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May 21, 2018 | by  | in From the Archives |
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From The Archives

A conversation no one asked for, which everyone will nevertheless have a blast furnace of a hot take on – the spirit of the flag referendum lives on at Victoria University of Wellington. The university administration has announced that after sixty-three years, it’s time once again to think about the name of this institution. I’ve cared about this issue for at least a week now, so let’s stoke the coals and dive in.

From 1874 to 1961, Victoria, Otago, Dunedin, and Auckland were all colleges of the University of New Zealand, the only institution which could legally confer degrees in New Zealand. Though the UoNZ was not dissolved until 1961, by 1955 the idea that the four main university colleges might become independent universities was already in the air, prompting reconsideration of the name of Victoria University College. Salient reported that the College Council preferred the University of Wellington, while at the Student Association’s AGM, those gathered resolved that they preferred Victoria University. Victoria University of Wellington, born of a compromise between the two, has served this institution ever since.

Echoing his forebears, Vice-Chancellor Grant Guildford has championed the name “The University of Wellington” – a little unimaginative, though I’ll concede it has a certain antiquated charm. Apparently there are too many universities named “Victoria”, obscuring our international brand reputation. Like the suggested change itself, this particular concern also has a rough equivalent in the 1950s discussion:

“‘Victoria University College’ has always sounded to me more appropriate for a place of higher learning at Ballarat or even perhaps Bendigo.”

Both cities mentioned in this excerpt are in Victoria, Australia, a confusion which is apparently common today.
As distasteful as I find it to hear universities discussed as brands, Guildford has made some points I find myself agreeing with. Fundamentally though, I feel a more interesting conversation might start with asking why there are so many universities associated with the word “Victoria”. As the monarch during the period of British High Imperialism, Queen Victoria has a staggering number of places named after her. As noted in Salient in 1957:

“Wellington is adequately littered with memorials to the old lady concerned – Mt Victoria, Victoria St, the Victoria Hotel, Queen’s Drive, Queen’s Wharf, the squatly solid statue in Kent Terrace.”

Apparently “no sentimental monarchist”, the author posits that “Vic” has taken on a life of its own, divorced from Queen Victoria. It’s part of our heritage – let’s leave it alone.

Should we get to pick and choose our heritage? The global reach of “Victoria” as a moniker speaks to the expansiveness of the British Empire, with Queen Victoria at its head, which is now embedded in the parks, streets, and universities of the British Commonwealth. Laying the blame for New Zealand colonialism squarely at the feet of Queen Victoria would be reductive of course. Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand from 1861-1868, had far more to do with the theft of Māori land and impoverishment of Māori communities than Queen Victoria – but he did so under her higher authority, contravening Te Tiriti o Waitangi, to which her Crown was a signatory.

There is truth in the idea that Victoria University of Wellington has shed any association with monarchy, its students and staff having generated new meanings. But when the legacy of colonisation is so fraught with violence and dispossession, I wonder whether it’s appropriate to be that absent-minded about the origins of the names of our surroundings.

Rawinia Higgins, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Māori), has suggested a change to the university’s Māori name, to align with that of the marae on Kelburn Parade, Te Herenga Waka. But if we’re going to change the name at all, why not go a step further: make Te Herenga Waka the sole name of the university. As Pākehā person, it’s not really for me to say whether doing so would signal a meaningful instance of decolonisation, or a crude attempt of slapping some te reo on a colonial institution calling it biculturalism. But I think that’s a far more worthwhile conversation than one about brand distinctiveness.

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