Jemaima Tiatia, Pro Vice Chancellor Pacific at the University of Auckland. (Photo: University of Auckland)

Associate Professor Jemaima Tiatia is now Ihonuku Te Moana-nui-o-Kiwa, Pro Vice-Chancellor Pacific at the University of Auckland, which makes her the most senior Pacific academic at our largest university.

She takes over from Toeolesulusulu Professor Damon Salesa, who is now Vice Chancellor at AUT — the first Pacific leader of a university in Aotearoa.

Jemaima’s new role is focused on ensuring Pasifika students and staff excel at the university. The position, established in 2018, recognised the need for Pacific leadership at the highest strategic level of the university. 

Here, Jemaima reflects on what her appointment means — to her, to Pacific students, and to the university.


I’ve spent most of my adult life in academia — all of it at the University of Auckland. Sometimes it feels like I’ve become part of the furniture. 

Back in 1992, when my grandparents dropped me off for my first day as a university student, I certainly had no idea that this is where I’d be now. Or what success here would mean.

I was born into a strong Sāmoan family, and raised in west Auckland. And I had gone to Avondale College, where Māori and Pacific students were well represented. So, the sudden shift to what felt like a very Pākehā institution was confronting. 

In those days, it was hard to tell that this was a university located in what’s often trumpeted as the biggest Polynesian city in the world. You wouldn’t have known it from looking around at the students and staff.

Some of my Māori and Pacific friends never aspired to go to university at that time — although, some eventually did — which wasn’t surprising given my own experiences at high school. I still remember the Year 13 dean who decided I didn’t need university pamphlets because, in his eyes, I wasn’t university material.

He did me a favour, though. Because that incident is still burned into my consciousness all these years later — and made me all the more determined to succeed.

That’s one of the things I can bring to this role: a deep understanding of what some Pacific students and academics may come up against. 

You might think from my appointment that I’ve had a relatively smooth ride in the academy — and there’s no denying that I’ve been blessed in many ways. I’ve been mentored by the best, and I’ve been given the chance to do work dear to my heart — for instance in public and population health, mental health and wellbeing, Pacific Studies, youth development, climate change and Pacific suicide prevention. 

I’ve also been able to work closely with many of our Pacific students and Pacific academics — real thought leaders and critical thinkers.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the academy is a place where people like me are welcomed with open arms. I’m talking Pacific, and Māori too, although of course I can’t speak to the experiences of my whanaunga, my tangata whenua colleagues.

As we’ve been seeing in the last few years, our universities have some work to do to truly become bastions of enlightened thinking where our worldviews are respected and given the space they deserve.

The truth is, it’s not easy being Pacific in a university in Aotearoa. Not as a student, and not as an academic either. 

I’ve walked into many rooms where I was barely acknowledged — and yet at the same time, as the only Pacific person in the room, I’ve also had to deal with being hyper-visible. 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been cut off in meetings. In some cases, I’ve found my expertise overshadowed — because of the colour of my skin, because of my age, because I identify as a woman, because I’m Sāmoan and a child of the Pacific, and because I’m part of the Pasifika rainbow community. 

It can be draining at times.

Sometimes, I’d think: “Okay, what stereotypes are going through your head right now? What biases are running through your brain?” You can see it in their faces, and in their body language. Even the way they speak has a certain tone. You learn to read rooms fairly quickly when you’re in a leadership position. Often, I’d ask myself: “Am I a threat? Should I really be here?”

I recall a time when another lecturer, an older man, walked into the lecture theatre I was in. I was standing at the front of the room ready to teach, all my students were there, and he just walked in and started setting up at the lectern. 

And he asked me: “Are you meant to be here?” I thought: “This guy doesn’t even realise I’m the lecturer.” I said: “Yes, I’m teaching right now. You can look at the schedule.” 

He went out, and he must have had a look, but then he felt the need to come back in again and interrupt my class. He said: “Are you sure you’re meant to be in this room?” 

I was boiling. I said: “Yes, I’m the lecturer and I’m teaching this course,” and then he left.  

I turned to my students, most of whom were Pasifika: “This is what I’m talking about. This is why you need to be able to spread your wings, to thrive and not feel in any way intimidated. This type of behaviour is on them, not you.”

It was a lesson in real time about the racism which rears its ugly head in spaces that haven’t been historically welcoming of us. About how, as we progress through the ranks, our value, place and belonging as academics — even among our peers — is often questioned.

Before taking on this new role, I was the co-head of Te Wānanga o Waipapa (the School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies). I was asked to apply for the job when it became vacant in 2017. But I’d just finished a postdoctoral fellowship in Pacific Studies focusing on suicide prevention, after a seven-year hiatus from academia to work as a private research consultant. 

So I found the prospect quite daunting. I asked a very senior academic what I should do, and that person said: “Don’t do it. It’s career suicide. And, in actual fact, it’s nepotism.”

I was gobsmacked. They believed that because I was encouraged to apply by other senior academics, I was likely to get it because I was “their choice”. They didn’t say anything about my potential leadership skills, and what I could bring to the role. 

It was a harsh lesson in how some individuals in the academy perpetually contribute to inequities for Pacific and Māori academics. Not everyone is committed to the kaupapa, and unfortunately, some don’t see our value as academics. 

Unsurprisingly, that unfriendly environment is reflected in the statistics.

Pacific make up less than two percent of the academic workforce, and less than one percent are professors. The numbers for Māori are also underwhelming — about five percent of the academic workforce, with under four percent at the level of professor. 

Pay discrimination and inequity is also a deep concern. The evidence suggests Māori and Pacific academics are underpaid and under-promoted. In Aotearoa, Māori and Pacific women academics earn, on average, $7713 less than non-Maōri, non-Pacific male academics. We’re also 65 percent less likely to be promoted to associate professor or professor.

Which begs the question: What’s the point of being here?

I know from experience that Pasifika and Māori academics feel a strong sense of obligation to make this university and this country a better place for our students, staff, and our communities. We carry our ancestors, our families and our communities in everything we do. 

And this sense of obligation shapes not only the tautua (service) we provide and the work that we do, but also how we do it. It determines the research projects and community initiatives we choose to work on and what we teach. 

For example, many of us prefer to publish our work in Indigenous journals, like Mai Journal or Pacific Health Dialog for example. They’re free to access for our students and communities. And because their focus is Indigenous and Pacific matters, we tend to prioritise them. We also know we’re more likely to be accepted for publication in these type of journals because they closely align with our work.

But our opportunities for promotion are heightened if we publish in more prestigious European and American journals which have higher ratings on the academic research scale.  

It’s a system that totally skews the value of our research. It fails to take into account the extra work that many of us undertake to disseminate our research among our communities — for instance, translating, or having fono or hui to spread the word and effect change. 

It doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the time we spend building and maintaining relationships with our communities and our peers, getting the nod from our leaders, and contributing to work that influences change across grassroots and policy levels. 

Nor does it measure the service we provide for our students outside of the classroom — mentoring and supporting them, and helping them to deal with the challenges of an often inhospitable environment.

All of that requires time and energy, which leaves us with fewer opportunities to write for journal publications and in turn influences our chances of promotion. 

And, on top of that, we’re all, daily, dealing with the microaggressions that chip away at us. Even as a senior academic, there have been many occasions where I’ve needed to constantly assert myself just to reach the end of a sentence. But I’ve learned to breathe through these uncomfortable experiences, to read the room, and to challenge without being combative. In essence, to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

For me, all the difficult experiences over the years have both motivated and informed the push for change. I’m part of the gradual transformation that’s taking place within the university — which comes from the very top. We’re starting to see the fruits of that, as our university becomes a warmer, more welcoming place for Pacific and Māori. 

Our presence here matters. Our voice matters. Our place at the decision-making table matters.

I know only too well how important it is for students to see themselves reflected in the academy. I’ll be forever grateful to those who paved the way for me — for phenomenally inspiring women like Lita Foliaki, Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, and Konai Helu-Thaman, among many others. As a young scholar, it was heartening to see these Pacific and Māori lecturers at this university.

By being here, we’re demonstrating that Pacific can succeed in education as Pacific, while continuing to challenge the status quo alongside our tangata whenua scholars. 

It’s important, too, to assert the importance of our knowledges as Pacific peoples, as Indigenous peoples. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t a Pacific Studies scholar. 

Pacific Studies is a discipline that flips the script on its head, and reclaims and re-indigenises our cultural narratives and knowledge. It centres our voices as Pasifika, and the advocacy of those who’ve gone before. It also recognises the work we do as Pacific students and scholars outside of the western academic framework.

It’s no accident that Pacific Studies’ students and academics thrive at the University of Auckland. The course is run by, and for, Pacific — so, when Pacific Studies’ students and staff look around, they see themselves, and they truly believe they belong.

I want to see that same confidence and sense of belonging in all our Pacific students and across all our tertiary institutions. 


As told to Teuila Fuatai. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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