The Mystery Plaque

  • <p>Image Services, Victoria University of Wellington, 2021.</p>

Story by Emma Cullen

Museums and Heritage Studies, 2021.

A mysterious plaque

This University Sucks. A statement engraved on a brass plaque embedded in concrete, installed anonymously and without explanation in 1980 amongst shrubbery on the north side of the library. For thirty years, this plaque created much speculation, inspiration and amusement on campus.

Original location of the plaque

  • <p>Image Services, Victoria University of Wellington, 1983.</p>

A life of its own

Its origins unknown, the plaque took on a life of its own. It became a joke for some, used to inspire capping stunts. For others, it was a way to express their dissatisfaction with the university management. In 1998 it graced the cover of the student magazine Salient due to a public fight between a professor and the Vice-Chancellor about the state of the university. It became an unofficial piece of public art that connected with students and staff alike. The plaque was never advertised or signposted, but rather left to be stumbled upon or spread by word of mouth. It remained in place until 2010, when it was removed due to the campus hub development.

Plaque on the cover of Salient 1998, and with a gardener in the original location

  • <p>Plaque on cover of Salient. Volume 61, Issue 6, April 4, 1998.</p>
  • <p>Gardener with plaque in original location. Image Services, Victoria University of Wellington, 1997.</p>

Origins revealed

The origins of the plaque remained a mystery for forty years until, in 2020, a letter to the editor of the Dominion Post revealed that it was created and installed by four students, as part of a series of stunts they did on campus for a laugh and to buck convention. Late one night in 1980 the four friends joked about installing an official-looking plaque with the words ‘This University Sucks’. The next morning, one of them woke up thinking it was a great idea and proceeded to get the plaque made. They spent a week constructing the plaque in concrete with reinforcing rods. Late one night, they drove onto campus and swiftly dug a hole, placed the plaque inside, poured in more concrete and scarpered.

  • <p>Rough sketch of plaque detailing reinforcing rods and bolts in concrete. October, 2021.</p>

A part of campus history

Not expecting it to last more than a week, the friends were delighted when the plaque was looked after by the grounds staff, who carefully tended to the garden around it. That was until they pulled another stunt - spray painting the balcony wall above the garden bed with the words Ewige Blumenkraft (‘Eternal Flower Power’ in German). This angered the powers that be, and the plaque was attacked, leaving multiple scratch marks from what looks like a hammer. The graffiti was swiftly removed. The plaque however remained - thanks in part to its secure construction.

Allowed to stay in place, the plaque became a part of campus history, and an enduring symbol of anti-establishment attitudes and the humour of student culture. When it was installed in 1980 students were still able to receive a bursary that paid for fees and living costs. This allowed students time to challenge the status quo and protest issues such as education cuts, apartheid in South Africa, housing, and the Vietnam war. They also took part in capping stunts like declaring public toilets an independent state or delivering fake public notices. Throughout the 80s, education cuts and increased fees led to students working harder and faster to complete a degree a trend which evolved to the present day where students regularly take on large amounts of debt, and often work whilst studying throughout the year.

Students taking part in capping stunts and protests

  • <p>Police arresting Victoria University students taking part in capping stunt on the roof of Taj Mahal, Courtenay Place, Wellington. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1967/2436/29A-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23199078</p>
  • <p>Vice-Chancellor Danny Taylor talks to students protesting education cuts outside his office, 1979. Evening Post.</p>

The plaque today

The plaque now resides within the Rankine Brown building in Tānga Puiaki - J.C. Beaglehole Room, the special collections of the Victoria University of Wellington Library. Though it has been absorbed into the institution it once mocked, the plaque still retains a shock value and the ability to amuse and inspire those who come across it. This University Sucks.

View it in person at the J.C. Beaglehole Room

Rankine Brown Library, Victoria University, Wellington, Wellington 6012, New Zealand