Dawn of a new era

In March 2020, Professor Dawn Freshwater will take over from Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon. She talks about her past and her vision.

Professor Dawn Freshwater
Professor Dawn Freshwater begins at the University of Auckland in March 2020.

Professor Dawn Freshwater has been asked a few times about the significance of becoming the University of Auckland’s first female Vice-Chancellor.

While it’s a milestone, she says the appointment of a woman is not entirely unexpected.

“I wouldn’t make a particular deal out of it,” she says. “New Zealand has a fantastic record of firsts where women are concerned. There is already significant progress addressing gender issues. It was bound to happen at some point.

“The bigger picture is inclusive leadership, not just gender. But I do address the gender issue in my work, for example on the [Australian National Health and Medical Research Council] Women in Science committee I make sure we try to address any imbalance.”

She is also a member of ‘CEOs for Gender Equity’ in Western Australia, and the first female chair of the Australian ‘Group of Eight’ universities.

Dawn Freshwater grew up in Nottingham, England, and the ill-health of her parents meant she had to look after her siblings from a young age. She dropped out of school at 15 to support the family. She was encouraged to return to education several years later – to a nursing diploma, degree and PhD.

“I have very ambitious ideas about what universities can achieve, because education changed my life – and it also changed my family’s life as a result of changing mine.

“I was the first in my family to go to university.

"It led not only to improved opportunities for my family, but ultimately for my daughter and grandchildren and the people we connect to. In fact, my brother ended up going to university very late in life, so I think we set off a chain of events.”

She says mentors’ encouragement can be far reaching, and an important way of supporting Maori and Pacific students in post-secondary education.

“Leaders and educators have such an opportunity. Sometimes it’s difficult for an individual to carry their own sense of confidence or their own awareness of their capability and the opportunities before them.

“Often as educators we’re in a privileged position, such as working with a PhD or undergraduate student or one of our children, to be able to encourage them in a way that can change outcomes.”

After several decades working in mental health research, and contributing to hundreds of publications, she’s no stranger to hard work and challenges.

“My backstory tells you that. I really like to roll up my sleeves, as you would expect from somebody who’s also worked in health.”

That could include more research, and you may also find her at the lectern as she did while at the University of Western Australia (UWA) where she worked for the past five years, the last two as Vice-Chancellor.

“It’s important because getting myself on the ground brings credibility to what I do and helps me ascertain where the tensions are.”

Understanding the impact of education on her own life, she looks at education’s opportunities in a wider sense, especially for the disadvantaged.

“I see what education can do, not just personally but globally in terms of supporting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I see the big picture.”

It’s much more than providing bachelor programmes … we support people who want to study right into their old age.

Professor Dawn Freshwater

Dawn says tertiary educators need to consider the role of their institution.

“We have a global civic responsibility and it’s really important to strike a balance between serving our communities, serving the region and the nation, but also serving the globe in terms of the SDGs.”

She says global rankings of universities, such as Times Higher Education and QS, are important.

“Because we’re in a global landscape, we have to make sure we have an internationally renowned reputation. But we need to be strategic about what we want to be known for.”

Dawn says there have been accusations of universities being “graduate factories” because of the way in which the sector has grown in terms of volume.

“But the pipeline is actually cradle to grave. We have high-school students coming onto campuses undertaking a project or they’re engaged in some small way and we’re also working way beyond the postgraduate sector in terms of continuing professional development. We have to recognise that it’s much more than providing bachelor programmes … we support people who want to study right into their old age.”

She is proud that UWA implemented a strategy that addressed real-world issues while still being a research-intensive university.

“UWA students were involved in developing its strategy as well as staff, the community, industry and alumni. We had a distinct focus on our place in the world and people in this region. That’s an important thing to think about for Auckland too.

“At UWA, we positioned ourselves as a knowledge hub on the Indian Ocean rim because that was our position. Just as Auckland is strategically positioned in the Pacific to be able to do something really distinct.”

On the issue of free speech in universities all over the world, she has said university is all about seeking out people to have difficult conversations with, not people who confirm your world view.

“We’ve done a huge amount of work on this for the Group of Eight in Australia. My view is that you have to be exposed to ideas that challenge your own views and thinking. If you don’t, then you can never really fully articulate the architecture of your thinking and you’re also never subjected to scrutiny or interrogation.

“Universities support critical thinking. We subject our own ideas and those of others to scrutiny and interrogation. We may end up thinking the same way as we did in the beginning, but we’re much better at articulating why we’ve come to that point.”

Dawn is excited about heading up the University of Auckland and says it’s a great time to be living in New Zealand.

“There are many people looking to New Zealand with envy in terms of what it’s achieving, both in innovation and punching above its weight for what people view as a small nation.”

She will visit Auckland several times before she takes over from Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon in March and hopes to meet a few people and learn a bit more about her new role.

The seven-time London marathoner is also looking forward to trying out new walks in Auckland, but another marathon isn’t an option.

“A marathon takes about 18 weeks’ training and a lot of effort. Since I’ve been in this role, I’m reduced to a few kilometres now and then.”

But when it comes to achieving goals as the Vice-Chancellor, she says it’s very much a team marathon, not a solo sprint.

“It’s the journey, not always the destination. The journey on the way, the process on the way, is just as important. That means bringing people with you, being clear about your purpose and helping people understand why we’re on this path.”  

Denise Montgomery
Editor, Ingenio

This piece first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Ingenio magazine. 

Contact Ingenio.