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Jacinta Ruru (Image: Sharron Bennett; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Jacinta Ruru (Image: Sharron Bennett; additional design: Tina Tiller)

ĀteaMarch 11, 2024

Aotearoa’s first ever Māori law professor is making history once again

Jacinta Ruru (Image: Sharron Bennett; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Jacinta Ruru (Image: Sharron Bennett; additional design: Tina Tiller)

Professor Jacinta Ruru is set to become Otago University’s inaugural deputy vice chancellor Māori. What does she hope to achieve in the position?

This story uses local Ōtākou spelling conventions, except for the names of external groups. An example is the spelling Kāi Tahu instead of Ngāi Tahu. 

When she was a shy law student at the University of Otago, Jacinta Ruru never considered becoming an academic. But when her alma mater later asked her to teach Māori land law and undertake further research, Ruru took up the opportunity. Now, after spending her entire adult life in Otago’s law faculty and becoming the nation’s first Māori law professor, another opportunity too good to pass up has presented itself. In March, Ruru will start a new role as the University of Otago’s inaugural deputy vice-chancellor Māori. 

While Ruru is sad she’ll no longer have Te Rōpū Whai Pūtake – Otago’s Māori law students association, with whom she initially found a home at the university – as her office neighbour, she says the law faculty will be left in a better state than how she found it. “For more than 20 years,” Ruru was the faculty’s only takata whenua, but now there are multiple kaimahi Māori. Māori are drawn to law for many reasons, but a compelling one is the law’s capacity for justice and system change. To ensure “Māori ideas are valued across the whole University of Otago”, Ruru will bring that hunger for structural change to her new office. 

Helping to make structural changes at the University of Otago is nothing new for Ruru. “Being a Māori woman in law, I was given lots of opportunities here at the university,” she says. “I was invited on to several strategic committees for the university early on in my career which gave me a good sense of the operation of the university.” Her number one strategic priority had long been growing Māori academic staff numbers and creating a curriculum that is inclusive of te ao Māōri. Because of that ambition, Ruru co-founded Otago’s Māori academic staff caucus, Te Poutama Māori, which she calls a source of inspiration for many kaimahi Māori and a safe space for them to be tākata whenua. 

Thanks to both her external and internal experience, Ruru was a natural choice as Otago’s DVC Māori. As well as being a longtime law professor, she is a board member for Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and Te Papa, held a governance role at the Kāi Tahu Law Centre, co-chaired Te Poutama Māori and from 2016-2021 co-directed Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga (New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence). On the latter, Ruru says, “I have learnt so much through Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga, and the opportunity to be a co-leader of that amazing entity gave me the knowledge to deeply understand the factors that must be built to enable the flourishing of Māori research excellence which will help guide me into the deputy vice-chancellor Māori position.”  

Her new role is a substantial investment into Māori aspirations and rakatirataka at the university. As Otago’s DVC Māori, Ruru hopes to supercharge existing university initiatives that uplift mātauraka, te reo and tikaka Māori alongside introducing new ones. Her ideas include expanding hauora Māori approaches, like establishing a tikaka dispute resolution process and providing professional development for tākata whenua employees “in a collective way that makes sense to our Māori staff.” Regarding students, Ruru hopes to extend manaaki to tauira Māori in a way that builds intergenerational connections with whānau from across the motu. 

Promoting te ao Māori at the University of Otago alongside Ruru is the pre-existing Office of Māori Development led by Rhonda Bryant. “Having those two Māori voices contributing in senior leadership will ensure that we’re contributing to making the best decisions here at Otago that are going to make sense for all students and all staff, including our Māori staff and Māori students,” explains Ruru. 

Historically, “that office has been expected to do everything Māori,” she says, “and I’m so proud of the university recognising that and resourcing the creation of co-offices.” Ruru hopes both offices working together will nurture the relationships that are so integral to Māori success at the University of Otago. As a tamariki, she learnt from her father, who ran a Queenstown-based Māori tourism business, about the importance of whanaukataka at home and at work. “I knew how important that was to Dad and the business, and that’s always been just as important to me.” Lucky for Ruru, in her 20+ years as an academic, she’s built an impressive network of colleagues, collaborators and friends locally, nationally and internationally. 

Together, the Māori Development Office and the deputy vice-chancellor Māori office will work on the university’s Te Tiriti commitments, an integral part of the institution’s legal mandate. She says she is proud of “our vision to whakamana Te Tiriti o Waitangi.” Ruru adds, “I’m so proud of the university that it’s made these commitments, that it’s resourcing and creating new structural change at the university to help realise this and to ensure that Otago is a culturally safe, inspiring, incredible experience for Māori students, and for all of our students, to study and learn at.” 

(Photo: Grant Maiden/University of Otago Press)

From May, two months after Ruru begins her new position, the University of Otago will embark on an ambitious rebrand – getting a new ikoa Māori plus a refreshed tohu Māori logo. Otago is ditching its generic “Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo” title, which doesn’t even use the local Ōtākou mita spelling, in place of the metaphoric ikoa “Ōtākou Whakaihu Waka.” The new Māori name references academic excellence and the place of mana whenua plus the manuhiri who study and teach at Otago. 

The rebranding and Ruru’s new appointment suggest Māori are in for a big 2024 at our nation’s oldest university. Ruru says she’s proud that the University of Otago has stayed “confident and assured to know that valuing tikaka, te reo, mātauraka, alongside all of our western knowledges, practices and sciences is a good thing – not something to be threatened by.” She hopes to build upon that confidence as DVC Māori by providing “more opportunities to read and know about our Māori knowledge and our language.” Ruru says those opportunities will empower tākata whenua and tauiwi students alike. “We’re adding so many more skills and experiences to our students’ kete of knowledge.”

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