Interview with Jan Thomas

Jan Thomas was announced as the new Vice Chancellor of Massey University earlier this year. Thomas replaces former Vice Chancellor Steve Maharey in the top role. Massive’s Adam Pearse had the opportunity last month to sit down with and former vet Thomas, who hails from Australia, and pick her brains about the future direction of the university. Pearse’s interview with Thomas lasted more than two hours so the feature you see below is an abridged version. A full version can be found on Massive’s website.

Tell us a little bit about where you’re from, what you’ve done, and how it is you came to be here.

I am obviously Australian, I have spent most of my academic career in Australia, Murdoch University in Western Australia, where I grew pup, and then the last five years I was Vice Chancellor at the University of Southern Queensland in regional Queensland. The move across here was in part because New Zealand is an impressive country from looking outside in I thought it was a good country. If you’re going to put your shoulder to the wheel, you want to have values alignment and I have always admired New Zealand so that was an attractive factor.

Of course because my disciplinary background is veterinary science I have known about Massey for a very long time and its agriculture and food technology reputation. So when I was approached to apply for the job I thought it could actually be a really good opportunity and a great fit for me because of the experiences I have had at the University of Southern Queensland would prepare me well. Because that’s a particular university that has some features that I think would resonate with you. It’s a university that was based in a large regional centre, only university in town, ended up with multiple campuses. Seventy five per cent of its students study online, agriculture is a major strength of it although it’s comprehensive across all the disciplines. So you can see that there is quite a good fit there. Having been Vice Chancellor there for five years when I was offered the opportunity to move to New Zealand and head up Massey, of course I said yes. It’s a wonderful privilege to be here and I am loving the Manawatu.

Why did you leave your life as a vet, which is very practical, for an admin job?

I loved being a vet but I went on to specialise as a veterinary pathologist, I did that at the University of Melbourne. Veterinary pathologists tend to be located either in government diagnostic facilities, research centres, or universities. I had the opportunity to progress as a diagnostic veterinary pathologist in the university and then in that environment you’re working with senior students going through the pathology areas and I really liked it and I enjoyed teaching and then an opportunity came for a short term job as an academic, teaching research. I really enjoyed that so I basically decided to track up through an academic route as a veterinary pathologist which I still was able to practice as a diagnostic pathologist, it just happens that it’s in a referral laboratory. While people don’t necessarily think of that as being a veterinarian of course it is, it’s a diagnostic role.

I taught students that discipline, and researched in that area for many years. So although I wasn’t in private practice doing vaccination and spays, I was still practicing as a veterinarian for many years but just as a university staff member.

Over the years I fell in love with what universities are able to do. They’re incredibly significant institutions in mature democracies, they’re city institutions that have particular roles. And particularly I guess the transformative power of education was compelling for me, how education can transform individuals lives but also their communities and families lives, and also the next generation. I kind of fell in love with that fairly early and decided that actually, although I loved being a veterinarian and a pathologist, as I progressed my career I decided that I would move into senior management at universities because I loved the role that universities played.

So I moved into senior management at the end of 2002, so long time in senior management of different universities now. Although I loved it as a vet and I miss it, I never once have wavered from the view that universities are the thing that actually rock my world.

Why did Massey choose you to run this University?

I am the wrong person to ask. For a start I met the selection criteria, I have extensive experience in universities and particularly universities like Massey. I have got good record as a university manager, I am someone that seemed to suit the bill in terms if my experience and passion and attitude I suppose. But the selection committee I have no doubt interviewed really capable people so I don’t underestimate the significance of being chosen. In many ways bringing someone in from not a New Zealand background is a risk, and I hope I will prove to them that that was a risk that was worth taking. I knew, and I know now, that I have a lot of learning to do about New Zealand and the thought that I might, although I am very experienced, assume that somehow or another there are things that New Zealand or Massey can learn from outside, I think is not appropriate. So I have been very actively, and deeply, sitting and listening and trying to understand the New Zealand culture and the Massey culture so that I can adapt and use some of the things that I have learnt over many years in a way that is appropriate for the context rather than coming in and applying something else.

As you can see around my office, I am deeply immersed in learning Te Reo and tikanga. I will not stop that until I feel fluent and that I can get into the Maori mindset because I think it’s really important. If you’re going to be a leader in New Zealand you need to understand this and I know that’s an area I need to work on and I am working on it. Likewise I spend a lot of time just getting out and listening and observing and there are significant differences. Anyone in Australia that suggests it’s just another state of Australia has never spent any time here with their eyes wide open and their ears wide open.

So I know it was a risk from the council’s perspective to appoint me, I am determined not to let them down.

How is this role different to those you have held in the past?

The sector is different here, so the way funding happens. For example there is a commission that sits between the ministerial offices, the Ministry of Education and universities, that doesn’t exist in Australia. Getting to deeply understand the context of funding systems for recognition and so on. Things like crown research institutes, PBRF, all of those things are things that are very different. So, that at the national level is of significance. It’s a very regulated system. But then for Massey, Massey clearly has a very strong demonstrated evidence of research excellence, and USQ was on the research journey whereas Massey is most definitely a very world class research university. So that’s a difference, but it’s not so much of a difference that it’s insurmountable, it’s just a different stage the university is on.

Other than that there is actually a remarkable similarity in cultural nuances, a pretty similar from university to university, what drives and motivates staff to perform. The challenges around being a multi-campus university which in New Zealand is a little bit unusual but in Australia it’s very common. I was a Vice Chancellor of a university that had multiple campuses and I don’t know what it would feel like to be a Vice Chancellor of a university that only had one campus. So this for me is kind of normal, but I know in the New Zealand context it’s caused a little bit of wrestling with identity.

Do you think your lack of knowledge in New Zealand culture would be one of your biggest weaknesses taking this role?

Weaknesses and also opportunities. Most definitely, I am not a kiwi, and although I really want to be a kiwi… In five years I can become a citizen, but not yet. So I guess until I have become a citizen I can’t really call myself a kiwi. We all are on a learning journey and anyone who claims they are perfect is just, well clearly they have an issue. Of course I am always trying to improve, but I knew before I came here that I would need to spend a lot of time understanding the mindset, the challenges and opportunities and so on for New Zealand and then also for Massey, so I can make this my home and so that I can be successful as a Vice Chancellor.

Most students have no idea who their Vice Chancellor is, some of them still think it’s Steve Maharey. Are you going to be any different?

When I was an undergraduate I had no clue who my Vice Chancellor was and most of the time students don’t even know who their dean or head of school is. Often times it’s only when they have been really outstanding or when they have been really problematic that those paths cross. I am not naive. Most university students would not know who their Vice Chancellor was unless there was a particular problem. Steve [Maharey] I absolutely want to acknowledge his leadership here because he was a significant Vice Chancellor for Massey and a significant national leader coming out of the political background he had… So it’s not surprising people still think it’s Steve Maharey because he was so well known. And I know that I have some ground to make up in terms of my profile in New Zealand. But I have not been a public figure in New Zealand until I took over the role of Vice Chancellor so I don’t expect it’s going to be equal to – and I am not sure it really matters – a Steve Maharey kind of national profile.

Should students know? Well I hope students have been seeing things like posters around talking about my strategy consultation with students, I hope they have heard me on the student radio. In fact a lot of students will approach me in the supermarket and say ‘you’re the Vice Chancellor aren’t you, I recognised your picture on those posters’. So I am sure the majority of students don’t know who I am, but I certainly hope the influence I have in setting the direction of Massey is able to be recognised by people who will benefit from it. I won’t look for popularity or profile for no reason other than profile. I am not a politician, I am the CEO of a major institution in New Zealand and I don’t undertake that lightly. I expect that I will have a public profile and people will recognise me, in fact they are now even away from campus, people will recognise me. But it’s not how I would measure success. How I would measure success is in the outcomes for the university and how Massey is viewed by its students, its graduates, by employers, by research partners and so on. That matters to me. Whether people recognise me in the streets is neither here nor there… The fact is that’s not the main game here. The main game for me is to work for as long as I am here to improve Massey.

Tell me something about yourself that the students would be surprised to hear?

Students who listen to student radio will know this because I have shared it with poeple on student radio… and that is that I have taken up over the last few years riding horses. In particular I am interested in a particular kind of western riding called ragging. That’s sort of a cowboy version with a bit of excitement and adrenaline rush. That’s something you might not expect, to have me as a cowboy.

You’re sitting at home, you’ve had a long day of answering pesky reporters. What’s that special meal or beverage that is total comfort food?

I have been changing my palette from the Australian palette to the New Zealand palette, so I have not touched red wine from Australia since I arrived here. I’ve only been drinking New Zealand [wine] as part of a scientific experiment. I moderate as best I can all the pinot noirs from Central Otago… I will move onto another region when I have done that just so that I can actually get a handle on the wine culture in New Zealand, it’s important. So for that I would be having lasagne and a pinot and then after I might have a scotch.

Following on from that, what are you watching on the telly, what does the VC watch to unwind?

Netflix is a staple for me in my world and there is nothing better than curling up under the doona (duvet) with my iPad or something and watching a little bit of Netflix, that’s delightful. I do like Game of Thrones but because you can’t get it on Netflix that’s a little bit of a challenge for me at the moment, but I love things like House of Cards, Designated Survivor, those kind of things – White House dramas I really enjoy those. I frankly will watch pretty much anything, but if I have got a choice it will be those sorts of ones I really love. I am a very sad binger.

What is something about New Zealand culture that has surprised you the most?

I’ve yet to get my head around it, what are these giant bags of pre-cooked sausages that you see at the supermarket, what are those? They’re already cooked and you just stick them on to brown them? I know what a sausage sizzle is but what I have not seen is the pre-cooked sausages. I think I am most struck by, and it’s easy to forget, because it was really quite compelling when I first moved here, is just how Pacific this nation is. Yet Australia a good part of its east coast is Pacific Ocean and yet you don’t get that sense of Pacific-ness… you see that in a lot of ways, culture and practice in language, national anthem, everything talks about Pacific and proudly developed Pacific nation and having a responsibility in the Pacific. Australia has very much looked to the north and feels very Asian, so that actually was interesting for me and it’s not just in the north where you have got more pacific communities, but actually through much of the islands people talk about being in the Pacific. So that was interesting for me in terms of global regional identification and what that meant in terms of practices. But then I think also it’s interesting how Maori culture has influenced New Zealand culture even if people in New Zealand haven’t necessarily recognised it, it is easy to see. The whole value of whanau, how significant that is and yet how that has been balanced out quite effectively across the social elements of New Zealand – things like same-sex marriage and those sorts of things, which are actually entirely wonderfully normalised and normal here. And yet at the same time some of those more traditional values around family and whanau… are also held and held in beautiful balance, and that’s a really wonderful aspect of the New Zealand culture. I don’t hear that talked about much as something that we really should be really proud of as a country. But I think it’s really true. In a lot of the ways the elements I spoke about being attracted to New Zealand in the beginning were really very much around that kind of making the right decisions not necessarily the easy decisions and finding balance points across a range of really tough nuts to crack like environment and economy, traditional family values and progressive social values, those sorts of things, those dynamics are balanced really well and bi-culturalism balanced nicely. Now I know there is challenges and it’s not as straight forward as that sounds but the fact that the country is wrestling with those and finding the right points along the spectrum, speaks to a country that is really quite sophisticated and I love that.

Now, I have been forcefully encouraged to ask this last question. Bear in mind in may be the hardest question you’ve ever had to answer, what is your favourite animal and why?

That is so hard, I have a lot of animals that I love, I can;t live without them but I can never be without a dog, never. So dogs are very important to me, but I really like pigs and I have always admired horses from afar and now that I have started riding very actively and I have plans to get a New Zealand horse I will get to the point where I am saying the same about horses… but for lots of different reasons I like a lot of different animals. I think if you were going to say you can only have one animal for the rest of your life – it would have to be a dog. Hard to go past dogs. I have had many different sorts of animals but dogs are crackers.


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