Wife Guy, Luthier, Doctor, Dean: Meet Your New Vice-Chancellor, David Murdoch

Wife Guy, Luthier, Doctor, Dean: Meet Your New Vice-Chancellor, David Murdoch

Professor David Murdoch has many hats on his plate to juggle. 

He’s still working in clinical practice for the Canterbury DHB, and he’s still the Dean of Otago’s Christchurch Campus. He’s a pathologist, a career that has recently become very relevant and interesting to everyone. He also makes guitars and ukuleles in his spare time. On top of all that, he decided — with the support of his wife, he stresses — to chuck his mortarboard in the ring for the Vice-Chancellor position and got the job. He’ll take up the position, which is equivalent to being CEO of the University, in January of next year. 

Bonnie and I interviewed David over Zoom, where his background was the classic “academic on the news talking about Covid” decor. There was a large text book with a spine that reads VACCINES on the shelves behind him, another one saying TUBERCULOSIS, and a brightly coloured chart that looks disease-related. This man knows what he’s about, and that is clearly pathology. He’s a good speaker who was engaging and thoughtful in his responses.

His first job at Otago was as a Head of Department in Pathology, where he was a slightly “left-field” candidate. “I was quite anxious about taking that on, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. “It introduced me very early on to leadership, so when the opportunity for Vice-Chancellor came up it was natural to think about it.”

For David, keeping up his clinical work in microbiology has been a key part of academia. “That’s quite important in terms of keeping up with what’s relevant and keeping your street credibility [in academia],” he said, but admits he’ll “have to drop that going to Vice-Chancellor”.

He admits that he has a lot to learn before taking up the Vice-Chancellor position. “A lot of it, for me, is listening and meeting over the next few months,” he said. “To get my head around all of the different parts of the University and activities. A really high priority is our relationship with mana whenua and our Te Tiriti partnership. I need to understand the activities in greater detail than I’m aware of at the moment.”

David has a particular focus on diversity and making Otago a better partner under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. “We’ve done well but we need to do a lot better,” he said. “I think we just need to really get the right people around the table to shape up what it would look like for us to have a genuine partnership.” 

“On key committees, sometimes only having one Māori voice puts a burden on that person,” he said. “There’s real value in having at least two voices both to share the burden and to give a range of views.” 

He is involved in the review of the Mirror on Society policy, which requires the University to have representative numbers of Pasifika and Māori student in medicine. He told us he couldn’t expand on his views about it other than to say: “I’ve always been a very very strong supporter of the policy.”

He said that he is “open to the idea” of changing representation requirements on the higher-level committees, to include more Māori voices, Pasifika voices, and student voices. “I want to sit down and discuss how [student representation] would work best with the student body and also understand what is the current state of play. To understand how important it is to have the student voice being heard at the right level. There is no question about that as a priority,” he said.

Another priority for his term is getting Otago through Covid as well as “capitalising on the Covid experience,” he said. “We’ve still got a little bit to run to get the Uni through that period in good shape. It will come to an end at some stage and we just have to come out of it in the best way possible,” he said.

He believes there have been some benefits to the pandemic for universities. “The value of universities was really shown to the public. We know that Covid is not going to be the last major crisis facing us — there will be other pandemics, climate issues, and lots of other wicked problems. I’d like us to be the university that has that focus across all of our divisions.”

His aim is that the University of Otago will be “actively in that space addressing problems with great links to policy and becoming influential in that way. I think if we at the end of five years have worked towards that, that would be fantastic.” It’s not quite world domination, but it’s close. 

David knows the Uni well. He studied medicine here, lived in Salmond College for his first year, and then flatted at 93 Dundas Street. He did his placement for medicine in Christchurch, at the Otago campus where he is now Dean. He met his wife in med school and is, in the best way possible, a wife guy. 

He credits his wife, Dr Lynley Cook, with encouraging him to apply for the VC job. “It involves a move and that’s critical. It wouldn’t have even gotten off the start line had she not said well maybe we should look at this, it’s a bit of an adventure,” he said. 

As med students, they visited Nepal together and then spent two years in the early ’90s working at Kunde Hospital, in the Mount Everest region. There was no electricity, the nearest road was a seven day walk away, and their only contact with the outside world was a mail runner who arrived every two weeks. “It was the best job in the world,” David said. “We were in a village of about 350 people, a Sherpa community, a Buddhist community, and that’s where we lived and worked for just over two years. That intense experience had a profound influence on both of our careers and a lot of our values.”

David still has a “fantastic collaboration” with his colleagues in Kathmandu, where they focus on vaccine preventable infections in children. “That’s a really critical part of my life, my second home I guess you would say is Nepal,” he said. 

In his spare time (which does exist, apparently), David is a luthier, someone who makes guitars and ukuleles. “In my student days, something got into my head about making guitars but I never did it,” he said. “Then I had a head injury when I was 40. During the recovery period, I realised I had been promising to do this for years and I should actually do it. While I was recovering it was the main thing I could focus on, so I read about it, built up a workshop and made my first instrument. It turned out rather well and I’ve made over 20 since.”

He agrees that this is a nice side-hustle, but doesn’t actually make any money from it. He gives the instruments away instead of charging. “You can get me started talking about ivory, or mahogany and rosewood, or native timbers. I can talk for ages about it. I work in both native and traditional instrument woods.”

He doesn’t want to play the ukulele at convocation ceremony though. “I would absolutely object to that and so would the audience,” he said. “I spend much more time making than playing, which is sad, I need to rectify that.” Critic Te Arohi wishes David well in his endeavours to spend more time playing the ukulele. He’s gonna have heaps of time to do that over the next five years.

This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2021.
Posted 10:53am Tuesday 13th July 2021 by Erin Gourley and Bonnie Harrison.