NOOSA – The new vice-chancellor of Auckland University of Technology (AUT), is keenly aware that he has broken through another glass ceiling.
The son of a factory worker, Dr Damon Salesa made New Zealand history last week as the first Pacific person to be appointed to head a New Zealand university.
Dr Salesa is currently a pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Auckland where he is Director of Pacific Strategy and Engagement. He will take up his new role at AUT in March.
“I’ve really admired the way AUT prioritised and served its students,” Dr Salesa said to Asia Pacific Report. “That is one of reasons I was really interested in the job.
“If you have heart to service, and you keep the students at the very centre of the decisions you make, you get great results.”
Pacific and Māori research is one area he wants to strengthen as well as build relationships with other institutions in the Pacific.
“Pacific partnerships and other partnerships are critical to the very centre of the university, and they are not seen as being marginal because we’re a university in the middle of the South Pacific.
“We need to honour that and be connected to our whanau (family) around the Pacific,” he said.
“AUT will always be anchored in the Pacific region and obviously has a long history of educating people from the Pacific region and we hope to continue and deepen that.”
Dr Salesa was born and raised in Auckland and graduated from the University of Auckland and Oxford University, and then taught for several years at the University of Michigan in the USA before returning to Auckland.
He is author of ‘Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures’ and the prizewinning book ‘Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire’, praised as “a fascinating and refreshing new perspective on colonial encounters between Europeans and Māori”.
He is also co-editor of ‘Tangata o le Moana’, an online magazine dedicated to building a stronger Māori and Pacific presence in the New Zealand media.
Professor Steven Ratuva, director of the Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, said Dr Salesa’s appointment is a significant milestone for the Pacific.
“It is something he richly deserves and has been working hard for. It is a good career choice, good for the Pacific academic community, and I congratulate him for his contribution to Pacific education.”
Calling Dr Salesa “a trailblazer”, Associate Professor Shailendra Singh, head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, said “he will inspire many Pacific Islanders and Pacific people beyond New Zealand as the vice-chancellor of one of the finest universities in our region.
“I have a high regard for AUT and the Pacific Media Centre (PMC), long a flagship of the university for its cutting-edge research and publications in Pacific journalism.
“I hope the Pacific Media Centre is revived as journalism in the region has been struggling due to economic and political factors.
“Pacific journalism needs support and leadership and AUT can become the beacon it was,” Associate Professor Singh said.
Writing in Asia-Pacific Report, Sri Krishnamurthi said that “Dr Salesa is testament to the fact that people of a Pacific background or ethnicity can succeed and excel — not just in sport, but in every facet of society.
Dr Salesa told Asia-Pacific Report that “we know if you make opportunities available to those who have been denied them, they will flourish if they are supported in the right way.
“I have no doubt what people will see in my own story is that the kinds of diverse talent we have in New Zealand, that too often we haven’t made the most of, can come to AUT and thrive.”
Dr Salesa is a strong advocate for education and wants young Māori and Pasifika people to pursue that pathway rather than leaving school early to join the workforce.
“We know that education is one of the proven pathways to wellbeing and prosperity for families, and that at the same time we know that many families need their young people to go out and work,” he told Asia Pacific Report.
“So, it is absolutely critical that we find ways to get talented young Pacific, Māori and other students into high value employment and education is one of the ways of doing that.
“AUT is the kind of institution that is built for these times, it offers all sorts of flexible learning offerings and a truly diverse student body and it is New Zealand’s tech university.”
Sources: Asia Pacific Report, E-Tangata online magazine, Oxford University Press, Sri Krishnamurthi, Bridget Williams Books, J-Stor digital library