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SMELLIE SNIFFS THE BREEZE: Under the Hood

Article – Businesswire

Oct 23 (BusinessWire) – Unremarked in New Zealand, but extraordinary for the outpourings of affection and gratitude according to a New Zealander present, was the departure of Dr John Hood as the first foreigner, let alone Kiwi, to be Vice-Chancellor at …

SMELLIE SNIFFS THE BREEZE: Under the Hood

By Pattrick Smellie

Oct 23 (BusinessWire) – Unremarked in New Zealand, but extraordinary for the outpourings of affection and gratitude according to a New Zealander present, was the departure of Dr John Hood as the first foreigner, let alone Kiwi, to be Vice-Chancellor at The University of Oxford.

Formerly VC at The University of Auckland, Hood took Oxford’s reins at a tricky time.

“I said at the time I would ideally have preferred it to start a year later and, as it happens, that may also have allowed greater exposure of some of the weaknesses in governance that led to the excessive financial and other risks faced by the University in 2004,” he told the audience for his valedictory Oration on Oct. 6.

The whole institution was suffering from “serious and serial under-investment in its administration by the University for far too many years,” said Hood, who also made an impassioned personal plea for Oxford to tidy up its one layer, revolving door governance system or face such problems again.

There were no proper accounting systems, two major IT projects had failed, no one knew how big the capital expenditure commitments were for the year ahead and there was no clear way to decide what to spend money on.

“The situation was dire,” said Hood, whose appointment to lead up one of England’s iconic sources of academic culture and national superiority, provoked much gleeful anticipation among UK observers who expected him to have a rocky road.

They probably didn’t realise that Hood always carries his own rocks.

As anyone who has worked closely with John Hood will tell you, he harbours an intense work ethic, a deeply held Utopian view of the role of universities in successful societies, and can be the most cantankerous bully you’ll ever meet.

He also enjoys an atmosphere of catastrophe averted. As a result, he gets a lot of hard things done. Walk today around the Grafton campus at Auckland, where Hood took charge just a decade ago, and observe the change to New Zealand’s foremost seat of learning.

The physical monuments to his vision are most evident in the spanking new Owen Glenn Business School and the Kate Edger Commons, the latter an early Hood project that demonstrated an underlying passion for the quality of the student environment.

Less tangible, and more importantly, The University of Auckland – Hood had a deep objection to people calling it “Auckland University” – is the country’s best by a country mile, with funding both private and public locked in at levels that would make any other university in the country weep. It rates in the top 100 universities in the world, despite funding per student that would be laughed at in Melbourne or Hong Kong, let alone Oxford or Harvard.

In the same vein was Hood’s foray into New Zealand politics, with the 2001 and 2003 “Catching the Knowledge Wave” conferences. The first was a sincere and semi-successful attempt to shake New Zealanders into thinking about how investing in knowledge could transform the country’s future; the second a naked bid to embarrass Prime Minister Helen Clark into adopting rather than talking about an “economic transformation” agenda.

Meanwhile, he cajoled Ministers to fund the business school, the Performance-Based Research Fund and the Centres of Research of Excellence – from which Auckland today takes by the far the lion’s share of benefits. And he wooed wealthy benefactors to kick-start a culture of endowment at Auckland, while building the country’s first truly professional alumnus programme. Targeted mailings from the University arrive constantly at the homes of former graduates, many of whom had previously lost all contact with their alma mater.

No wonder, then, that Hood has presided over the Campaign for Oxford, which has raised 770 million pounds in just five years, an incredible sum that kept growing despite last year’s global credit crunch.

Not that a thriving university fits with Hood’s love of a spot of impending doom. If the future of Oxford were not secured through more of the same, he intoned: “the risk to this University’s global standing must be grave; the consequences of that for the UK are, I should think, plain”.

Back home, in a very much smaller way, Hood’s legacy was to be faintly seen in the low-key release today of Research, Science and Technology Minister Wayne Mapp’s discussion paper on reforming some of the funding in his portfolio area.

The proposals were penned, in part, and championned at the highest levels of government, by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser and Hood confidant during his time at Auckland, Professor Peter Gluckman.

Gluckman’s mana is unimpeachable. He has shown that New Zealand research academics can straddle the complex world of leading ground-breaking, high value research of global significance with commercial potential; while attracting, keeping and building new funding; and contributing deeply to the policy processes that make universities and societies successful.

As a child of the Knowledge Wave generation, it is very positive that John Key has anointed Gluckman to a practical role that seeks a New Zealand making the most of its opportunities for global leadership and wealth creation based on knowledge and cleverness.

Today’s report also starts to answer the question that had been nagging those of us who were straining to see any evidence that the sixth and most important of Key’s economic agenda items – innovation – was getting a look in at all.

Disclosure: Pattrick Smellie worked in the communications team on the 2001 and 2003 Knowledge Wave conferences.

(BusinessWire)

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