Steve Maharey

The Man Behind the “Power House”

It has been four decades since Steve Maharey crossed the bridge across the Manawatu River from Palmerston North to enrol at Massey. Back then Steve was enjoying life, but thought becoming a student might lead to even more interesting opportunities. Today the sociology senior lecturer turned cabinet minister is in his second term as the University’s Vice-Chancellor. When Steve talks about the transformative power of education, and education as “a long-term passport not a short-term visa”, it is his personal experience he is drawing on.

As Vice-Chancellor, Steve presides over a substantial enterprise. Massey University, which this year celebrates its 50th year as an autonomous degree-granting institution, has three campuses, 3,000 staff, 35,000 students – with around 17,000 of them studying through New Zealand’s longest-established distance learning programme – and a multitude of research alliances, here and overseas.

Steve MahareyThe result, for Steve, is a life that is a whirlwind of meetings, openings, speeches and interviews, and a frequent flier’s schedule of international obligations. He makes himself determinedly available, but even so he sees himself as a transitional figure. “I try to travel to the three campuses, but eventually it will defeat someone. If the game plan comes off, Massey will become a global player.”

It will also, if Steve has his way, play a significant role in creating a better, more prosperous “new New Zealand”. Hence initiatives such as FoodHQ, which, with the support of the Palmerston North City and Manawatu District Councils, is creating a super campus comprising AgResearch, AsureQuality, Fonterra, Massey University, Plant & Food Research, the Riddet Institute and the Bio Commerce Centre.

If New Zealand is to hit the Government’s target of having food exports reach $60 billion by 2025 – trebling 2009’s result – Massey’s input as a “science power house” will be key.

FoodHQ will principally draw on the expertise held in Massey’s College of Sciences and College of Health, but Steve is also sure that the University’s Colleges of Business, Creative Arts, and Humanities and Social Sciences will have a role to play in making Massey “the engine of the new New Zealand”.

“You need an environment in which people want to constantly stretch themselves.”

As a former sociologist, Steve has a particular fondness for the humanities and social sciences. These disciplines are areas he thinks have been unfairly neglected in recent times.

“I think the humanities and social sciences have a lot to offer, informing social policy, creating effective, competent citizens in a democratic society, promoting critical thought, and helping people to live full and satisfying lives.” In late 2013 the University launched the WH Oliver Humanities Research Academy to boost research in the humanities.

Managing such a large and varied organisation is not a simple task. A commercial enterprise would allow for more direct management. In a university, things are not so simple. “Good universities pride themselves on their independent academic staff,” says Steve. “Management needs to be light-handed and
strategically focused.

Massey University“You need an environment in which people want to constantly stretch themselves,” says Steve. Once you have that, it is simply a matter of “running along behind them and
being supportive”.

Away from Massey, Steve tries to keep active. “Our dog manages to get us out of the house for a walk every day. That provides some fitness for mountain biking and tramping”.

Every year he and his wife Bette try to tick off another adventure. “I used to do one long mountain bike race or something like that, but in the past few years we’ve done the Milford, Tongariro, Queen Charlotte and other shorter tracks.”

Mountain biking was something he took up “during my midlife crisis”; tramping was at Bette’s insistence. “I have to say it is one thing I never thought I would do,
sleeping in huts. I think, you know, if there are perfectly good hotels, why are we staying in a hut? But I actually enjoy it now; I enjoy the whole camaraderie of meeting other people, cooking your food and sitting there in the dark at night time. I think it’s fantastic. I can’t believe I’ve left it so long.”

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