A group of Māori and Pacific scholars who research racism in New Zealand universities — Dr Sereana Naepi, Dr Tara McAllister, Professor Joanna Kidman, and Dr Reremoana Theodore — have penned an open letter in support of six academics who’ve accused the University of Waikato of systemic and casual racism. Here they explain the background to the letter which has been signed by 6,800 academics.
Standing in Solidarity
Working in New Zealand universities as Māori and Pacific scholars, we can feel at times that we’re navigating through a series of storms. Just as we get our waka/drua on the right path, we’re blown off course again.
This past month, we’ve been hit with multiple storms — from the University of Otago around Māori and Pacific placements in medical school, to the revelations from six academics highlighting the ongoing systemic and casual racism at the University of Waikato.
We are a collective of academics who study racism in universities. So, when the “Waikato Six” came forward and said there is systemic racism in their university, we believed them.
We know that we have a sector-wide problem. What was shocking, however, was that those who are calling out systemic racism are accomplished and world-leading Indigenous academics who have shaped their fields. If they didn’t feel safe in the mainstream university that many consider has been the leader in Indigenous studies, then that doesn’t leave much hope for the rest of us.
Last week, we called on the international community of scholars to support the Waikato Six because we wanted to let our universities know that the world was watching.
This meant rallying together to draft an open letter of support, to send out tweets, to make phone calls, and to think about how to bring this issue and the open letter to people’s attention.
We had hoped to get 100 signatures on the open letter and would have been happy with that. Nothing prepared us for the response that came from some of the most senior scholars, community leaders, and students in Aotearoa and around the world.
Nor were we prepared for the massive outpouring of support for the University of Waikato academics who had spoken out against systemic and casual racism. It was a “moment” in which thousands of people stood in solidarity with Indigenous academics and stood against systemic racism within universities — and refused to accept the university’s denial that there was racism within their walls.
We were overwhelmed that the letter received more than 6,800 signatures in three days — but it also told us that we are part of a strong community who will not stand by and let our universities ignore racism.
But there were wider implications of the Waikato Six’s disclosure.
As further information came to light, it became clear that no matter how many publications publish our work, or how high the esteem in which our peers hold us, or how much research money we bring into university coffers, we are still, too often, dispensable to our institutions.
It also highlighted issues nationwide with our universities’ commitment to the rights and obligations articulated in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and New Zealand legislation.
The ripples of the Waikato Six also meant that Māori professors across the country penned an open letter asking for an investigation into racism and Te Tiriti in the whole tertiary sector. Both the Māori professors’ letter and our own letter are our efforts to right the path of our waka/drua.
While our open letter was doing the rounds on social media, Ngāi Tahu scholar Keziah Wallis started the hashtag #BecauseOfLindaTuhiwaiSmith on Twitter. She asked people to share how the work of one of the Waikato Six, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, had influenced them.
The hashtag quickly started trending on social media as people came forward with stories about how her book Decolonizing Methodologies, and her life’s work, had changed how they thought, and how they worked.
It enabled us as a community to share our experiences and, for 24 hours, Twitter was full of stories of how Indigenous scholarship can change lives. This highlighted to us just how much Indigenous research means to society and how many Indigenous scholars in Aotearoa are leading the world and influencing how people think about the society and communities that they live in.
Foundational texts, like Decolonizing Methodologies, help us to find our voices, our own voices, to tell our own communities’ stories, and to create our own knowledge.
The power of telling our own stories should not be underestimated. It changes how we as a nation think about health and wellness. It changes how we think about the role of education. It enables us to shape national approaches to our own communities through the eyes of our own communities. #BecauseOfLindaTuhiwaiSmith we get to tell our stories our way.
Yet telling our stories requires courage, especially when it comes to talking about racism. As a collective, we hesitated before commenting publicly about this issue, despite this being our area of academic expertise.
The Education Act (2020) requires universities in Aotearoa to accept a role as the “critic and conscience of society”. There are, however, perceived risks for academics who publicly call their own universities to account, as we’ve seen at Massey University and the University of Victoria in Wellington.
So we paused before sharing our knowledge about institutional racism in academia, even though our work is based on peer-reviewed research. This is not how to grow a vibrant, healthy academy. This is how to create an institution that replicates and reinforces a status quo.
But the status quo isn’t working for Māori or Pacific. As a collective of Māori and Pacific researchers, we know there’s a shortage of Māori and Pacific academics, we know that Māori and Pacific students are underserved and that this rears its head in low completion and progression rates. And we know that there is a system-wide problem. How can we as Māori and Pacific scholars ethically tell our communities and families to go to universities that we know will not serve them well?
What will make universities worthy of our communities?
What will make universities worthy of our tamariki?
When our sector knows the answers to those questions, then we’ll need to work out a national framework with (in university speak) “clear and measurable deliverables that impact university resource sources”.
And then our universities can have the honour of teaching our tamariki and our communities — and we can get on with navigating our waka/drua to our destination.
OPEN LETTER TO THE UNIVERSITY OF WAIKATO COUNCIL
We, the undersigned, stand in support of Māori academics who have spoken out about long-term, unresolved systemic and casual racism they have experienced at the University of Waikato. We believe that the situation at the University of Waikato is serious and requires urgent attention.
The employment and career prospects of Māori scholars who have made these disclosures should also be protected and their concerns addressed by the university leadership.
Recent research shows that despite the proliferation of formal institutional commitments to diversity, gender equity, and New Zealand human rights legislation, most Māori academics in New Zealand universities personally experience or have witnessed structural or everyday racism in their work environments.
It is crucial that these institutional practices are exposed and resolved wherever they are identified.
We call on the University of Waikato Council to reject and eliminate structural and casual racism at the University of Waikato and immediately set in place procedures that protect Māori academic endeavour.
We call on the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Neil Quigley, to immediately establish a safe, equitable, fair work environment for Māori staff and students and we call on the University Council to hold Professor Quigley to account in this matter.
We call on the University of Waikato to establish fair, transparent policies for staff to safely lodge complaints about racism and for these complaints to be dealt with in line with Kaupapa Māori values and principles of fairness.
We call on the University of Waikato to actively demonstrate its commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi, to mātauranga Māori and te reo Māori in every aspect of the management and operation of the University.
We call on the University of Waikato to establish fair, transparent, equitable hiring practices and meaningful career pathways for Māori academics.
Ngā mihi maioha, nā . . .
See here for a full list of signatories.
The letter has now closed, but the authors encourage those who support the Waikato Six to email the Waikato University council and chancellor, via the Secretary of Council: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please copy in the Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins: email@example.com
Dr Sereana Naepi (Natasiri, Pālagi) is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland. Dr Tara McAllister (Te Aitanga a Māhaki) is completing a post-doctorate at Te Pūnaha Matatini, University of Auckland. Professor Joanna Kidman (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa) is a Professor at the School of Education, Victoria University of Wellington. Dr Reremoana Theodore (Ngāpuhi, Te Arawa) is the Co-Director of the National Centre for Lifecourse Research at the University of Otago.
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