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Biography of a University

Book Review
Otago: 150 years of New Zealand’s first university
 by Alison Clarke (Otago U Press, $50)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

ou-cover-001webThe Scottish settlers of Otago placed great importance on education, and started their university only two decades after they arrived in Dunedin. It was New Zealand’s first university, and it proudly celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019. This well-illustrated and readable account of the university by Otago historian Ali Clarke is a fitting way to start the anniversary year.

Two earlier histories of Otago University have been produced, marking its 50th and 100th anniversaries. But the number of students has quadrupled since the centenary history, and the university is now a different and much busier place. In its early days the university was a male-dominated institution, but since 1986 there have been more women students than men (and by 2016 there were several thousand more). It is also far more diverse with increasing numbers of Maori, Pasifika and international students.

Writing a history of an organisation as large and complex as a modern university is challenging as there is so much to fit in. The author has wisely decided to deal with topics that cover all aspects of the university, starting with chapters on those for whom it exists – the students. Three chapters cover the make-up of the student body, student life, and student accommodation. I’m old enough to remember the controversy in 1967 when the Vice-Chancellor tried to ban mixed flatting. In retrospect it can be seen as the local start of a period of major social change when students started to assert their rights, and the university reluctantly started to modernize.

Chapter five gives an overview of Otago’s staff, and the various departments they created and expanded. The core of the book is the history of the departments and schools, covered in Chapters six to nine, and arranged according to the current structure of four academic divisions: humanities, science, commerce and health sciences. This is an excellent potted history, emphasising the range disciplines taught in the university, and how the interest in subjects changed over the generations. One of the distinctive features of Otago has been its special schools – medicine, dentistry, home science, mining physical education and surveying, and the development of each of these is described.

Bachelor of Oral Health in 2016 working in the Faculty of Dentistry’s simulation clinic. (Source: 'Otago')

Bachelor of Oral Health in 2016 working in the Faculty of Dentistry’s simulation clinic. (Source: ‘Otago’)

The medical school has always been a big part of Otago University, and for many years it was the only place in New Zealand where doctors could be trained. As the school expanded, the number of patients in Dunedin for the students to get practical experience was insufficient, so clinical schools were opened in Christchurch and Wellington, with outposts in other areas. Otago University has consciously maintained a high profile outside Dunedin, for example with a prominent building in upper Queen Street, Auckland, and reading this section of the book did leave me wondering about the value of our local universities competing with each other – does competition raise academic standards, or is it just competing for more student enrolments?

Later chapters deal with Support services – the non-academic staff members who keep the university running — and on buildings and teaching. The final chapter on “Otago’s place in the world” is an essay summarising some the long-term achievements of members of the university community. The focus is on individuals, and I was left wondering if there were particular contributions to society that could be attributed to the culture of the University itself – a topic worth discussing during the anniversary year to come.

In reading this book, I was constantly impressed by the amount of research underpinning it. Ali Clarke undertook a large number of interviews, and is thoroughly familiar with the huge amount of historical material available – undoubtedly helped by her work in the Hocken Library. While working on the book, she ran an interactive blog that helped gather material and illustrations. The blog is still online, and well worth visiting if you are interested in exploring some of the background stories.

This is an interesting and easily accessible account of the story of Otago University that will appeal to Otago graduates and people interested in the history of southern New Zealand. It is an excellent model of how to write an institutional history that is likely to be read rather than being tucked away on a bookshelf.