Reflecting on three decades at the wheel
Reflecting on three decades at the wheel
As part of our 125th anniversary celebrations, John Randal reflects on his 30 years at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. When he first walked through our doors he immediately had the sense he’d found a home away from home, but he had no idea just how much of a fixture of our community he would become.
The popular teacher of statistics and econometrics arrived fresh from high school in 1992 with a vision of being an engineer. His student experience across the first 10 years grounded him in what he calls the “journey of learning”. He realised he would have to pursue a career as an academic to get the most out of his quest for knowledge and his thirst for learning.
Professor Randal clarifies, “every academic has been a student for a long time and at some point, they start to have the responsibility to bring others along that path.”
That is something he is immensely proud of, adding that “the responsibility you have as a teacher is to help people find in the subject what you yourself found”.
Perhaps most intriguing about Professor Randal’s story of scholarship is his decision to stay in the one place. He was never tempted to pursue either his own study or teaching in other institutions.
Professor Randal says the university is its own location—and being grounded in Wellington, the city he grew up in, has been an important part of it all too.
“I’ve been riding my bike to this university for 30 years.”
For the last 20 years, Professor Randal has been a permanent staff member. He’s open about discussing his longevity, seeing himself as being about halfway done, with a “20-year horizon” dedicated not only to teaching and research, but to the very institution of university, serving through teaching, through administration, and leadership.
“It has been about finding this place, the university, as a home.”
He is currently a teaching professor in the School of Economics and Finance and Director of Teaching Intensive Academic Career Pathway as well as the Associate Dean (Academic Programmes) for the Wellington School of Business and Government. He was previously Associate Dean (Students) and was briefly seconded as Acting Vice Provost (Academic).
“My obligations have changed through time, the lens I view this place through has changed with time, but there’s no ‘big bang’, beyond becoming a permanent full-time staff member.”
Alongside Professor Randal’s teaching and administrative duties, he is most proud of his involvement in bringing mental health into view.
During his tenure as Associate Dean (Students) he was exposed to issues of student mental health and was dealing with his own journey. Cycling had always been what Dr Randal refers to as “a mental health antidote”. And then one day in 2018, he saw an advertisement promoting a fundraiser cycling the entire Tour de France route a day ahead of the pros to raise money and awareness for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
Professor Randal saw that this lightbulb moment offered him the chance to “step up” and publicly announce his depression and “have an impact beyond my classrooms, beyond my WSBG management”.
Professor Randal has personally raised more than $25,000 for the Mental Health Foundation and says it was insightful to speak openly about the depression that he had lived with, realising that “sharing a weakness is an incredibly strong act”. He estimates he lived with depression “for probably 15 years before addressing it publicly in this way”.
He also sees the academic life, and his various roles within the university, as a way of providing focus for him.
“When I have my teeth in something, in a problem, my brain is functioning at an incredibly high level. The excitement and stimulation this environment provides, and also finding a way to navigate and engage with it, keeps my flawed brain busy. This has been a very positive experience.”
A year after the cycle tour in France, Professor Randal says he noticed how comfortable he was talking about his mental health, and how this created conversations with colleagues and students. But he also noticed that he felt largely on his own in terms of publicly owning his depression as a lecturer at the university.
“We have a long way to go to normalise what is in fact ‘normal’, statistically speaking.”
There is still so much work to be done for Professor John Randal. In terms of research, administration, and leadership. His cycle continues.
Photo: Professor John Randal