A large and growing group of staff at the University of Auckland have spoken out over the re-emergence of white supremacist propaganda on campus in an open letter.
The staff members, including many of the most senior academics at the university, write: “The signatories of this letter declare that racism and white supremacy have no place at the University of Auckland.”
The open letter, which by mid afternoon had been signed by 450 people, was created after Craccum reported that a new batch of posters and stickers had appeared on campus issuing white-supremacist dog-whistles. The stickers linked to a website which urged “young white men [to] assume the mantle of re-taking control of our own country”.
The university vice-chancellor, Stuart McCutcheon, told Craccum the posters were “unfortunate”, but he would not be instructing staff to remove the posters. The university did not officially condemn the group or their message.
“I think there is a balancing act – and it’s particularly important at a university – between the rights of the people to free speech and the rights of people not to be upset by things,” he told Craccum. “The stickers themselves aren’t illegal … The particular posters I have seen … are not of themselves hate speech, they are not illegal, they are not inciting people to violence.”
He added: “I know some people go from those posters to [the group’s website] and form a view that it’s a right-wing or white supremacist group and they may well be right. But [the group] are … not illegal, and so I tend to the view that we should promote free speech wherever we can.”
In the open letter, the university staff are unequivocal: “We have no difficulty in identifying this group and such displays as white supremacist in nature.”
They continue: “Likewise, it is easy to state that the sentiments and ambitions it expresses are at odds with our nation’s foundation via Te Tiriti o Waitangi, however imperfectly observed: we never were a country for white men. Making this identification – along with an understanding of where such sentiments can lead – is part of the professional expertise of many scholars and students here at the University of Auckland. Finally, as human beings we clearly see that these sentiments are at odds with the norms of decent behaviour.”
The letter began circulating last Wednesday and its list of signatories has grown rapidly since.
To date, it includes more than 30 professors and six “distinguished professors” – a status denoting “those who have attained positions of international eminence of the highest order”. There are a total of 18 distinguished professors at the university. Four of the original group of five distinguished professors have so far signed: Dame Anne Salmond, Distinguished Professor of Māori Studies and Anthropology; Sir Peter Gluckman, Distinguished University Professor, Liggins Institute; Brian Boyd, Distinguished Professor of English; and Peter Hunter, Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering.
Others on the list of signatories include Marston Conder, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, Stephen Davies, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Professors of Physics Richard Easther and Shaun Hendy, Jane Kelsey, Professor of Law, and Juliet Gerrard, a Professor of Biochemistry who also serves as the prime minister’s chief science adviser.
The university’s acting vice-chancellor, John Morrow, said he had no doubt that Professor McCutcheon, who is currently overseas, would applaud the initiative.
“Universities are established to be society’s critic and conscience and this is what we would expect from our community,” he told The Spinoff in an email.
“The open letter demonstrates our staff members’ exercise of their right to academic freedom and makes a welcome contribution to ongoing debate on matters that are central to the university’s values.”
The letter addresses the free speech question directly: “We understand the ‘absolutist’ position that some take that freedom of speech extends to the right to speak in ways that are hateful,” it reads.
“We also understand that the language of rights is complex and nuanced, recognising that such displays create an environment that brings harm to segments of our community, fraying the cultural tapestry that provides our diverse campus community with vitality and energy. We also note that by virtue of their race, gender, class, country of origin, religious affiliation, sexual or gender identity, many people empowered to judge conduct on university campuses are less likely to be the focus of hate speech, and may be slower to recognise its impact on its intended targets. However, ‘speech’ has many forms, including gesture and nonviolent protest. If these posters constitute ‘free speech’, the same can be said of the actions of individuals who remove those that they encounter.”
The letter concludes: “Let us make this clear: these posters and the people who created them do not represent this University. As staff, students and alumni of the University of Auckland, we work to ensure that such sentiments do not take hold on campus. Our goal is to ensure that everyone who comes here flourishes within an environment that celebrates free and open enquiry, teaches the lessons of the past, and builds a better future for all.”
Yesterday, a group of students and staff trawled the campus removing and pasting over any white supremacist linked material. One student carried a sign which called on the university to “fucken’ do something”, while others hung up posters which lampooned the university’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ campaign. This university has “ZERO tolerance for protecting human rights and dignity”, the posters read.
Edited from an article written by The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire