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Speech

Centennial Awards Ceremony

Issue date: 
Thursday, 23 September 1999
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

E nga mana, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma , tena koutou.

Nga hau e wha, nga iwi e tau nei, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Chancellor, our distinguished Visitors, Members and Friends of the University, ladies and gentlemen.

Chancellor, I count it a very great privilege to have been invited to take part in this evening of high celebration. I confess to a little alarm though, to find I am speaking before an audience as distinguished as any University in this country has ever assembled, alarming for one who began a Master's degree, but who even now has not completed it.

Ladies and gentlemen, long ago, a rather sad man wrote that he had been considering wisdom and madness and folly. He saw that wisdom excels folly, as light excels darkness; and yet one fate comes to all. And so he asked himself, "Because what befalls the fool will befall me also, why then have I been so very wise? For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten."

How wrong he was, that writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. For this evening is the culmination of much remembrance, and much celebration, of wise men and wise women. Fools there have doubtless been, and they are not entirely forgotten either. We will all have a soft spot for our own particular fool; perhaps even as we look into the morning mirror. But it is wise men and women whom we remember and whom we honour tonight, and with a little forgivable vanity we may include ourselves among them, too, for we, and they, have in our differing roles, and to a varying extent, shaped a century of academic achievement on that old clay patch, up there on the hill, JC Beaglehole's hill of many visions.

I like that description, hill of many visions. Surely, every one of the tens of thousands who have made their way up it have had their own personal vision, a vision for themselves, for their own lives, and, I would like to think, for this land, and for the human condition too. Certainly Victoria has nurtured some strong social consciences, some powerful political voices. It has often been the centre of protest and agitation, some of it, in hindsight at least, misguided, but much of it prophetic. It has never shirked the grave responsibility of a true University, to be the conscience and critic of society. That is far from a popular role, as so many have found, and it is easy to have excuses not to discharge it. Especially these days, when pressures of study, financial worries, family commitments, are so much greater than they once were. But if Victoria is to be true to herself, true to her history and her traditions, that role must be maintained.

But it was not, I suspect, this kind of vision that brought those first great names to this city: John Rankine Brown the Classicist, Hugh Mackenzie the English scholar, Thomas Easterfield the Scientist and Richard Maclaurin the Mathematician. They came with the vision of creating a place of learning and of scholarship; and that vision quickly became reality. Their memory is now preserved in brick and concrete, but buildings speak so inadequately of their work. Rather, their success is commemorated in the achievements of those they taught, and of all those who followed them both as teachers and as students, and in the reputation for academic excellence and intellectual freedom that this University so soon acquired, and that it has held now for a hundred years.

It is right to praise famous men, but it would be invidious, and in this instance exhausting, to set about naming them. They are so many, those men and women, teachers, researchers, administrators, graduates, who have exemplified in themselves and inspired in others, that love of learning which is the beginning of wisdom. But there is one I must name, and that is Sir Thomas Hunter, a man with whom not all would necessarily agree, but whom all would salute for his lifetime commitment to this University, and to the integrity of scholarship in pursuit of truth. But we will all have our own particular fond memories, some of personalities long gone, others still with us, and our own special gratitude for the one or more who really made a difference for us.

Of course a University is about more than teaching and studying. It is rightly a preparation for life, a place where the fullness of human personality has opportunity to develop. It is a place for art and music, for serious sport and frivolous play, for the exchange of ideas and the sharing of experiences. Some of that has gone, I fear, as student life has become more earnest under the increasing urge for prompt qualification and earning. But not entirely, I trust. For some of my own fondest memories are of the hours spent over starchy food and revolting coffee in the very squalid cafeteria, rehearsing and solving the world's problems, and the great mysteries of life and death; of outrageous capping parades and capping magazines and extravs; of endless political debates and controversies in the long-gone old gymnasium. There were other experiences too, but they came to me second hand, for I was not at Weir House, and although I used to walk home through the Mount Street cemetery I did not have the courage to dally there.

But some did. And others excelled on shorter grass on the sports field. Some wrote music and poetry and history. Some became renowned scholars, or teachers or researchers. Others spoke in tongues, classical or Romance or Asian, or in song and dance and the playing of instruments. There were those who looked into the earth beneath us or the world about us or the heavens above us. Some did so with instruments and equipment, some with soaring imagination or inquiring faith. Others learnt to count, some to value; others to plead and judge and appear wise; some to govern and appear the opposite; some to balance the books, others to spend the inheritance; some to lead, some to follow; most, but not all, to pay their taxes. And so in these, and other ways, the vision was caught, and burnished; or in a few sad cases allowed to fade, for it takes all sorts.

Of course it was not to the hill that those first professors came, but to rented rooms in the Girls High School in Thorndon, and in the Technical School in Victoria St. It was to be another seven years before what was described as a near-vertical site was levelled and the brick revival-Gothic building we now know so well began to take shape. With its later additions, and especially the magnificent memorial window at the north end, it became not only a city landmark, but almost symbolic of Victoria itself. Both University and City should ever be grateful to those who fought and won the battle to preserve it from the bureaucratic vandalism that was so rampant at the time From my study window, I can just see the gable of the Hunter above the trees. But to the south the ridgeline is dominated by those more recent structures which human ingenuity has somehow managed to cram onto an apparently impossible site, to house the vast expansion in student numbers and in courses offered: a 50% increase in the student roll in the last ten years, a more than five-fold increase since those halcyon days of my own graduation, halfway through the 100 years we are celebrating.

Our Universities do not receive the massive endowments that are a feature of many in other countries, but we have had our benefactors nonetheless, and it is right that we should acknowledge them, for the intellectual and cultural life of this University would have been very much the poorer without their generosity. Indeed it was only the seeding gift of the then-princely sum of One Thousand Pounds by Charles Pharazyn that gave us the old clay patch in the first place. His gift was just the first of many, through public subscriptions, the thank offerings of graduates, and the great generosity of some individuals, three of whom have been honoured tonight. Thus have we established halls of residence and student facilities, a memorial theatre, a concert room and now a superb art gallery, than which there could be no more appropriate permanent commemoration of our centenary. As well, our donors have assisted in the brilliant restoration of one of the city's show pieces, the old wooden Government Building, appropriately accommodating aspirants to the most showy of professions, the law. I tactfully say nothing of the neighbouring pile to which the Commerce Faculty is to move.

The four founding professors gave their inaugural lectures in April 1899. It was 18 years after Parihaka. We had become, on the surface anyway, a peaceful society, far removed from the rest of the world. But that was to change. Six months later, the Boer War broke out and for the first time New Zealand troops went to fight in another land. Other conflicts were to follow, two of them spilling across the face of the earth, all of them catching us up in their wake. The old imperial order fell away. Communism and fascism waxed and waned. Humankind descended into the depths of depravity, and ascended towards the stars. In our own land we began to discover an identity, and we have seen the renaissance of an almost extinct culture, now finding its own home even here on campus.. What we know and do today would have been unimaginable to those early teachers and students.

In the midst of these changes this University has been no ivory tower. It has been affected by them all, and it has responded to them all, at times in blood spilt on the world's battlefields, at times in affirmation of essential truths in times of social disarray, at times in outbursts of pure creativity. Yet I would like to think that were our founders to come back to their old haunts much would be recognisable — not just what remains of the Hunter, but more importantly the ethos it enshrined, that commitment to knowledge for its own sake that they sought to express in the motto they devised, Sapientia magis auro desideranda, for which I shall offer only the intended translation: "Wisdom is more to be desired than gold."

It is only the departed who are permitted to rest in peace, and so Victoria, still well and truly alive after reigning for over 100 years through many a triumph and many a trial and tribulation, will not be spared further hurdles to surmount and challenges to grapple with. One challenge is most certainly to ensure as best we can that a first class University education does not become the preserve of an economic elite. The progressively smaller number of undergraduates coming from low decile schools is a matter of extreme concern. So is the future of our best graduates, who are departing for overseas destinations at an alarming rate, but whom we cannot afford to lose for long. And then there is the continuing need to reconcile economic and academic objectives, to persuade by demonstration as much as by argument that a University exists for research as much as for teaching, to advance learning rather than training, and that the primary, and the ultimate, objective of its teaching is a well-honed and a fully-nourished intellect.

We were all, I am sure, greatly encouraged to read recently of the Vice-Chancellor's affirmation of a commitment to the pursuit of excellence above all else. I have no doubt that of the many visions the hill has inspired and still inspires in those who come and go there, this is the one that shines brightest of all.

Chancellor, today we who are of today salute the past, we remember with warmth and gratitude what the old clay patch has done for us, the vision it has set before us. And we look with high optimism to the future. We know that the years ahead may not be easy. But we may surely be confident that this University will embark on its next century with an unswerving commitment to what it has stood for and believed in for the past 100 years; and, too, with great enthusiasm for what is to come. For with a University, as with each one of us, tomorrow, tomorrow it's to fresh woods and pastures new.

Gaudeamus igitur; et vivat Victoria.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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