On the 6th of May, the Victoria University of Wellington council will meet to discuss a proposed name change – again. National MP Nicola Willis thinks the whole thing is absurd.
Of all the issues I thought I’d be debating as a new MP, the name of my former university was not one.
I graduated from Victoria University of Wellington (VUW), met my husband there, debated for the Vic Debating Society and sung the Exponents’ ‘Victoria’ at University Games up and down the country. Warm memories.
I’m proud of the honours degree I hold in Vic’s name (English Lit, but that’s a story for another day).
Let’s be honest, deciding whether to change the name of a university is not one of the great issues of our times. Lives do not depend on it. And yet. Look what this debate has led to: Right now Victoria University of Wellington is seriously contemplating taking judicial review proceedings against the minister of education. Not over a matter of academic freedom, not backed by the rallying cry of students and graduates, but in a lonely battle to change its name.
Never mind that such a legal fight could potentially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Never mind that those dollars would ultimately come from taxpayers and students. Never mind that the battle would require hundreds of hours of time from people who, I sincerely hope, have better things to do.
No one benefits from the continuation of this saga. The university community needs to move on from this debate so we can focus on the real challenges ahead of Vic’s students, staff and graduates.
Like other alumni, I want to see our university succeed into the future. I want to see it maintain and built its global reputation. Like other Wellingtonians, I want Vic to continue to contribute to the life of our city.
I trust that the leaders of VUW began the name-change campaign with those good intentions in mind. So when I heard their proposal for a new name – “University of Wellington” – I put my pangs of nostalgia to one side and examined the case for change.
Like many others, I was underwhelmed by the evidence presented. In my view the research was patchy, the suggested link between a name change and a reputation boost extremely optimistic, and the consideration of heritage woeful.
It became clear to me that the university community shared my scepticism. Staff, alumni and students wrote to me expressing their concern. Vic graduates would stop me in the street to voice their dismay.
I awaited the formal submission process: 92% of student submitters and 81% of alumni submissions opposed the change. I presumed that would be the end of the matter. How could the university possibly change its name without the support of its community? How could a new ‘brand’ replace the obvious attachment to the historic name? Why were both a former prime minister and a former judge on the International Court of Justice questioning the legal process for a name change?
But the change campaign continued: the VUW Council decided (by majority) to formally recommend a name change to the minister of education. I joined many others in urging the minister to reject the recommendation. I congratulated him when he did.
Again, I presumed the proposal was now a dead duck. University Council members would reflect over the summer break and in 2019 would drop the distraction of the unpopular name change and instead refocus on the strategic challenges facing their institution.
Sadly, that has not yet been the case. The vice chancellor has continued to extol the virtues of a name change and the University Council still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of legal action against the minister of education. I find this extraordinary.
I accept the role of judicial review in our democracy. I accept the right of the university to question its minister. I accept the academic autonomy of universities should be preserved. I do not accept that those are the matters at stake here.
The university should not be wasting taxpayer and student resources on a legal challenge that will achieve nothing for the community it is supposed to serve. It should focus its energy and resources on supporting world-leading teaching and research.
On the 6th of May the VUW Council will again discuss its next steps in this sorry saga.
My plea to the men and women of that council is that they proceed with humility.
The name change proposal has failed. It is time to move on. Release the lawyers. Reach out to all of the students, staff graduates and community leaders who’ve opposed the name change. We share your passion for the future of our university. Let’s work together to focus our energy and resources on that future. Let bygones be bygones and let Vic be Vic.
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