The University of Waikato 50th Anniversary

In the beginning

It isn't easy to start a university and the good people of the Waikato struggled long and hard to ensure Hamilton got one.

The quest began in the mid-1950s, and supporters struck opposition at almost every turn. Earlier proposals for an agricultural college and then a medical school in Hamilton had been declined in favour of Palmerston North and Auckland, but Dr Anthony 'Rufus' Rogers would not be deterred and with his friend and local lawyer Douglas Seymour they mounted a campaign for a university. They called a public meeting in Seymour's home and 42 people came along in support. That led to the formation of a new group called the University for South Auckland Society.

University gates

A big entrance: Gate 2, off Knighton Road, then the main entrance to the University of Waikato with the Teachers' College in the background.

The Society sent out letters in all directions outlining their ambitions. There was only one New Zealand university at the time – with colleges in the four main centres - and the group was initially encouraged when the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand George Currie recommended the Society prepare a detailed case.

The South Auckland region was growing fast and the Society presented its glossy eight-page proposal to the NZ University Senate in 1957, covering population figures and trends, secondary school numbers and the availability of land.

Then the project stalled. The Senate decided Auckland University College needed to review the proposal. A year went by and Auckland failed to respond. Unsurprisingly, members of the Society became angry and frustrated. But a baby boom was looming and in the end, the need for more school teachers helped the Society's cause. If Hamilton got a teachers' college, then its students would need access to university study.

In May 1958, a teacher training college got the go ahead and the Society became excited when the Director of Education C E Beeby and George Currie visited Hamilton to check out land for a university, suggesting that the university and teachers' college be close together.

But then came the bombshell. University courses would be provided by Auckland – lecturers would travel to Hamilton weekly to give lectures in English and History. A year later, it was announced that the teachers' college and university would be housed in new buildings in Melville – now Melville High School. Both opened in 1960, with staff having to pitch in to sweep shavings off the floor and unpack library books on the day of opening.

English lecturer Paul Day was in charge of the branch university and taught English. Students finished their teachers' college lectures at 3pm and went 'upstairs' to university.

University gates

The first Vice-Chancellor: Dr Don Llewellyn with Māori Taonga gifted by Governor-General Sir Bernard Fergusson.

Thrown together by circumstance, the university and training college combined forces to plan for a joint campus on farmland in Hillcrest – Ruakura's No. 5 Dairy. "The idea of co-location came a as a bit of a shock to the education community," says Hamilton Teachers' College first principal John Allen. "It was the first time anything like this had been tried so we were quite unique." The Auckland Branch operated for four years with students studying towards an Auckland BA, and offerings increasing to include Geography, Education and French, during which time the push continued for Waikato to be a university in its own right.

About the same time, a new report recommended the federal University of New Zealand be wound up and the four colleges become independent universities with their own Acts of Parliament. The University Grants Committee was established to be a buffer between government and the universities.

Building of the new combined Waikato campus began in 1963 and finally, with an Act of Parliament, the University of Waikato officially came into being on 1 January 1964. No university had started from scratch in New Zealand since Victoria in 1899.

Donald Llewellyn (later Sir Don) was soon appointed vice-chancellor and recruitment of staff began. His first appointment was registrar Norman Kingsbury. They made a good team and were not afraid to break with convention. Together with the newly formed Academic Committee they outlined a bold degree structure, ignoring the long tradition of part-time study. Many of the Auckland staff opted to join the new university.

Writing for the 25th anniversary celebrations, Dr Anthony Rogers said, "it is not generally known how much the university owes to his [Don Llewellyn's] vision, energy and skill in overcoming unexpected perils and threats to the development of the university." There were times when funding was restricted to less than realistic levels "but Don's acumen and common sense averted near disaster".

Legend has it that after one financial coup, the then Minister of Finance, Robert Muldoon, accused Sir Don of making a fool of him and stormed out the door - straight into the VC's kitchen, from which the minister then had to emerge and make an even angrier exit.

University gates

A posh do: The University of Waikato's first graduation ceremony was in 1967. The students at the front are Peter Allen and Janice Aplin.

From the beginning Llewellyn and Kingsbury sought to identify with and serve the needs of the region, including Māori, and from the start there was a focus on being 'for the people' which is now the university motto – Ko Te Tangata. The founders didn't want the university to be a bleak and forbidding place, but rather, they saw it as a resource that should be widely used, and this view was generally shared by staff.

The first buildings on campus, apart from the existing cowshed, were the Teachers College and A block that housed staff offices, lecture theatres and the library. The University opened with 89 students and two schools of study – Humanities and Social Sciences, but the Vice-Chancellor declared that in order to be a 'proper' university and to attract more students Waikato needed to offer science, and by 1970 Waikato offered education and science, with management studies introduced two years later. The Centre for Māori Studies and Research opened in 1973 and Computing and Mathematical Sciences was formed in 1987. During that first decade, there was a comprehensive building programme accomplished under heavy financial constraints.

The plan was for the campus to be fully integrated, not to construct buildings higgledy-piggledy as the need arose. That plan included the development of the grounds and very early on, the foundations were laid for the impressive 65 hectare campus that exists today.

Norman Kingsbury says an important part of the design was to draw on the natural elements of the campus; the slopes, the water and the great Waikato growing climate.

Four Vice-Chancellors

Building underway: B Block was completed in 1966. Now the university's administration building, it originally held teaching rooms and staff offices. It was modelled on the Māori Land Court building in Rotorua.

Grounds supervisor Ron Lycette arrived from London in 1965, where he'd worked at Kew Gardens. He was shocked by what he saw. "It was cold and wet and just bleak paddocks with a few rather ordinary buildings stuck on top. I thought, hell, what have I done to myself, this whole place was nothing. It was just a paddock, we had to drive the cattle out." But he stayed 14 years in the job.

Lycette says they started with an overall plan to impart education into the gardens they developed. "The main thing was to integrate the gardens into the campus and make it unique, distinctive and Waikato, and something people can be proud of. It should be something that gives everyone a feeling of some sort and it's turned out that way."

Over the years, buildings have been refurbished and revamped, so today, the library which opened in 1977, has been reconfigured and refitted to include the library, student administration, study rooms and a café and is now known as the Student Centre. The Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, largely funded by community donations, opened in 2001 and is a teaching and performance space and widely used by the wider community. Construction of the new Law and Management building begins this year.

The University sits on Tainui land. It was returned to Tainui in the Treaty of Waitangi Settlement in 1995. Waikato is unique among New Zealand universities in its partnership with Tainui, but it also fosters close relationships with other iwi groups from around New Zealand, through Te Rōpū Manukura, the kaitiaki (guardian of the Treaty of Waitangi) for the university.

The first Waikato graduation ceremony was in 1967 with 19 graduates. A few days before the ceremony, the university announced that the Governor-General Sir Bernard Fergusson would be conferred the university's first honorary doctorate and guest speaker at the ceremony would be the Minister of Education. Founders Theatre was packed and on the day, the Governor-General gave over on permanent loan his unique collection of Māori artefacts, seeing Waikato as a fitting place for such taonga.

In 2013, more than 3,500 students graduated at ceremonies in April and October at Claudelands Events Centre, on the University marae - Te Kohinga Mārama, in Tauranga, and in absentia.

University gates

The four Vice-Chancellors: The first Vice-Chancellor was Sir Don Llewellyn, followed by Wilfred Malcolm, Bryan Gould and Roy Crawford (front).

During its first half century the university has had just four Vice-Chancellors and that has provided continuity of leadership. The founding Vice-Chancellor was Sir Don Llewellyn, followed after 20 years by Professor Wilfred Malcolm, then Bryan Gould and in 2005 Professor Roy Crawford was appointed.

Professor Crawford says the university has certainly come of age. "The University of Waikato has been very successful in its first 50 years. We started with nothing but empty fields and today we are ranked as one of the top 50 universities in the world out of about 5000 under 50 years old. And the future looks equally promising," he says.

"We live in exciting and challenging times but history shows us that universities adapt very well to change. In recent years we have been planning for our next half century. No matter what the economic or political climate may bring, we owe it to our students and the communities we serve to offer excellence in teaching and research and to be distinctive in the tertiary education sphere. We are certain that we can deliver on this commitment."

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