As Harlene Hayne sees it, one of the real challenges for universities in the twenty-first century is the need to move away from a utilitarian view that students come to study with an idea in mind about the job they are going to have at the end. “When I look back on my own career, I certainly did not go to university with the idea that I would become a university vice-chancellor,” she muses.

“I had no idea what a vice-chancellor was. Instead, I found what I love to do and I did it to the best of my ability, and that’s really where all of my subsequent professional opportunities have come from.”

Harlene Hayne discovers her passion for psychology

Indeed, having begun university with a plan to study Spanish, Harlene’s career path has been shaped by her ability to shift perspective and take in a broader view of things, as well as by a love of psychology and understanding the way people think. “Somewhere along the way, I discovered psychology, and it became my passion,” she says. “And it continues to be so; it has been my academic passion.”

Harlene Hayne Vice-Chancellor of University of Otago
Harlene Hayne Vice-Chancellor of University of Otago

Having completed both undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the US, Harlene and her husband wanted to find a place where they could work together. “My husband did his graduate work at Rutgers University and postdoctoral research at Princeton with me. And when we started looking for work, two jobs came up at the same time at the University of Otago in New Zealand,” Harlene explains.

“Working together is often a difficulty for couples who both want to pursue academic careers. So we contacted the department in the first instance, before we submitted our applications, to see whether or not they would even consider hiring a couple. We knew that some universities have clear views on this; either they’re really for it, or they’re really against it. It turned out, actually, that at the time we applied for our jobs here at the psychology department at Otago, there were already five couples on staff.”

Overcoming a reluctance to lead

Harlene says that the idea initially was that the trip would be a type of academic adventure rather than a long-term plan for the couple. “The first day we arrived, the head of the department sat down with us and said, ‘I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be here forever, but if you can stay for five years, then the university will have gotten its money’s worth.’

“And we thought, ‘Yeah, right, mate. Five years? We’re out of here in three.’ But what started as an adventure has really turned into our lives, and it’s been a fantastic opportunity for us, both professionally as well as personally.”

Harlene’s first big opportunity came quite unexpectedly. Very happy in her academic work, she was thriving with her teaching, in supervising students, as well as conducting research. She certainly wasn’t looking to climb the corporate ladder.

When I was first approached to be the head of the psychology department, I said, ‘Absolutely not.’

“It’s kind of ironic, looking back, now that I’m the vice-chancellor here; I was a really reluctant leader. I wasn’t looking for senior administrative roles. When I was first approached to be the head of the psychology department, I said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re out of your mind. Why would I want to do that?’ I couldn’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to take on that kind of responsibility. But the vice-chancellor at the time worked on me quite carefully over a long period of time, trying to convince me that it would be a good move for me.”

Finding the leadership mindset

What he managed to do was help Harlene shift her perspective. Harlene knew that she was ambitious, but the ambition was related more to herself and her students than anything else.

“I thought that if I could turn that into a larger ambition for my whole department, then I could get my head around the idea of doing something else. That made a huge difference: simply reframing my thinking about what the role of the head of department is. It’s just nurturing the ambitions of a larger group of people. It was an absolute pleasure to work during that period of time – not only on my own career, but also on the careers of the other people in my department.”

Three years later, the vice-chancellor tapped Harlene on the shoulder again, offering her the position of deputy vice-chancellor of the research enterprise. Once again, she baulked at the idea – particularly as it meant leaving the psychology department she loved so dearly and moving into the broader administration of the university.

But yet again, Harlene was able to broaden her view and see that she could take the ambition she had for her department and spread it further for the benefit of the entire university. Besides, she was becoming fond of challenges.

I had to work really hard to learn what I needed to, and that was really exciting for me.

“It was a fantastic job,” she says. “Some things I was prepared and skilled for, like research, but the whole-enterprise space is something I knew nothing about. I had to work really hard to learn what I needed to, and that was really exciting for me. It was one of the first times that I had stepped outside my knowledge base to learn something completely new and apply that across the university.”

University of Otago goes from strength to strength

By the time the vice-chancellor role was on offer, Harlene was well and truly over her leadership reluctance. In fact, the rigorous selection process made her re-examine the university from yet another perspective and her passion burned anew.

“The interview itself was conducted over a weekend, and I had seven focus groups with eight to 10 people in each one of them. Then after that, on the Monday, I had a meeting with the university council. It actually forced me to sit down and really think about where this university has been and where it wants to be, and how my vision could be incorporated into all of that. By the end of that process, I really wanted the job!”

Harlene’s vision has seen the university go from strength to strength. “Over the past 25 years, Otago has become a world-class university where the staff are highly ambitious for their research and teaching careers,” she says. “We recruit the best and the brightest staff, and, over the past six years, we have made a really concerted effort to recruit the best and the brightest students.

“One of the things I’m particularly proud of is that a University of Otago academic staff member has been the winner of the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for teaching for the past five years. In the past three years, that Supreme Award winner has been a Maori female academic.”

Creating stronger student engagement

It’s clear that Harlene’s vision involves boosting the university’s profile in the community, and awards like this certainly help in that respect. But perhaps her greatest achievement has been in creating stronger student engagement.

“I bring all the new students together at the beginning of the year. I started hosting an opening convocation; it’s quite a formal ceremony with a number of speakers. The Prime Minister often comes, or the Governor-General. They hear from the head of the student body, and the Mayor greets them. They also get a formal Maori welcome to the city and to the region.

“Then I too get the opportunity to speak to them, and essentially set the stage for what’s about to come. I remind our students that no matter how much they’re paying for their part of the bill here, the New Zealand taxpayers are paying 67% of the cost of their tertiary education. So the person at the supermarket checkout, or at the petrol station, or one of the shops in town, is coming to work every day and paying their taxes so that my students can have this amazing privilege of a world-class education. From my perspective, with that privilege comes an enormous obligation.

“I really want my students to be thinking about giving back from the very first day that they are here at the university, so I challenge them to start supporting the community, which in turn will support them strongly during their time here in Dunedin. The first year I did that, in 2013, within a couple of weeks the local volunteer services and charities started calling me on the phone saying, ‘You’ve got to call them off. There’s just way too many of them here wanting to help.’ I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good problem to have. We’re not going to call them off. We’re going to organise them.’

“So we established the first full-time volunteer centre on any university campus in New Zealand, and the job of the director of volunteer services continues to be that of the matchmaker between the students’ skills and availability, and the needs of the local community. This has been one of the most successful things we have ever done here. Our students become incredibly immersed in the volunteer community.

“In fact, many of the people who employ my graduates say to me that one of the first questions students ask during a job interview is: ‘What do you guys do to help the community?’”