A thirteen page open letter addressed to the University of Waikato Council released earlier this month calls for the support of Māori who have experienced systemic and casual racism at the university. The letter has gained over seven thousand signatories by academics both from New Zealand and overseas.
The open letter calls for the university to “reject and eliminate structural and casual racism at the University of Waikato and immediately set in place procedures that protect Māori academic endeavour”. It also states “most Māori academics in New Zealand Universities personally experience or have witnessed structural or everyday racism in their work environments.”
Sociology lecturer at the University of Auckland Dr. Sereana Naepi, who was one of the organisers of the open letter, says that “research shows us that this is a sector wide issue, this time the University of Waikato has been highlighted but recent and long term data shows us it could have easily been any other university in this country.”
According to University of Auckland’s Equity Profile 2019, Māori made up 6.6% of staff at the University of Auckland. Only two of the eight categories either met or exceeded the University’s 2019 targets for Māori staff proportions. Māori staff in senior academic positions and senior professional staff exceeded targets made by the university.
A staff member at the University of Auckland says that she has had pressure to discourage students from writing assignments in Te Reo, has been confronted with the idea that ensuring that there is enough seating in class is unnecessary as “Māori and Pacific students will drop out anyways”, and has experienced casual racism expressed by colleagues. “I have colleagues who have told me stories that are much worse though, so it does seem like my whiteness has protected me from a lot of it.”
The University of Waikato has since announced that an independent review will be taken. Nonetheless, Dr. Naepi says that important questions should be asked about the review, as research done on university dealings with complaints suggests that choices in reviewers and limitations placed on who can share their experiences can be restrictive.
A staff member stated that “for the Waikato review this seems to be a top-down led initiative. I am ultimately not hopeful that getting outside experts will lead to any systemic change, when many of Waikato’s experts on racism have already said there is an issue”.
So what course of action should be taken? The open letter called for the university to “demonstrate its commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi, ti Matauranga Māori and Te Reo Māori in every aspect of the management and operation of the University.” Dr. Naepi hopes that the “University of Auckland leads the way in incorporating Te Tiriti into [the] institution, i.e moving beyond just acknowledgement and instead having the principles drive our strategic plan and institutional culture.” The writing process for a strategic plan is underway which seeks to see Te Tiriti front and centre.
According to one staff member, “In [their] experience, even most of the right wing ones – are wanting there to be genuine partnership and engagement with Māori and for universities and institutions to do their bit as a treaty partner. Racism at universities has impacts on students and staff and ultimately impacts on research, teaching, the future workforce and many of the other engagements academics have with the media, government and so on.”