Professor bows out on a high note

By Yvonne Tahana

Sir Mason Durie, professor of psychiatry at Massey University, is retiring, aged 74. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sir Mason Durie, professor of psychiatry at Massey University, is retiring, aged 74. Photo / Greg Bowker

Retiring academic Sir Mason Durie tells Yvonne Tahanathe future looks bright for Maori.

Professor Sir Mason Durie is making notes at 8am in the morning, waiting for his first appointment to turn up. In the near future he hopes there won't be too many early starts like this one. He is, he reckons, looking for the good life.

Despite being a little bit of an academic rockstar, quoted near and far, the 74-year-old is not, thankfully, a dry ivory-tower talker. His ideas regarding Maori wellbeing, (that it comprises hinengaro, wairua, tinana and whanau; mind, spirit, physical and family in balance as opposed to health by itself) have influenced a generation of policymakers, politicians and, in turn, the education, health and social sectors.

What makes him endearing though, is that he can speak with equal candour about macro Maori issues as the ordinary stuff - his home in Feilding, mowing the lawns, his wife Lady Arohia. He also has a lovely touch of honest humour but can take a bit of buttering-up.

He's much younger and better-looking than some of the other long-established Maori intelligentsia - like Whatarangi Winiata, Dr Ranginui Walker, Sir Hirini Moko Mead and the like, I tell him.

"Oh good, good," roaring a laugh. For the longest time, he says, the group of publishing academics here was small. As a result, the small pool was widely known but also possibly overloaded with work. He's happy the landscape has changed for the better with Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga, one of the myriad groups he's associated with, supporting increasing numbers of students through their doctorate studies and more Maori staying on to complete higher degrees.

Massey's results reflect the changing landscape. During the 1990s only six Maori graduated with PhDs; in the past decade, 55 have gained their doctorates.

Sir Mason has watched the transition in the debate from increasing Maori numbers in tertiary education to convincing students to stay longer once they arrive.

Colleagues tell the Herald he'll leave a big hole in their hearts, with one saying many are in denial. Sir Mason says he's loved his students, they've been good fun. Most of all, he'll miss their gumption.

"Their ideas, the new approaches that young people have and the way they articulate it is much clearer than my generation. They don't know what they're talking about quite often but they can say it well. Sometimes they need a bit of help with the content. But they don't need encouragement to speak up. They speak in Maori and English fluently; our generation didn't. They have confidence in themselves, which wasn't always the case for us.

"They are where you get your inspiration from, but there are only so many assignments you can mark." Although he said that last line with a smile, the tone was emphatic.

The outgoing deputy vice-chancellor, of Rangitane, Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Kauwhata extraction, practised psychiatry at Palmerston North Hospital between 1970 and 1988 before making a shift to academia. For the past 24 years he's worked in Maori health, establishing and heading the School of Maori studies, Te Putahi-a-Toi. Part of his legacy includes setting up a new College of Health. He is the chairman of an alternative school - Tu Toa - the ethos of which is excellence on and off the sporting field.

Retirement will be busy. He is likely to still stay involved in chairing the national Whanau Ora governance board but beyond that he is unsure what else will fill his time.

The freedom to think about what work he'll do next will be welcome, he says, as will not being tied to endless emails or reports.

He's looking forward to spending more time with his wife - "she's a good critic and a great supporter" - to whom he's been married for 47 years.

There's still a drive to contribute to his whanau, hapu and to Maori - a sense of purpose instilled by farming grandparents who lived through the Depression and told him and his brothers Ra and Sir Eddie they could be whatever they liked - as long as it was useful.

Certainly, the thinking will continue and he gives me a piece of his mind on reporting.

He has an issue with Maori being constantly compared to Pakeha or other ethnic groups. That picture, filled out by whatever statistics you'd care to name, generally, never looks too flash.

Instead, a more helpful methodology of measuring progress is to measure Maori against Maori over time, he says. That picture gives him cause for hope. A hundred years ago the indigenous population was 48,000, it's now estimated at 673,500. The average life expectancy has increased, in 1901 it was 35 for men, these days Maori men live until 70. he rattles off other stats.

His last book, Nga Tini Whetu, Navigating Maori Futures, was his stab at what the next decades will be like for Maori. He predicts a closer relationship with China - and predicts more Chinese/Maori because of that. Maori will live longer. Iwi members will need leaders who are more than just charismatic, that won't be enough for the future because society is much more complex, he believes. Instead, leaders will need to act more on evidence when it comes to Maori development.

He is hopeful that what lies ahead looks bright for Maori.

"I reckon the evidence is that it's going to be good. Look back at where we were 20, 50 years ago and there's been progress. If you look at it that way, you are optimistic for the future."

- NZ Herald

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