Racism, bullying and discrimination, to a Mātauranga Māori department - Inside Otago's Matariki epiphany

By Will Trafford

Otago University has made a Matariki commitment to integrating indigenous knowledge within its curriculum, following a damning report that revealed systemic racism at the institution.

The university was in dire need of "transformational change" and racism, discrimination and bullying was endemic, a March report from former University of Canterbury assistant Māori, Pacific and equity vice-chancellor Dr Darryn Russell found.

Otago now says it’s had some time to reflect on the report in the lead-up to Matariki, and says a crucial pillar of addressing inequities will be to integrate indigenous teachings within the curriculum; the university unveiling a plan to open a centre entirely focused on indigenous science.

The new department will be overseen by Māori academic, Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson (Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu o Whangaroa, Ngāti Wai).

“The Centre of Indigenous Science will be one of the first of its kind in Aotearoa, so this is an opportunity to continue to grow an academic department and scholarship based on ngā kaupapa Māori in sciences,” Associate Professor Jackson says.

Jackson says Mātauranga Māori will be central to the new department’s teachings, with the curriculum’s development, the result of community outreach.

Controversial academic topic

“We will take this time to reach out to our whānau, hapū, iwi, to our communities and networks and bring together the philosophical understanding and underpinnings of Indigenous science,” she says.

Mātauranga Māori in academia was in the headlines last year after a number of professors from Auckland University were panned for an open letter published in the NZ Listener, where they dismissed Mātauranga Māori as a relevant field of tertiary study.

The University of Auckland publicly distanced itself from the sentiments, although some Māori academics have argued Pākehā institutions haven't earned the right to teach Mātauranga Māori.

Leading Otago University law professor Jacinta Ruru says the Centre of Indigenous Science will create a more culturally competent class of graduates, and Otago is acknowledging the benefits Mātauranga Māori on offer in fields like biodiversity and the climate crisis.

“Otago will be soon graduating students who have a deeper understanding of mātauranga Māori; they will be of enormous service to iwi, hapū and whānau, and to our nation,” Professor Ruru (Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Maniapoto) says.

“As a country, we need to value and apply more mātauranga … This is a huge moment for Otago and tertiary education worldwide," Ruru says.

Aspirational kaupapa

Ruru and Jackson are both past and present leaders of the Māori Centre of Research Excellence (Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga); Professor Jackson was one of the first 500 Māori doctoral scholars to graduate through the Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga vision.

“This kaupapa is aspirational for our communities and taiohi. There might be a student, kid, or whānau member who sees us, and they can see themselves standing right where we are, to normalise excellence,” Jackson says.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard Barker backs up Jackson’s sentiment, saying he looks forward to the department developing a "highly attractive invaluable programme".

“As one of the first of its kind in indigenous science, the centre’s time has come,” Barker said.