need my own company so I started it, just me in my bedroom in my mother’s home in Petone, designing and making electronics equipment. It grew to quite a major company which we then put on the Nasdaq stock market in the US so that’s where it all started.
Any advice to students?
That’s a really hard question—I mean it is hard work and you know what to do, you know it’s hard work. Most young people are not in that top .001 per cent that get huge scholarships overseas, so to me it’s application, stickability at the course so you graduate. And I would say don’t fritter the time away, that’s so easy to do. You’ve one shot at this, don’t squander it.