“It Was AUT Or Bust,”Says Aotearoa’s First Pasifika Vice-Chancellor

By Justin Hu (he/him) and David Williams (he/him)

AUT’s new vice-chancellor Dr. Damon Salesa says he wants to regularly meet with students, while his “underestimated” university could be entering an era of “maturity” after years of growth and pandemic uncertainty.


With the university’s former VC, Derek McCormack, having taken on the job in 2004, the new appointment is a major sign of change at the top of AUT.


Last month, Salesa spoke to Debate about his background, his plans for the years ahead, and why he felt his new job was a case of “AUT or bust”.


Salesa, who is Samoan, is notable in being the country’s first Pasifika vice-chancellor, having previously been the University of Auckland’s first Pro Vice-Chancellor Pacific. He acknowledged the “enormous responsibility” that cames with his new job.


“You have an identity that shapes who you are and you can't perform a role without being who you are,” he said. “You carry a different kind of burden when you're in a role, and people like you haven't commonly been in that role.”


“I'm conscious of it and reflective about it, but I think I’m also a little bit impatient about it [generally]. The leadership of our city and our nation needs to look like the people it's leading and we don't do a great job of that in New Zealand”.


The son of a Fisher & Paykel factory worker, Salesa grew up in Glen Innes as part of a large working class family that emphasised to him “the power of education”.


“Education has played a transformative role in my life where I've gone from being the son of a factory worker to a vice-chancellor, with parents who probably weren't really that sure what a vice-chancellor was, or did.”


He said many students from marginalised backgrounds, like his own, likely hadn’t had opportunities to truly fulfil their potential in education.


Salesa said universities had not done enough to ultimately address systemic equity issues, but that addressing them would be a “complicated piece of work” that universities had to first commit to working towards.


“A lot of the reasons students don't go into elite education are not educational reasons in their nature,” he said. Issues with university entrance, high school outcomes, tuition fees, and socioeconomic issues were part of the bigger picture in Salesa’s view.


“We can't just rely on what we inherit, we have to make sure that we're actually making education available, not solely on some criteria, which we know are unequal. Otherwise, we will have unequal entry and then we'll have unequal outcomes.”


He said he wanted AUT to provide opportunities for every student rather than “only identifying those who can thrive under certain conditions”.


Salesa added that universities are formed to be learning “communities” and that, therefore, they should be “open to all those who wish to learn”.


“It is a real challenge on how you present a university for everyone. For the rich, for the poor, for everything in between, for every diversity that one of the world's most diverse cities has.”


Salesa said his own personal values aligned with the university’s focus on applied knowledge and industry, as well as the fact it had the most diverse university student body in New Zealand. “So for me, it was AUT or bust, you know,” he said.


Going into the role, he said his first priority was to get students back to campus. “We've got three campuses and we need them to be filled with energy, life, learning, and knowledge,” he said. Meanwhile, his other priorities would be focused on making AUT sustainable from both an environmental and financial point of view.


A significant challenge for universities brought about by the pandemic has been funding. While domestic student numbers remained strong throughout 2020 and 2021, the number of international students had drastically fallen as a result of border closures and student reluctance.


With international students bringing in more money through their fees than domestic students, universities like AUT were forced to consider redundancies and defer larger projects. When asked about this, Salesa said funding challenges were a symptom of larger, more systemic issues.


“The deeper problem is that New Zealanders want and deserve world-class universities, [but] world-class universities are expensive,” he said. “New Zealand hasn't funded universities to produce that world-class experience, so we've had to look for other sources of revenue, and international students were a source that many universities relied on.”


The new vice-chancellor said it had been “enormously challenging” for AUT and other universities to “survive without international students” and that, generally, the sector could “do better” in ensuring foreign students had value from their university education.


Uncertainty around international student revenue at AUT had seen the delivery of projects like the North campus’s A1 building delayed for 18 months. Meanwhile, Salesa joins as vice-chancellor after the university’s senior leadership faced what was the institution’s most visible scandal in years.


In 2020, reporting by Stuff’s Ali Mau sent shockwaves through the university after AUT was accused of mishandling allegations of harassment among senior leadership. Mau’s articles eventually led to the resignation of two deputy vice-chancellors (there were six deputy vice-chancellors) and the commissioning of an external review.


The review concluded with the university accepting 36 recommendations to improve its internal systems. It found AUT did not have an ongoing issue of sexual harassment between staff, but that there had been a culture of bullying among staff and that some systems were inadequate. Salesa said he would continue to see through the implementation of “all the recommendations of that report” as vice-chancellor.


The review found AUT did not have an ongoing issue with harassment or bullying among students. But, amid the review, other universities across the country had been reckoning with misconduct allegations made between students.


In the last four years, allegations of botched disciplinary procedures at the Victoria University of Wellington and Dunedin’s Knox College made headlines. And in March this year, the University of Auckland was accused of mishandling investigations of their own.


Salesa said he believed there was “real vigilance” at AUT towards instances of misconduct and that it was an issue the university had “thought through quite deeply”, especially in its student accommodations.


“We have a very low threshold of tolerance and we expect our staff to do the right thing, do it quickly, and do it with student interest at heart — and to keep students safe immediately.”


“I've received assurance from our leaders that lead that part of the university, that they did sort of model tests of how they would deal with these challenges.”


When asked about ensuring students have a voice in AUT’s decision making, he said he would meet regularly with the AUTSA president and have informal meetings with groups of students on a variety of issues.


“I recognise that the campus experiences vary [and so] one of the things I value most about the job is spending time with students,” he said. “Knowing students, listening to them, spending time with them, and understanding them is an essential part of running a good university.”


Looking forward to the next five years, Salesa said the university had a clear strategic plan to focus on priorities like improving its Te Tiriti relationship, the climate, student achievement, growing its research output, and ensuring it was “singing its own praises” to become more visible.


“I think AUT is the most underestimated of the New Zealand universities. AUT’s contribution is kind of nation-defining in the sense that it has the most potential of any other New Zealand universities in terms of quality and impact,” he said.


Meanwhile, Salesa said he believed the university had seen “astronomical growth” in the past few years, but that it was time to be more “deliberate” about how it decided to grow.


"I'm sort of describing this next phase of AUT's journey as one of maturity… there was always a point where growth would need to be reassessed,” he said.


“I don't think this is a [line goes up] kind of situation for AUT, maybe [it is], but we need to consciously decide that as a community, because we're already New Zealand's second biggest university. If we're going to get bigger, it will mean many other things to us.”


He believed the realities of Covid has “awoken” people to new learning opportunities, and that the future could involve people shifting careers more often and retraining multiple times during their life, with a greater use of online learning.


“You might start off as a journalist and end up as a coder or programmer [and] AUT has a role both in that original journey and the second one,” he said. “We're working through collectively what it means to be in a post-Covid educational world.”