With students in lockdown, universities had to get creative (Photo: Getty Images)

We know there is structural racism in our universities. So how should they change?

The current conversation should prompt all universities to closely examine both how and what they teach, writes Massey University provost Giselle Byrnes.

Much has been said lately about structural racism in the New Zealand university system. While these allegations have been specifically raised at the University of Waikato, all eight of the country’s universities have been positioned as guilty by association. What does this mean and how might our universities thoughtfully respond?

The recent Gardiner Parata Report, commissioned to examine claims of racism at the University of Waikato, exonerated the vice chancellor and university management of the specific charges, but concluded that “public institutions in our country are founded in our settlement history, including our universities and education system, which also embody and adhere to western university tradition and culture” and that “these institutions therefore, are structurally, systemically, and casually discriminatory”.

For those of us who work in the New Zealand university system, accusations of systemic, structural and casual racism and the explanation offered for this do not come as a huge surprise. This is not to say that we ought to condone racist thought and behaviour or accept discrimination, or that we should continue to ignore the invisible dominance of structural whiteness, but it is to admit this is our reality – and that we need to do something about it.

While this country’s universities have evolved and adapted over time to suit our local conditions, they are nonetheless part and parcel of the wider colonial enterprise, and they are enduring products of our colonial history. In the British invasion and resettlement of Aotearoa New Zealand in the 19th century, education was given a place in the vanguard of settlement and universities, as public institutions and places of higher learning and scholarship, were quickly prioritised. The first New Zealand university was established in the South Island as early as 1869, while the rest of the colony was still in the grip of a brutal war of sovereignty. Our forebears recognised that power and authority were buttressed by institutionalised and codified knowledge, and universities were a key part of this plan.

Universities also have a longer history that pre-dates British ambitions of imperial expansion into the south Pacific. Tracing their intellectual lineage back to the very first academies in ancient Greece and north Africa, universities have historically been seen as places of importance in carving out a new social order and in defining what mattered. While the very first European universities had strong religious affiliations and focused on theology, law, medicine and the arts, the variety of academic disciplines we recognise today is a much later development, a gift of German 19th century rationalism.

Fast forward to the present and universities are now also public institutions with a mandate to exercise civic leadership; to deliver wider social benefits that go well beyond their narrowly funded activities of teaching and research. According to the 1989 Education Act, universities in New Zealand are expected to be concerned with advanced learning and to develop intellectual independence. They are defined as repositories of knowledge and expertise, places where research and teaching are closely interdependent, and they are expected to meet international standards of research and teaching. And significantly, universities in New Zealand accept a role as “critic and conscience” of society.

If universities, as social and cultural institutions, are products of their day, then this does not mean they are inherently racist and impervious to change. Just as society itself has shifted, universities can and do change over time – and often at a faster pace than they are usually given credit for. Think, for instance, of the ways in which New Zealand’s universities and their staff rapidly pivoted to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, most moving teaching online within a matter of days to ensure continuity of learning and support for students, or the contribution made by our universities’ scientists, epidemiologists and data modellers.

So, if they are capable of change, what should our universities do? I think we must begin to examine both how and what we teach – including the content of our curriculum – alongside re-examining the frames of reference we use to conduct research. Decolonising the curriculum, one of the catch-cries of the Black Lives Matter movement, is seen as being fundamental to effecting any real change. After all, universities create new knowledge, shape the next generation of leaders and signal, by virtue of what appears in the curriculum and which knowledge systems have value. Acknowledging that universities have a history steeped in colonisation, we ought to also be debating just what a decolonised curriculum can and should look like

As Savo Heleta has observed in the context of South Africa, the dismantling of the “pedagogy of big lies” rooted in colonialism demands a complete reconstruction of everything that universities do and stand for, “from institutional cultures to epistemology and curriculum”. Haleta and others have called for ambitious change, for new ways of teaching, for a revision of curriculum content and embracing research methods that “engage in critical epistemic questioning” of knowledge.

What I am advocating for is a sceptical and conscious interrogation of our dominant knowledge systems, and an exposé of the privilege and power that these knowledge systems preserve. My own university has already committed to being a Te Tiriti o Waitangi led university, the first of its kind, which means tackling the sort of challenges I have outlined above. For some this is an audacious (even naive) aspiration, while others express surprise that we are not yet there. Our journey has just started and we have some way to go. If indeed the past is unjust – and in the context of the history of our country, this is irrefutable – then it does not mean this must be the case for the future. Universities have a responsibility to ensure this is so.



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