From student to Chancellor: Sue McCormack's UC journey

08 March 2021

A University of Canterbury (UC) graduate, Sue McCormack has been Chancellor | Tumu Kaunihera of UC since 2018. With her tenure coming to an end, Sue reflected on her UC education, her career and what leading her alma mater has meant to her.

  • Sue McCormack

You were on the UC Council for some time before becoming Chancellor. What drew you to that role?
UC has been part of my life for nearly 50 years now.

I first attended as a student in 1972 at the site now known as The Arts Centre. I don't think I ever could have imagined as a graduate that one day I would be back in a governance role – I didn't know then what governance was, or that it existed. 

When the role [on Council] came up, it felt like a good fit for me. My career experience was relevant to the Council but I also, importantly, had that long-term personal connection to UC. I care very much about education, opportunities for our young (and older) people and Christchurch, where the University is so integral to our city. 


What did the appointment to Chancellor mean to you?
It is an honour and a serious responsibility to be Chancellor. To me, the appointment meant the responsibility and duty to support the Vice Chancellor to ensure that UC continues to advance knowledge and wellbeing to all of our students in an ever changing and complex world. 


What does the role of Chancellor involve? 
The University is an autonomous, publicly funded institution and as Chair of the Council it is my role to ensure that Council carry out their duty efficiently and effectively as the governing body.  

On a lighter note, from someone who is usually most comfortable in black, it also provides an opportunity to wear a more sartorial gown and trencher than is usual, in Peony Red with gold trim.


What has been your favourite achievement as UC Chancellor? What achievement are you most proud of? 
I am proud of our growing relationship with Ngāi Tūāhuriri and the ongoing work UC is doing to make sure our Māori and Pacific/Pasikifa students have the space to excel.

I am also proud of being involved in UC's post-quake changes. Not only in terms of seeing the incredible results of our physical build, but also experiencing the innovation and capabilities of our faculty through their research and teaching, the work ethic and community spiritedness of our students and staff and the opportunity to build a future-focused academic institution.

It has been such a unique experience to witness UC’s transformation and rebuild. It has really emphasised to me the value of having a University in our community, and how UC's values supported and contributed to the rebuild more generally.

That value translates to all parts of our society, and it has been a real pleasure seeing it at its best. 

The appointment of our first female Vice Chancellor Professor Cheryl de la Rey was also a highlight. 

On a more personal level, being able to confer my daughter's degree and speak at her graduation was a very special and privileged part of the job. 


While you were Chancellor, UC became the first tertiary institution in Aotearoa to have women leading both the University and the University Students' Association - what is your take away from that milestone?
It has been such a joy to work alongside our Vice-Chancellor and the UCSA President over the past few years. My take away is that there are many and diverse leadership styles and qualities that make for excellent leadership and quality decision making.

This is not only in Universities, but in all roles. I've learned a lot from both of them, and in particular feel inspired and optimistic at the fact there are such wonderful young women like Tori McNoe, Katie Mills and now Kim Fowler who will bring those wonderful qualities to whichever careers may be ahead of them. 


Were you always interested in a legal career?
I'm not sure it occurred to me to have a legal career until I suddenly had one. I came back from ski instructing in Europe and could not quite figure out how I could work my BA into my future, so I went back to University to study law. 


What advice would you give to a young woman starting out in law?
Stick to your guns, have humility in your level of experience but confidence in yourself. Never lose sight of your ethics. 


What motivates you as a person?
When I was at school the Nuns told my mother, who was a widow, that I wasn't University material.  I have held on to that message and used it to drive me ever since.