First Tagata Pasifika vice-chancellor says priority to strengthen two 'essential partnerships'

By Marena Mane

Born and bred in Glen Innes, Tāmaki Makaurau, Dr Damon Salesa is the son of a factory worker from Samoa, and his mum is a nurse from the Far North.

Dr Salesa, of Ngāti Hāmoa, has recently been named vice-chancellor of AUT Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makaurau. He is the first Tagata Pasifika to hold a vice-chancellor post in the history of any university in Aotearoa.

Salesa finds it humbling that he has been welcomed into the post by AUT and the university sector. He says next year will be the most difficult year in university education ever, because students in Tāmaki have essentially been on lockdown for two years and have not yet completely realised their potential, necessitating more help.

“I think the first thing is to put those students who have often been put last, put them first. They are the ones who need us most,” he says.

The future of New Zealand

Salesa thinks his connection to Tāmaki through the mana whenua of Ngāti Whatua, a Pacific child, and his professional experience abroad will demonstrate his leadership qualities, allowing AUT to better prepare students domestically and globally.

“I'm hoping that that sort of global knowledge can be mixed with the kind of local knowledge and the knowledge of the whenua and the moana.”

The most difficult challenge is to establish a connection with communities and students before they arrive at the university, by connecting with them in the community and building on their strengths, Salesa says.

“Not just see them as dollar signs that we need to get more students or we need to count, but actually as the future of Tāmaki and New Zealand, and the world that the universities have the privilege of working with.”

Salesa plans to strengthen collaborations with other Pacific universities but, first and foremost, he wants to strengthen two essential partnerships: Te Tiriti and the whenua and moana.

“If we get those things right, the connections to other tangata moana will be good and clear, and they'll be built on a solid foundation. So it's definitely an aspiration for me,” he says.