Massey medal for scholar of multiple talents 

Professor Emeritus Graeme Fraser 

Sociologist and Professor Emeritus Graeme Fraser landed at Massey in 1967, a few years after the provincial agricultural college became a university. This week he receives the University’s highest honour – the Massey Medal – to recognise his 50-year contribution, from social sciences pioneer to champion of distance education. 

He will be conferred the honour at graduation this Friday in the ceremony for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences – the second of three ceremonies at which at total of 138 students will cross the stage to be capped, including 13 doctoral and 22 master’s students.

Officially (but not really) retired since 2003, the Professor – who at 81 is full of vitality – spearheaded many significant changes and developments at Massey across decades. He has been instrumental from the time of Massey’s infancy as a tertiary institution to its flowering across disciplines, additional campuses in Auckland and Wellington, and distance education, as well as its global connections.

 The affable academic with a remarkable record in public service governance, academic administration and leadership within and outside Massey – including in health research, national education, rugby, defence and energy sectors – looks back at what he describes as “a very rewarding career at Massey.”

At the heart of his academic enterprise is people, “human capital,” he professes, repeating in te reo the haunting final refrain from a Māori proverb: (He aha te mea nui o te ao | What is the most important thing in the world?) He tangata, he tangata, he tangata | It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

As a sociologist, that may seem a given – but social sciences, and specifically sociology – were new to academia in New Zealand in 1970 when he was appointed as the University’s first Professor and Founding Chair of Sociology. He first joined Massey in 1967 as a senior lecturer following the completion of his PhD at the University of Missouri (analysing organisational structures of schools and teacher relationships within them), returning briefly to the United States as a senior staff sociologist at the University of Michigan on the National Curriculum Project, before taking up the chair here three years later.

At the time, “all we ever got was psychology – the study of individual,” he says. “My concern was groups, social bonds, the society of which we were a part.” 

Creating a department to be “a focus and a fulcrum for the sociology of a small society like Aotearoa/New Zealand” was his challenge and aspiration, and he was keen to develop a curriculum to reflect this.

“We discovered not a heck of a lot of research on New Zealand, so we wrote our own books and articles and gradually built up momentum so that students had material that really did reflect the data, the issues, the values from being part of New Zealand society.”

Among his students were former Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey, College of Humanities and Social Sciences Pro Vice-Chancellor Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, and Professor of Social Work Robyn Munford. He also collaborated on the development of Massey’s leading social work programme with the late Dr Merv Hancock, who passed away last year, aged 90.

Advocating for research and curriculum emphasis on issues that concerned him was all part of his vision. “I was very disturbed by inequality, and I was interested in Māori issues. I took on board early that it was important to understand Māori perspectives and issues. It seemed to me that sociology had a responsibility to contribute to a better understanding of the society of which we are part.”

Opening doors to higher education

 Growing up the youngest of three boys and with a younger sister in a working-class family in Oamaru, the cricket and rugby-playing teenager dreamed of being an air force pilot but found himself in compulsory military training in the Scottish Armoured Car regiment at Waiouru – the last of the kilted regiments and an offshoot of the British Army. He entered Dunedin Teachers’ Training College and was the first in his family to enrol in tertiary education, completing a Master’s degree in Education at the University of Otago while working as a primary school teacher.

 His formative years no doubt forged his sense of purpose in becoming a driving force to empower more Kiwis to embrace tertiary education. The fact that Massey’s name is synonymous with distance education now owes much to his determined lobbying as Chair of the Extramural Studies Committee, notably in the face of opposition from other institutions. In the 1970s, he also convinced the Ministry of Education to support full funding parity for Massey’s extramural papers – previously only half the cost was funded.

“There was enormous doubt about extramural [as it used to be called] education back then,” he says. “Distance education became a very important feature of Massey University and gave it presence and strength in New Zealand society. Not many people understand the battle to get it accepted.”

He believes the opportunity to study by distance is a game-changer for many, including those already employed, and/or parents. He was pleased too at the change in tertiary policy in 1964 when the Massey University Act meant people who did not have School Certificate or University Entrance (the equivalent of today’s NCEA Level One and Two) could apply to enter university from age 20 and nine months. “We had highly motivated students from all backgrounds. I had one student in my 200-level sociology class who said she was a ‘house goddess’!”

Being involved in reviews and academic board investigations that led to “making university education more accessible to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to go and study” has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his career, he says.

Sense of purpose in public service

Social change doesn’t happen without discussion, collaboration and meetings – and Professor Fraser has been to more than most. He says he has enjoyed diverse roles that have enabled him to grow networks and progress the advancement of education and research nationally, including as Chair of the Doctoral Research Committee at Massey; Chair of the New Zealand Qualification Authority; Commissioner on the Tertiary Education Commission and Chair of the Health Research Council, to name a few.

He’s proud too, to have been New Zealand’s representative for the past 10 years on Board of Trustees for the Human Frontier Science Programme, which meets in Strasbourg and has helped fostered a number of Nobel Prize winners, who received their first grant from the organisation.

As well as Acting Vice-Chancellor (2002-2003) and Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Academic) from 1985 to 2002, he has held numerous positions in Massey’s sciences and business faculties. Post-retirement he has been Acting Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies – a new academic unit he was pivotal in establishing and in providing academic mentorship for. The list of appointments in private, public and community bodies, and the accolades – including the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 – goes on.

Has he slowed down yet? Professor Fraser, who is married to business academic Virginia Goldblatt (Director of the University Mediation Service), is still engaged in academic consultation roles but no longer practises ballroom dancing (he would if there were any live swing bands around!). He keeps fit by going to the gym at 5am three times a week for an hour. Not bad for a man who survived a triple bypass heart operation 26 years ago, “the function of being a workaholic – but I’ve been fine ever since.”

The medal means a lot to him. “It says; ‘you’ve done a pretty good job for your university and your country’.”

Comparing it to his Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit, he adds; “None of this was a product of me – it was product of a team of people, which you try to lead to help them to get where they want to be.” 

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