Earlier this week, University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon told Craccum the university would not condemn or remove white supremacist stickers found on campus. His reasoning: the university has a duty to uphold free speech. As part of that duty, it can’t be seen to be taking sides in contentious debates… Really?
I’ll admit the university can’t take sides in genuinely contentious debates. It would be wrong for the university to take a stance on abortion laws, or the Hong Kong protests, for example. The university has hundreds of reasonable, level-headed students and staff who sit on either side of each debate – promoting one view over the other might cause the neglected side to feel unfairly excluded and persecuted.
But racism is not a ‘contentious issue’. I refuse to accept the university cannot take a stance against racism on campus. Taking such a stance should be automatic – it should occur almost without thinking.
And yet, McCutcheon maintains the university can’t condemn the most recent outbreak of racist rhetoric on campus, for fear of appearing to take sides. In his view, since the posters aren’t illegal, taking them down would be a breach of the university’s implicit commitment to protecting freedom of speech on campus – a commitment made to both students and staff.
But what about the university’s other, more explicit commitments? Like its commitment to creating a “safe, inclusive and equitable environment”, as outlined in the university’s Student Charter. Or its commitment to having “zero tolerance for all forms of bullying, harassment and discrimination”, as the university’s many ‘Zero Tolerance’ posters claim.
Clearly, unlike the university’s commitment to free speech, these other commitments don’t mean anything. They’re little more than words on a paper: vague, unenforceable, feel-good promises that can’t be cashed in for actual action. They’re meaningless, like the promise McCutcheon made to the public in April, when, after students alleged there was a growing white supremacist movement on campus, he told media he would “always act” to fight racism and discrimination on university grounds.
It’s not all bad news though: McCutcheon did promise Craccum the university will intervene if the group look like they’ve begun “inciting people to violence”. (I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a terrifying statement.)
But will it really take someone enacting violence for the university to sit-up and take note? Will we have to wait until someone is injured – or, even worse, killed – before the university has the evidence it needs to officially ban racist posters from campus?
While we wait for that to happen, the thousands of minorities attending university will continue to live in fear of persecution. They’ll continue to attend classes and lectures with the knowledge that white supremacists stalk the campus grounds – and that the university knows of this, and allows it to happen.
Having met McCutcheon, I don’t believe for a second that he holds racist views himself. He isn’t prejudiced against particular students. He doesn’t want white supremacists to spread their message on campus. He’s simply doing what he believes is right.
But his understanding of what’s right might not cut it here. As an aging, heterosexual, white male, I don’t believe he’s fully equipped to appreciate the impact racist rhetoric on university grounds can have on the students and staff who attend there. He clearly doesn’t see these posters as a real threat to the safety and dignity of minorities on campus. To him, these racist posters are probably just the harmless by-product of a toothless white supremacy movement.
But ask the minorities on campus if they believe these groups are harmless. Ask the post-graduate students who filed reports alleging a Neo-Nazi student had made them feel unsafe. Ask the Asian students who were called “locusts” and threatened with “extinction” in an unofficial University of Auckland reddit thread. Ask the victims of the Christchurch shooting.
White supremacy is real, and alive, and it’s on university grounds. As a University of Auckland student, all I want is for my university to take a public stand against it – to say it won’t allow these white supremacist groups to promote their cause on campus.
I don’t want to belong to a university which protects racists from having their views attacked. I don’t want to belong to a university which says white supremacists have a place in their community. I don’t want to belong to a university which genuinely believes banning racists from campus might not be the right thing to do.
For far too long, the university has shunted the responsibility of battling racist rhetoric onto the shoulders of students, staff, and minorities. That’s not enough anymore – neutrality isn’t enough anymore. It’s time for the university to come off the fence and pick a side. As one protestor put it in a placard displayed in the campus quad: it’s time for the university to “fuckin’ do something”.