Wellington Scoop

Changing the name of VUW – the opposition continues

by Hugh Rennie QC
It seems almost trivial to write on this matter in a week with so much greater issues to confront, but one, possibly two, events next week need your attention.

On Monday at 9.30 am the University Council meets. It has been widely signalled that the university intends to take legal action to try to set aside the decision of the Minister. And on Wednesday, the Wellington City Council’s meeting may include a discussion on the issue.

You will want to know this and take some step of your own. I refer to that later.

The possible litigation:

This is best understood against a timeline summary which shows how the University Council reached the current situation.

Mr McComish’s petition raised the legal uncertainty. This was independently confirmed by advice to the select committee from the Parliamentary Clerk’s office, and the expert evidence of Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Kenneth Keith. His petition proposed certainty without litigation. The university opposed this. Its lawyers said any action should be litigation. VUW now has its wish!

If the High Court finds the Minister was in error, it will almost certainly send the decision back to the Minister for further consideration. The Minister told VW’s University Council it had not yet adequately consulted and obtained support – it was “not yet” advice rather than a final “no”. The Court is not likely to find that decision is outside the Minister’s discretion and should be set aside.


The VUW claim that there is “confusion” of it with other universities starts around 2000.

Around 2000:
A technical institute in Melbourne achieved university status for some of its departments as Victoria University of Technology in 1990 – 1992. Around 2000 VUW drops all use of “Wellington” – it issues a mandatory name and design instruction that its signage and communications are in future to be solely “Victoria University”.

The Melbourne university officially changed its name to Victoria University. VUW takes no action.

The Melbourne University rebrands as “Victoria University Melbourne Australia”, including its logo.

University Councils throughout New Zealand are reorganised. At Victoria, alumni representation is extinguished. Its Court of Convocation exists on paper but the required empowering university “statute” does not exist. Alumni Council members are abolished. The Court cannot perform its statutory role of representing alumni on university issues. The Alumni Association is mothballed, freezing a substantial sum it had raised for student grants and welfare. A centralised “top down” university management takes control, at a growing cost as administrative positions multiply. Academic staff numbers fall below 50% of total staff.

VUW’s Council adopts a strategy to position itself as the national university of New Zealand. It expects this to bring increases in international students with profitable revenue. However the Minister of Tertiary Education refuses to allow this “brand grab” with its impact on other universities. VUW central management promotes a VUW “capital city” role, but universities targeted as partners such as ANU Canberra are not interested. VUW obtains research which it misunderstands as showing a minor preference for a name change. In fact the research shows that the important words are “New Zealand”. VUW does not research current or past students, local or international. It does not use internal academic expertise or take these plans to its Academic Board.

VUW commits to a name change project for “University of Wellington” as part of its revised “capital thinking globally minded” brand concept. A “name simplification” proposal is mentioned in an alumni newsletter but attracts little attention initially. The Minister of Education, alerted to VUW’s plan, issues criteria which any name change request will need to address.

A process called “consultation” is begun. Internal and external questioning is confronted and rebuffed – there is no true consultation or debate. A major upsurge of opposition surfaces – from throughout the world, with thousands of individual responses in emails, letters, petitions, submissions, and public opposition.

VUW Council defers a final decision and calls for submissions. From every sector of its members, opposition greatly exceeds support. Attempts to advertise and promote the proposal fail. An “in principle” Council resolution triggers further opposition. A request to the Minister for change is lodged by the University Council.

The McComish petition with over 2000 signatures is presented to Parliament asking it to clarify the law and provide certainty of process. While that committee is at final deliberations, the Minister rejects the VUW request, He sends it back to the Council for proper process. This action is endorsed in Parliament with cross party support.

The University Council says it holds “independent peer reviewed” legal advice that it can have the Minister’s decision set aside by a Court. VUW claims that the Minister’s decision threatens university autonomy generally. It claims it has a duty to “uphold the rule of law”. It tries to get the other seven New Zealand universities to join it in Court proceedings, but fails to gain the commitment of any.

The position today:

It seems VUW’s Council, having examined the criteria the Minister applied, has concluded it cannot meet them by the further work he suggested.

On Monday, VUW will either face the reality of its errors, step back, and work to re engage with its members – staff, graduates, students – and also the Wellington community – or it will start down a lonely road of litigation where after a year or two of hearings, possible appeals, and rivers of money spent, it will either fail, or be sent back to start again!

Support for VUW erodes:

None of the many different groups opposed to VUW’s “brand plan” have discouraged support for VUW. However more and more rejected and disheartened alumni have made their own decisions. I have been updated, confidentially, by donors (large and small) who have ceased or suspended donating, by alumni who have changed their wills, by donors who have deferred plans for gifts or legacies. The sums involved are well into seven figures.

This must change. We are here to save our university. After the events of the last ten months, VUW has an urgent need to re-engage with its alumni, to recognised that it should step away from a failed strategy, and to draw on the great goodwill (indeed love) which we have for our university.

The Council decision next week:

There remains a hope that the Council will not adopt the position stated in media this month by its Vice Chancellor; will take note of the views of other universities, the Minister, and our MPs and Councillors, and will decide to re-engage with the members of the university and build a stronger, better VUW. Or VUWNZ. Or VUNZ.
One day – hopefully on Monday – the Council may at last recognise that the opposition it has faced is because we care about the future of the university. That future is, we known, built on the past.

Two members of the Council opposed the name change last time and I assume will do so again. I salute Ms Traci Houpapa and Dr Farib Sos. They merit support and you can communicate with them through the Secretary to the Council Caroline Ward – her email is caroline.ward@vuw.ac.nz.

The City Council:

One of the most unfortunate aspects is the incorrect claims made at times by VUW. It has claimed that its change is supported by the Wellington City Council, when a majority of councillors have signed and tabled a resolution to opposite effect. That will require discussion if litigation proceeds. City councillors merit support and all can be communicated to through the Council’s public access emails.

There are many more examples of incorrect claims – some are:

It has claimed that universities do change their names – citing the University of Manchester. This was in fact a case where two universities merged and each gave up their old name – after a widely consulted process which supported a decision that the new university would adopt the new one.

It has claimed that its research shows confusion over the name amongst international students that is causing significant numbers of them not to enrol at VUW, when its own overseas agents have told it the opposite.

It has claimed that “Google clicks” show an insufficient rate of engagement by persons searching the Internet. VUW must be unaware that in its target market of China, Google cannot be accessed!

Core principles:

In 2016 at Yale University some of their finest academics considered why any part of a university might change its name. Their statement formulates core principles of general relevance:

• The central mission of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge.
• History is one of the forms of knowledge at the core of the enterprise. To erase a university’s history is antithetical to the spirit of the institution.
• A university’s ongoing obligation is to navigate change without effacing the past.
• At a university as old as [Yale), those who occupy the campus today are stewards of an intergenerational project.

Each of these principles is a signpost to a reason why VUW should build on its history, not discard it.

VUW’s alumni have expertise in these issues. Dr Andre Brett of the University of Wollongong and Emeritus Professor Roger Boshier of the University of British Columbia in Canada have years of experience and research from which to advise their alma mater. Dr Brett’s full submission is published at www.tiny.cc/y3cqOy. Emeritus Professor Boshier wrote to the Minister last September:

“VUW will soon contact you suggesting there is a consensus concerning their proposed name change. I am a VUW Ph.D. graduate in Psychology and, since 1974, have been a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. University branding is one of my professional interests and I have presented papers on this matter at leading universities in Canada, the U.S., China and elsewhere. I have also done numerous studies on what Chinese (and Japanese) university students think about studying abroad, university teaching and need for reform. I have several hundred articles in reputable journals.

“I am appalled by the feeble (and misguided) marketing discourse buttressing the VUW name-change argument and shocked to learn the Vice Chancellor depended on weak authorities such as the University of Manchester. There are capable researchers at VUW. Yet the “name simplification” process was superficial, based on very weak theory and a disregard for sound research methodology.

“It is extraordinary that a reputable university would commission research from a public relations/advertising agency (Colmar Brunton) for an issue as important as this. There is no way VUW can say there is a consensus favouring the change. Hence, when you get the request from VW officials, please reject their request and urge them to do better research.”

He did not persuade VUW. He may have persuaded the Minister, since the Minister’s later advice to VUW was similar. What Court would differ from it?

RNZ – March 25: VUW Council debates name change
DomPost – March 25: VUW defers name change decision


  1. Concerned Wellingtonian, 24. March 2019, 11:33

    All this effort by leading lawyers like Mr Rennie shows how the VUW Council is ill-advised and misguided. Will they kindly hoist this on board please.

  2. Geoff McLay, 24. March 2019, 13:04

    Saving Victoria: VUW Council meets tomorrow to consider what next in relation to the name change. See you at Rutherford House, Level 12, 9 am. I’m looking toward to more engagement with community, less name change.

  3. Pauline, 24. March 2019, 13:39

    Agree with Concerned Wellingtonian, Geoff McLay and of course Hugh Rennie. Sorry will not be able to attend the meeting tomorrow.

  4. David Harcourt, 24. March 2019, 16:29

    According to Mr Rennie, alone among the members of the Council Ms Traci Houpapa & Dr Farib Sos have opposed the Council’s attempts to change the name of the University.
    I hope that Ms Houpapa & Dr Sos will maintain their position at tomorrow’s meeting, and that other Council members will at last join them in rejecting this misguided project.

    David Harcourt
    (VUW student 1964-1970, editor of Salient in 1970)

  5. Quadruple VUWGraduate, 24. March 2019, 18:46

    I believe the mayor supports the name change.
    The University Council and Mr Veterinarian from Hamilton Grant Guilford are making me very angry. I can’t believe their arrogance and stupidity and .. well shouldn’t they be focusing on providing quality education and stop wasting rime and money. They have lost their way. They had better find it and quick!
    When are the next VUW Council elections?

  6. Andrew, 24. March 2019, 19:05

    I wonder which year VUW started to moderate up results of international students to retain their fees. I experienced this back in 2011 and was astounded at the practice. I wish to think it was a once-off occurrence.

  7. Nicola Willis, 24. March 2019, 19:23

    I’m urging the VUW Council to show humility. The name-change bid failed: release the lawyers, quit the spurious claims of high-brow principle and focus time and money on students, teaching and research. The Council must not waste taxpayer and student resources on a legal challenge that will achieve nothing for its community. Instead it should reach out to its community, build on our passion for Vic, and focus time and energy on the real challenges facing our University. [via twitter]

  8. Megan Lloyd-Evans, 25. March 2019, 9:18

    I was at Vic from 1990. My daughter wants to go there to do sciences from 2021. I’m encouraging her to compare and look beyond the glossy brochures – something I wouldn’t previously have felt the need to encourage as strenuously as I am.

  9. michael, 25. March 2019, 9:43

    Oh . . . . if only the real major crisis in New Zealand was Victoria University changing its name.

  10. Tony Jansen, 25. March 2019, 9:53

    I was at Vic from 1979 to the mid eighties. I completed an MA and have great memories and affection for the institution and many of my teachers. The conduct of the VC and most of the VUW Council is simply deplorable. If the Mayor supports this nonsense then that unfortunately is yet another black mark on a underwhelming triennium for his administration. What on earth has happened to our democratic processes when we end up getting saddled with such poor leaders? This idiocy has to stop.

  11. Michael Gibson, 25. March 2019, 10:38

    I simply record that I was pleased to be sitting next to Nicola Willis at this morning’s meeting.

  12. David Harcourt, 25. March 2019, 13:49

    Michael’s position can best be defined as quietism: the calm acceptance of things as they are without attempts to resist or change them. But, even if comparatively minor, the naming fiasco is something which may yet be preventable.

  13. michael, 25. March 2019, 16:17

    David, my position is not one of quiet acceptance as I personally am not concerned whether the university changes it name or not, as is my right. I therefore have difficulty investing a high level of importance to a name change, particularly considering the horror of what has happened in our country in the past week.

  14. David Harcourt, 26. March 2019, 10:26

    Michael, no-one is requiring you to attach any importance – whether “high” or low – to the proposed name change. You don’t think it’s important; I and many others think it is. The most significant difference between this debate and the events in Christchurch, of course, is that (a) there’s nothing whatsoever that I or you or anyone else can do to alter what happened in Christchurch, but (b) the name change proposal can (and, I hope, will) be abandoned.

  15. michael, 26. March 2019, 10:51

    David, from my position of “quiet acceptance” I will accept whichever side wins the “name change” debate

  16. Richard, 27. March 2019, 1:34

    I was fairly appalled when I got the email about the name change as well, and with about as much consultation as you’d expect from corporatist stooges, rather than dedicated academics who, for their sins, perhaps, became administrators… But it also painted such a change as a forgone conclusion. I would have hoped that the university that introduced me to critical management theory could have done better. Maybe it will yet.