A chat with the Chancellor
More than forty years after first learning about Massey from half a world away, Russ Ballard, the university’s new chancellor wants to spread the word about its virtues to a new generation. He talks to Paul Mulrooney.
The contenders were four: Cirencester in Britain, the Royal College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and either Lincoln or Massey in New Zealand.
Even in far-off Kenya, Massey commanded a reputation, Ballard remembers. But his father’s opinions may also have been an influence. A British immigrant, he thought that New Zealanders, unlike his countrymen, still knew how to roll up their sleeves and work hard.
Ballard, a now wiry 65-year-old, raps the rims of his glasses on the table as he remembers.
We are sitting in an attractively terraced house in the Wellington suburb of Wadestown. This is Ballard’s little kingdom, a place where sleeves have certainly been rolled up. Inside, the shelves and walls are rich with mementoes: maps, African tribal art, family photographs (the Ballards have three children, now in their twenties and thirties). Outside there are rose beds and intricately cut miniature hedges. Ballard’s wife, a keen topiarist, is, he tells me, the author of most of these, but the hedge trimmed to the shape of a small Scottie dog, a homage to a departed beloved family pet, is his own work.
Ballard arrived at Massey Agricultural College in 1963 and began working towards first a Bachelor of Agricultural Science, with which he graduated in 1967, and a Master of Agricultural Science, with which he graduated two years later.
They were formative times both for him and for Massey, which was to metamorphose from a conservative agricultural college to a well-rounded university with multiple constituencies. Not long after Ballard’s arrival the College became a university in its own right and began an extraordinary expansion: from 1964 on the Turitea site became a perpetual building site. In 1968 the University acquired an arts faculty based in nearby Hokowhitu.
Ballard remembers his time fondly; he balanced his studies with activities including golf and field athletics, the latter earning him a blue for discus throwing.
He was representing the University at the Easter Tournament being held in Wellington in 1968 when other events were dominating the headlines.
“The Wahine had just sunk [in Wellington Harbour] and I remember we went down and had a look at it…this big ship just lying in the water on its side.”
Back in Palmerston North the arrival of the arts faculty had changed the character of campus life, balancing out the influence of the “rough and ready ag boys”.
“There was a bit more culture and refinement around the place,” and, he adds, “more girls”.
One of them was Phillipa, now his wife, whom he married six months after they both graduated from Massey.
After Massey Ballard spent nine years working for the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua. During this period he went to the University of Florida, where he completed his PhD in forest soils science in 1974. At the beginning of 1978 he moved to the US to join the faculty at the School of Forest Resources at North Carolina State University. It was while in the US, by this stage working in management for Weyerhaeuser, the world’s second-largest integrated forestry company, that he was invited to apply for the position of director of research back at the New Zealand Forest Service’s Forest Research Institute.
Remember the New Zealand Forest Service? It is one of many public agencies that are no more. Ballard’s invitation had come in 1986; the fourth Labour Government was in its revolutionary first term and the public service was being remade.
“After I had accepted the appointment I was advised that the Forest Service was being broken up and asked whether I still wanted to come back? I said yes. I wanted to come back to New Zealand.”
In fact, Ballard had already helped to manage a restructuring at Weyerhaeuser in the early 1980s, and in the tumult of state sector restructuring – with forestry being particularly affected – he gained a reputation for being a safe pair of hands. He made hard calls – there were numerous redundancies – but he kept the sector’s confidence, and when a new state agency was created, the Ministry of Forestry, Ballard was appointed Secretary of Forestry.
But Ballard’s performance had also been noticed elsewhere by Labour’s new education minister, who also just happened to be Prime Minister.
“David Lange was looking for someone to lead education reforms who was unlikely to be ground down and captured by the system,” Ballard says of his 1988 appointment as Director General of Education.
“He [Lange] wanted someone who had the courage to drive the education reforms through, who was essentially independent, who had a background in change management and was able to resist the unions and other pressure groups.”
Courage would be needed. Under the policy drive called Tomorrow’s Schools, the community was to become increasingly responsible for overseeing schools and there were major changes to be made in early childhood and tertiary education.
“They were extraordinary pressure cooker years. I lost two stone in weight but I loved it,” says Ballard, who had the good fortune of both being ideologically in sympathy with the changes taking place and of having the clout in Cabinet to get things done.
“Every time we put a Cabinet paper up, we got what we asked for.”
Having acquitted himself with honour, Ballard was then appointed Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, with the mandate of driving the agricultural part of the GATT trade negotiations and bringing order to New Zealand’s commercial fisheries. The GATT negotiations were very successful for New Zealand. As Ballard sees it, his task on the fisheries side was to introduce a sensible degree of regulation around a quota system to an industry instinctively averse to attempts to govern its behaviour. “[Commercial] fishing was the last frontier. The reason people chose to be in the industry was that there was no one to tell them what to do and how to do it.” Again Ballard found his satisfactions within the job, but also his frustrations: the expansion of the quota system in particular, which was under way when he arrived, became the subject of extensive court action.
It must have been some small relief when he took up his next appointment in 1996 to the less contentious agency Land Information New Zealand, where a highlight, he says, was instigating the introduction of a “world first” online system for integrating land survey and title information and transactions, and from which he retired in 2003.
Throughout his career, Ballard never lost touch with his alma mater. In 2002, he was presented with a Massey University 75th anniversary Medal. In 2005, he was appointed to the university council, and last December became the University’s Chancellor – just two months after Steve Maharey was officially installed as Vice-Chancellor.
As Minister of Social Services in the last Labour Government, Maharey was Ballard’s senior minister when the ever-versatile departmental head was acting chief executive in 2004 of Child Youth and Family.
Both Massey alumni, they seem ideally matched: one a former cabinet minister, the other a former government chief executive, both extraordinarily experienced, both espousing the same vision for the University.
Ballard wants Massey to provide the best student experience in New Zealand and to produce the most highly regarded graduates.
Like Maharey, he wants to make Massey New Zealand’s defining university by 2020.
“Or before,” he says with a smile.
Bookshelf - In Print April 2009
Acts and deeds
Apocalypse tomorrow: sustainability and industrial design
The other biofuel
As long as you've got your health
A passion for dolphins
Created: 25/04/2009 | Last updated: 14/05/2013
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