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Why Waikato University is being accused of structural racism

Waikato University has started an internal inquiry after a number of senior Māori staff alleged structural racism from the institution. One former and one current staff member say the issue’s been bubbling away for years.

In 2018, staff and students of the University of Waikato’s Māori and Indigenous Studies faculty fought to stop the faculty being demoted, and placed under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Former Waikato University staffer, Professor Leonie Pihama, says the incident is just one example of the university underappreciating the work they did and is symbolic of a much larger structural racism issue that has now been brought to light. 

After university management did not renew the contracts of world-renowned indigenous studies professor Dr Linda Tuhiwai-Smith and faculty dean Dr Brendan Hokowhitu, a letter was written by six Waikato University staff to the Ministry of Education addressing structural racism, including lower pay for Māori staff and a lack of commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Dr Rangi Matamua, a celebrated Māori astronomer and tātai arorangi expert, has worked at the university since 2011 and says he doesn’t see much of a future at Waikato unless some serious changes are made.

“It’s not new to us. We’ve always battled for equality, recognition and the right to study at institutions. What has changed in the last five-to-six years is just how it’s been applied within this institution, how oppressive it is and how culturally unsafe many of us feel at the institution as Māori academics,” he says.

“There are times when you have certain values that you truly believe in when you have to take a stance, and this is mine.”

For progress to happen in this space, Matamua says the university first needs to acknowledge its own wrongdoings and that so far, it hasn’t done anything towards making that happen.

“I don’t think that anything can be done at all unless those people who are sitting at the top of the university are willing to accept that racism is an issue here and then we can start putting together an approach to make sure that we stamp out any behaviour like that.”

Associate Professor Leonie Pihama (Image: Supplied)

Structural racism is the reason Leonie Pihama left the University of Waikato in October 2019. The successful Māori academic was the director of Te Kotahi Research Institute at the university and says she’s not at all surprised about the current push for change.

“I think the Māori and Indigenous Studies faculty pushes way above its weight in the context of the university. When you have six Māori professors, who’ve been at Waikato for a very long time and have been very committed to the university, saying that it’s become intolerable to work there as a senior Māori staffer, then you really have major issues at hand. It comes down to the way the university values or doesn’t value Māori people, and values or doesn’t value Māori language, culture and knowledge.”

Pihama and Matamua agree that the issue is more widespread than just Waikato University, and is representative of a failure by the Crown to ensure universities are fulfilling their Treaty obligations. Pihama says it’s a government responsibility to ensure universities are following Treaty principles.

“The government isn’t taking any responsibility for the fact that a Crown-funded institution is doing this and that other Crown-funded institutions are doing this. They’re acting like they’re a step away from the universities, but they’re not. These are state-funded institutions, they should be bound by the Treaty in the same way that government agencies are bound by the Treaty.”

Both academics also add they emphasise students caught in a year where they’ve had to deal with both the effects of Covid-19 and professors who are in a struggle for their rights within the institution.

“The reason that I’m still here is because of my students and the love for my students. We have amazing students at this institution – wonderful young, vibrant, hungry, and intelligent,” says Matamua.

“What many of them are having to deal with now is the fact that racism exists in institutions like this. Our students have marched and protested at the university against the various developments that have occurred at the institution over recent times. They’ve expressed their frustration and their position, so I applaud them. I really applaud the students and they’re my major concern.”

Matamua is interested to see where the fight goes from here. Whether he stays at the university or not, he says he’s hopeful that the necessary changes are made to ensure the cultural safety of all Māori staff and students at Waikato University.

“I know there’s an open letter that’s been signed thousands of times so far and is continuing to grow. We’ve fielded calls from far and wide, both domestically and internationally. I think it comes [from] a much larger movement around the world. People are really starting to call out racism in any way, shape or form where it exists, and are starting to push back against some of the institutional structures that really enable racism to survive and we’re calling it out here.”



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