Passion for people and politics propels 50-year legacy

Professor Stephen Levine was interested in four things from an early age: music, baseball, Jewish culture, and politics.

Stephen Levine stands smiling in front of a colourful timeline, wearing a suit and glasses
Professor Stephen Levine, from the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations (HPPI).

Growing up, the Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington  professor says he wanted to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. “This, I soon realised, was completely impossible. Ultimately, I became a political scientist because I think in life you should do what you’re good at, and it seems that what I’m good at is understanding and communicating about politics.”

Professor Levine had recently completed his PhD in political science at Florida State University when he came across a University ad in The New York Times.

“In the Sunday edition there were ads for educational positions. New Zealand was not somewhere I had thought about or aspired to—I didn’t know a single New Zealander—but the ad was really something. If I had been seeking to write an ad to describe me that would’ve been it. It wasn’t just an ad for a political scientist. It was an ad that described me,“ says Professor Levine.

So in April 1972, age 26, Professor Levine packed his bags in New York and set off for Wellington. While his education in the US across three universities had given him a good foundation in comparative politics, there had been no mention of New Zealand or the Pacific Island states through his studies.

Yet shortly after arriving he was told that he would need to participate in the first-year course on New Zealand politics. “I responded, giving a little speech, asking how I was supposed to be lecturing about New Zealand politics without any preparation? The result, actually, was that—for my own benefit as well as the students’—I produced a book, and then another, organising lectures, and in time became a New Zealand politics specialist.”

Professor Levine is known for his series of books on New Zealand elections, which he has edited or co-edited since the first MMP election in 1996. For his first book, however, compiled in 1973, he asked Prime Minister Norman Kirk to contribute a chapter. In the end the Prime Minister contributed two, and his predecessor, Jack Marshall, one.

“Mr Kirk had an impact on me, and on my career, when he identified New Zealand as a Pacific island country, rather than a British country situated in the South Pacific in one of his speeches. A few years later, at a staff meeting, I referred to this and said ‘if we’re a Pacific island country, we should be teaching Pacific island politics.’”

That saw him establish and teach a very popular Honours course in Pacific island politics, broadening his research in the topic. He has since published two books on Pacific politics, and contributed New Zealand and Pacific Islands’ chapters for The Annual Register for over 20 years.

The move of New Zealand’s voting system to a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system was also significant for Professor Levine’s career. He and some of the other members of the Political Science team had a multi-year grant to study MMP, which led to their 1995 book New Zealand under MMP: A new politics? (Bridget Williams Books).

His eventual leadership of the MMP project when his colleague Dr Paul Harris resigned from the University, and the book that emerged, led to other leadership opportunities. When Professor Margaret Clark stepped down, she selected Professor Levine to be head of the Political Science programme, a role he accepted somewhat reluctantly.

As head of programme, Professor Levine established an archive of staff and student publications, called the Leslie Lipson archive—after the founding professor of the department. He also organised new prizes for the programme’s top students, “encouraging excellence”, and gave both existing and new prizes more visibility through attractive Honours Boards. “I do get a lot of satisfaction out of looking after the prizes because when you give somebody a prize for their academic accomplishments it can have quite an impact.”

He went on to be chosen as head of the new School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations when it was formed in late 1999. “I was again reluctant, but once chosen I threw myself into the role with great enthusiasm.”

Around the same time, he came up with the idea to introduce a postgraduate Parliamentary Internship programme. “I wanted to give students an impression of how Parliament works and how the public service really works. If you’re immersed in a situation you are learning by what might be called ‘participant observation’.”

“Many of the interns have gone on to work in Parliament, in the Beehive, and in numerous government departments. Some interns form very close relationships with their MP, which can provide opportunities as roles arise.”

Professor Levine selects interns following a series of interviews. His personal reputation is on the line whenever a new batch of interns is organised. He says, “interns need to be bright, adaptable, resilient, efficient, discreet, and trustworthy. I have to be very confident they are suitable to work in an MP’s office.”

On 7 June, following an earlier recognition in Parliament in the 11 May Order Paper, an event was held at Parliament in The Grand Hall celebrating Professor Levine’s legacy, hosted by the Speaker, Rt Hon Trevor Mallard. It was attended by Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Jennifer Windsor, Members of Parliament, university colleagues, and former students and parliamentary interns.

Tributes were offered by the Speaker, several MPs, Acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Humanities and Social sciences Professor Sarah Leggott, Professor Levine’s long-time co-author Emeritus Professor Nigel Roberts, and former intern Emma Harman. At the event, his colleague Dr Claire Timperley announced the creation of a Stephen Levine Prize, to be awarded to undergraduate and postgraduate students for outstanding essays on topics linked to his research and teaching contributions.

“My view of the University is that our best students can compete in any university, anywhere in the world. We had a visiting professor from Harvard here a few years ago who, meeting me for the first time, said, ‘you’re the one who writes the references!’ It was true: we had three students doing PhDs at Harvard for whom I had supplied references, including Dr Fiona Barker, now an esteemed member of staff.

“If you have an opportunity in life to actually do good things for other people – which I have had, working at the University over these years – it has to create a great deal of job satisfaction: and it has done...”