“Cosmopolitan” Wellington a great start for Toronto University leader Professor Alexandra Gillespie

Professor Alexandra Gillespie says her start as a student in Wellington was a wonderful entry into a lifetime of academia.

Woman with blue dress holding two pride flags, in front of old building covered in rainbow coloured flags
When Professor Alexandra Gillespie sat down with Sir Keith Thomas, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford where she was a Rhodes scholar, she told him she found Oxford was “a bit small. Wellington is very cosmopolitan, you know,” she added, to Sir Keith’s bafflement.

Professor Gillespie had moved from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington to take up her scholarship, and said she was reflecting on the way in which students in Wellington were integrated within city life in a way they aren’t in Oxford.

But she came to recognise the privilege of being at Oxford to complete her studies, which focused on the work of 14th-century author Geoffrey Chaucer. After her time at Oxford, where she completed a DPhil and a post-doctoral fellowship, she worked at Cambridge University, before moving to Toronto to take up a role at the University of Toronto.

She has now been away from New Zealand for 24 years, and in 2020 was named Principal of University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, and Vice-President (Deputy Vice-Chancellor) of the University of Toronto. She and her husband are both from Wellington and usually return with their kids, a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins, at least once a year to visit family.

“Studying in Wellington was fantastic. It was the time of my life. I studied both English language and English literature. I was involved in drama, starting as prop manager in the capping review in 1992. In my third year I was deputy warden at Weir House. I was also President of the New Zealand Schools Debating Council which I ran with lots of other university debaters.  I think that counted as my ‘sport’ for my Rhodes scholarship,” laughs Professor Gillespie.

Professor Gillespie remembers taking a creative writing course with Bill Manhire before the International Institute of Modern Letters was formed. “I was in a class with Emily Perkins, Jenny Bornholdt, Chris Orsman, and others who have carried on to be important New Zealand writers. Just getting to sit around in a room with people that good, talking about literature was amazing. Communicating what matters about art became my passion.”

When she got to Oxford, the reputation of the English programme in Wellington was such that many of the entry exams were waived. “They knew the teaching I had there was superior. They knew the people I had studied under, like Bill, and Christine Franzen, Robert Easting, and others working in the tradition of D. F. Mackenzie. They knew how good my education was.”

While in Wellington, she flatted with one of her best friends, Dean Knight, now an Associate Professor in Law, and says they spent a lot of time in cafés late at night, discussing the meaning of life.

It’s this type of social life she really misses for her students, running a university during COVID-19. Their student population is 31 percent international, with students from more than 130 different countries. “We are teaching them successfully, but they are missing out on that piece between 18–24 where you go to university and it blows your mind.

“From my time in both Wellington and Oxford, I know it’s not just about what you’re learning, it’s the people you meet, the new cultures you’re exposed to, it’s the new ideas. This is the moment when you turn from your childhood to what your adulthood is going to be.”

Professor Gillespie’s current research focus is on the global history of the book, which came out of similar philosophical questions to those that writers like Chaucer were asking in the 14th century. She leads the Old Books New Science Lab at the University of Toronto. “I’ve always been interested in the material text. What does it mean that texts are things that exist in our minds, that we’re interested in those abstract ways, and yet they have this physical existence? What is the material existence of knowledge?”

As a world-leading researcher in her field, to pick up the administration of an entire University seemed a big call. “I love doing this work because I live for collaborative work. I don’t find sitting alone stimulating. I’d rather research with a team, and lead with a team, to provide the type of student experience I enjoyed at university in Wellington.”

She enjoys working strategically on a large scale, as a senior leader for the 93,000 students at the University of Toronto, and a smaller scale, heading the management of the 16,000 students and 3,700 staff, faculty, and librarians at the University’s Mississauga campus.

Professor Gillespie is proud of the University of Toronto’s research reputation but notes that research is nothing without cooperation and understanding. “It is so important for institutions to hold the responsibility for telling these stories that are yet to be told, particularly in Canada with regards to our Indigenous communities. Aotearoa is quite far ahead in the way in which we have begun to confront our colonial past and present.”

One thing she still misses after a couple of decades away, is the quality of coffee in Wellington. “I would love a good flat white. We have coffee shops that do ‘NZ-style flat whites’ but the coffee is Not Good.”