May 25, 2022 People
“You’re not there to feel lonely.” It’s a frank message on leadership from Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa. In March, the 49-year-old officially took the reins at the Auckland University of Technology.
When we meet at a cafe in Onehunga, he’s in the midst of preparing for the role. His office at the campus is yet to be set up, and while he’s had a break over summer, it’s been punctuated with concerted bouts of writing — a final push to finish a book he’s been working on for years. “I’m very aware it’ll probably be the last chance I have to write for a while,” Salesa says with a grin.
He is, he admits, on the young side to be a university vice-chancellor — a role combining both academic lead of the institution and chief executive. That in itself is impressive, but what headlines this particular milestone, as has been the case for much of Salesa’s career, is what it represents for Pasifika communities.
Never before have we had a Pasifika vice-chancellor at a New Zealand university. And Salesa — who has broken ground throughout his entire academic career, including as the first Pasifika person to get a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and as the inaugural pro vice-chancellor (Pacific) at the University of Auckland — has his own way of describing how things have gone over the years. “The simple truth of my journey is I’ve been in a lot of rooms where there aren’t any or many people who share various parts of my background,” he says. “And that isn’t how the world should be in 2022 in Auckland, where 20% of our young people are Pacific. And almost that percentage are Māori.”
A matter-of-fact tone underpins our conversation. Hyper aware of his progress and what it represents to both his students and the communities he belongs to, Salesa delves just enough into the difficulties without dwelling on his own personal obstacles. Everything is framed in a wider context: how his experience and vision will contribute to greater diversity and better leadership at AUT; how that will ensure more Māori, Pasifika and mature students connect with the university; and why, for a city which is both as multicultural and segregated as Auckland is, that is necessary in moving forward.
In an era when loudly calling out racism and racist incidents is routine, his tone is a pointed way of driving the types of conversations we all need to have but often struggle to do productively. It’s also indicative of Salesa’s commitment to getting education to students for whom it will make the biggest difference. “Few things are more sacred than people asking you to lead or represent them, so you can’t spend too much time being introspective,” he says. “You have to find your courage and purpose and strength in that connection.”
It’s a clear analysis from someone who has succeeded in a system where others like him haven’t. A proud son of Glen Innes, Salesa was born to father Tusanilefaia‘ao Ieremia Salesa, who migrated from Sāmoa at 17 with aspirations of becoming a mechanic, and Pākehā mother Yvonne, who moved from Waipapakauri in the Far North at a similar age.
The pair met at a time when a marriage like theirs was “unusual and not necessarily welcomed by parts of the community”, Salesa says. The couple moved in with Salesa’s father’s family, who were living in a three-bedroom state house in Glen Innes. Yvonne was a nurse, while Salesa’s father worked at the now-closed Fisher & Paykel factory in East Tāmaki.
Salesa attributes his success and sense of community to his upbringing, describing his parents’ deep belief in education as a way to progress in life. He relates that to his own story, as proof of the opportunities it can bring, and points out he and his four living siblings all went to university. But, as he’s demonstrated in his research into Pacific and New Zealand history and culture over the years, he knows that progress isn’t the case for everyone and that education, as it stands, is not the great equaliser it’s often made out to be.
“Pacific students and Māori students are half as likely to get UE, and the idea that that’s about the students and their potential is totally flawed,” Salesa says definitively. “This is completely about their home and life circumstances and unless we step up and meet that inequality head on, we will live with it for generations.”
Never one to miss a beat, Salesa outlines AUT’s role in working with these students and communities, those who need the most help both connecting to and succeeding at university. It’s a mission which, combined with his dedication to family, appears to be the driving force behind most of his choices.
When I ask him about some of the big moments in his career, he talks about coming back to the University of Auckland in 2012 after spending 10 years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, USA. Both his daughters with wife Jenny Salesa, a current Labour MP, were born there, and the return home was about getting them back to their family and community roots. He also touches on the difference between teaching at a place like the University of Michigan and being in New Zealand.
“I loved my time there and it’s a wonderful place to be a young faculty member — they really look after you, and it’s difficult to explain just how much resource those kinds of institutions have. But I missed the diversity of students. Almost all the Pacific students I had came as PhD students to work directly with me. The students there gave me great reviews and I felt connected with them and I enjoyed it, but I often felt if I wasn’t there, whoever was sitting in my seat they would love just as much and it would go just as well, because they were so well equipped.”
It was an entirely separate set of circumstances back in Auckland, he says slowly. With a lecture theatre of 300 undergraduate students looking at him, almost all of whom were Pacific, and a Pacific studies programme he’d produced, he knew he was where it mattered most. “I knew I had something to give and what I could offer those students was unique to being in New Zealand, and particularly Auckland,” he says. “That’s when I knew that’s what I’d come here for.”
Fast forward 10 years, and Salesa is at another crossroads in his career. Referring back to how it felt returning to Auckland, he looks forward to this academic year, now as a vice-chancellor with thousands more students and staff members under his leadership.