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7 Qs with University of Canterbury's Vice-Chancellor Dr. Rod Carr

BrainGain magazine spoke to Dr. Rod Carr, Vice-Chancellor, University of Canterbury. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
BY Skendha Singh |   31-03-2017

Dr Rod Carr, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury

Dr. Rod Carr cuts an extraordinary figure. He has degrees from Wharton and Columbia, runs international marathons, and is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury. And being legally blind has never been an obstacle on his way.

He spoke to BrainGain magazine about his studies, life in New Zealand, and the university. Read more below.

  1. You’ve studied at Otago, Wharton, & Columbia. How did you make your choice of these schools?

    Otago University was my grandfather’s university. Dunedin was a hometown for our family for some generations. It was a very well-regarded university. And I was able to live at home for the first two years.

    I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I got a law degree. But I also got an economics degree. My first job after the university was as an investment analyst with a bank – making decisions about buying shares in companies. I persuaded that bank to pay for me to go to the US to do my MBA in Money and Finance at Columbia University.

    Part of the reason was I believed then, and do now, that education creates frameworks for knowledge, that we don’t have to learn everything from first principles, that you can stand on the learnings from previous generations and avoid making their mistakes.

    So, I went and did an MBA, and then went back to the bank that I was at, and set up their mutual fund trust operation in the early days of private banking in New Zealand. I had a lot of fun doing that but [then] I persuaded them to pay for my PhD.

    In 1993, when I was 35, I went off to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. And did a Masters in Applied and Managerial Sciences as a pathway to the PhD in Risk Management.

    So, my life story says - seize the opportunity for as much education as you can get, when you can get it. And use it to create opportunities.

    H.E. Joanna Kempkers (centre) and partner Dr Tim Markwell (also UC alumnus)
    with University of Canterbury representatives, ENZ representatives and a few guests.
  2. How did your experience of studying abroad help you professionally?

    In the mid-1980s we were developing the theory of modern portfolio management, option pricing & portfolio measurement. The computers weren’t powerful enough to solve all of the mathematics on their own, but, conceptually, we were able to develop what we could do on a small scale by hand, what you can today do on a large scale instantaneously with computers.

    That science of investing is what I learnt from my time during my MBA [at Wharton] but I also learnt how to operate in teams, and take advantage of peer-supported learning. I had a lot of fun launching a branch of the bank in Cayman Islands, and doing philanthropic bond raising for Canrnegie Hall.

    [As an international student] I got to see a lot of projects and people that I would have never met if I had stayed in my home country.

     
  3. How central to a university is student experience?

    We’ve made the students the center of our university. I believe that the university exists for students to create a world-class learning environment, where they can learn the knowledge that academic staff have created, through their own research.

    We also have a large proportion of postgraduate students - over 20%. And we have a 1000 students in our PhD programme. Postgraduate students are the most discriminating buyers of higher education in the world. They face high opportunity costs and therefore they search and think carefully. And they choose University of Canterbury because of a good learning environment.

    University of Canterbury has the largest proportion of academic staff in research and teaching of any of the New Zealand universities. [Also], we’re a research-intensive university so we do value our research highly. Our academic staff spends half of their time doing research, and half of their time teaching. We pride ourselves on [generating] new knowledge and the transfer of the new knowledge. Student success is a critical driver of the success of our institution.

     
  4. Please tell us about the university’s extensive network of field stations, especially the Scott Base facility in Antarctica.

    The University has a number of field stations. We have the Mount John observatory in South island, which was initially funded as an optical observatory by the National Science Foundation, and the University of Pennsylvania, in the 1960s.  

    And we have access to the Scott Base, where we have a masters program in Antarctic Studies.  It’s one of the only universities in the world that can get you a bed on the ice! It’s keenly sought after, and has a very limited number of places.

    The Physics department also had a research facility very deep inside a mountain, [-the Cashmere Caverns or Cracroft Caverns Lab with ring lasers], but that got disrupted by recent seismic activity. And they also had, until recently the array, at Birdlings Flat, that we’re now turning into a site for rocket preparation for test-firing small rockets. [The Birdlings Flat radar facility was decommissioned in 2016].

    We continue to develop our field stations. We also have a field station on the west coast with a geologist going to look at rocks. Our marine field station in Kaikoura was knocked around a bit by the recent earthquake, so we’re developing a new field station plan. And we have one in the high country for the study of long experiments in the biological sciences.

     
  5. Management is a big draw for students across the world. Having international experience as a student, what do you think are the strengths of a good management program?

    The modern management program, like many other fields, is interdisciplinary. We’re coming to better understand that the richness that we create is by crossing disciplines. [That means] more science in management, but also, more recognition that managing science is important.

    The university is strong in management marketing and entrepreneurship. 20 years ago, there weren’t university level programs in entrepreneurship. We now have full credit offerings as well as a Centre for Entrepreneurship, which takes student projects to the next stage of development towards commercialization.

    This last summer, we funded 35 student projects and entrepreneurial endeavours. And one of the larger clubs on campus is Entré which is a competition for around 85000 dollars’ worth of cash and services to support student projects, to take them to commercialization. I think the modern age is about blending the theory of knowledge with its practice. Certainly in our marketing, management, and entrepreneurship activities - that’s what we do.

     
  6. In spite of being legally blind, you’re an athlete and the Vice-Chancellor of a University. Do you think there is a mindset for success?

    It helps to be mindful about a couple of things. The first thing is you need to work hard. This is not easy. Some people find early study easier and then it gets hard later, but it gets hard for everybody at some point. You have to push yourself when it gets hard. Then you’ll learn something.

    The second thing is you need some balance in life – it can’t just be about the library, the lecture theatre, and the laboratory. You actually have to do some other things to develop your interpersonal skills, your empathy for others, the ability to deal with people with different perspectives on the world and different ethnic backgrounds. You have to be open to the idea that your view of the world is just one of the many views of the world. You have to stand in the way of opportunity, if you don’t take a risk, you’re unlikely to get the upside of taking that risk.

    I never thought I would run very far. I didn’t really plan to run marathons, but I’ve now completed 20 marathons including in the Antarctic, Easter Islands, London and New York.

    These are things I would not have thought that I was likely to ever do but when you find something that you are passionate about – keep going.

     
  7. Given the current political climate, is there a message that you would like to share with international students?

    I think there’s a very clear message.

    New Zealand is a small open nation. We are deeply connected to the world. We don’t have the option of breaking away like the British, or building walls like the Americans. Our only choice is to be open to the world. To welcome people. New Zealand is a very diverse country. 14% of our population is our indigenous people. But 11% of our population is Asian by origin. So while the Eurasians are dominant, we have large populations of other groups.

    I think it is very important that New Zealand live and lead by example, rather than tell other countries how they should live. Our example will be an open community. We’re not always perfect – we acknowledge that. Sometimes we need to do better but I do think that in the last year New Zealand has seen the largest surge in its population since 1900, and yet, we have more people employed, and more jobs than we’ve ever had. So, there are opportunities in New Zealand. It is a welcoming place but we will always find that we can be better. Christchurch Is a prosperous city, growing rapidly. It has a low unemployment rate but that doesn’t mean that everybody automatically gets the perfect job that they want.

    It’s a country where it is easy to start a new business and get into business. We don’t have as many very big companies like the Americans do, so we don’t have a long list of jobs that people get to choose from. But we have skill shortages which the Immigration New Zealand people profile and those skill shortages include teachers in maths and science, for example. There are educational opportunities to come to New Zealand, having for a first degree in maths and science in India, spend a year getting qualified as a New Zealand teacher, and then teach maths and science in New Zealand.

    We have a major shortage in other areas as well – ICT skills, construction, - our major city in Auckland has a construction boom that is going to last for at least a decade. [New Zealand has many] opportunities for people who are prepared to bring skills and talents and world hard and make a good life for themselves.
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