Stuart McCutcheon has emailed University of Auckland staff

‘I have listened to our people’: Auckland University vice-chancellor responds to white supremacy on campus concerns

In an email to colleagues, Stuart McCutcheon says he acknowledges the ‘very real hurt and sense of threat’ caused by white supremacist materials and says now is not time for a free speech debate.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland has responded to an outcry among staff and students over white supremacist materials on campus. In an email to staff, seen by The Spinoff, Stuart McCutcheon acknowledges “the real hurt and sense of threat that some people in our university community (students and staff) feel in response to these expressions of white supremacist views”.

McCutcheon implicitly acknowledges his earlier remarks were ill-judged, saying in the email that the response from the university community had prompted him to resolve that “the most important matter right now is not a debate about free speech, which I think we should put to one side for the moment.”

His comments follow an open letter published last week, in which staff, students and alumni wrote to “declare that racism and white supremacy have no place at the University of Auckland.” The letter, which followed McCutcheon’s refusal to take action over stickers and posters from a white supremacist group on campus, has now been signed by more than 1,300 people, including many of the university’s most senior academics.

Last week a group of students and staff scoured the campus to cover the white supremacist group’s material with posters including the words “ZERO tolerance for protecting human rights and dignity – if the UoA can’t protect minority students from hate in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, they have no right to take these posters down.”

On Thursday, a group of about 100 students occupied the university clock tower to demand the vice-chancellor’s resignation.

The posters and stickers promoted a website which issued a challenge to “return” New Zealand into the hands of “strong men” and called for “young white men [to] assume the mantle of re-taking control of our own country”.

In his email to staff, McCutcheon addresses his comments made to Craccum. He had told the university magazine: “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.”

He writes in the all-staff email: “The contest of views is a key function of a university in a democracy. I do not believe that it is the role of the vice-chancellor to censor views that are within the law, even when he or others in the university do not agree with them. That is the point I was trying to make in my interview with Craccum magazine last week.”

He adds: “However, based on the many comments I have received in recent days from students and staff members on this issue, I recognise that the most important matter right now is not a debate about free speech, which I think we should put to one side for the moment.”

McCutcheon stops short of an apology, but acknowledges the impact of the white supremacist propaganda on students and staff.

“The most important matter right now is the very real hurt and sense of threat that some people in our University community (students and staff) feel in response to these expressions of white supremacist views,” he writes.

“I acknowledge that hurt, and I have listened carefully to, and understood, the concerns of our people.”

Update, 8.30pm: The Auckland University Students’ Association reports that McCutcheon has, further to his email, confirmed that posters and stickers from the group will be removed from campus. According to AUSA, he said: “As part of this, Security, as well as staff and students, have and will continue to remove these stickers or any other form of publicity from this group. Our shared commitment is to create a university community that is truly safe, inclusive and equitable for everyone.”

The full email

Dear colleagues

I would like to clarify my position on the recent debate about free speech at the University.

Let me be very clear: I am, always have been, and always will be utterly opposed to prejudice, discrimination and hate speech of any kind, including the kind that is characterised as “white supremacy”. I recognise the impact that such behaviours have on those against whom they are directed. I also applaud and support others who have spoken out against those kinds of behaviour.

Any discrimination, including racism, homophobia and sexism, is totally inconsistent with the values of the University of Auckland and our commitment to being safe, inclusive and equitable. It has no place on our campuses.

Moreover, the University can – and does – act on complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination, when they are brought to our attention.

I also believe that freedom of speech is important in a democracy and in a university. Sometimes the free expression of conflicting views, even when done appropriately and within the law, may lead to some people feeling hurt or upset by those views.

While one would wish to avoid that as far as possible, the contest of views is a key function of a university in a democracy. I do not believe that it is the role of the Vice-Chancellor to censor views that are within the law, even when he or others in the University do not agree with them.

That is the point I was trying to make in my interview with Craccum magazine last week.

However, based on the many comments I have received in recent days from students and staff members on this issue, I recognise that the most important matter right now is not a debate about free speech, which I think we should put to one side for the moment. There has been the suggestion it could be a “hot topics” subject for Senate and that seems a good idea.

The most important matter right now is the very real hurt and sense of threat that some people in our University community (students and staff) feel in response to these expressions of white supremacist views.

I acknowledge that hurt, and I have listened carefully to, and understood, the concerns of our people.

My priority as Vice-Chancellor is to continue working with students and staff to address this challenging issue and to create a University community that is truly safe, inclusive and equitable for everyone.

Stuart McCutcheon

Vice-Chancellor


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