University of Waikato students concerned about future of the university for Māori

By Jessica Tyson

University of Waikato students Luke Moss and Jasmine Sampson say they are worried about the future of the university’s faculty of Māori and indigenous studies, Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao.

It comes after the university announced it would not reappoint Professor Brendon Hokowhitu to the role of the dean of the faculty. Only days ago it also became public that a number of Māori academics lodged a Treaty claim with the Waitangi Tribunal, accusing Waikato University of breaching the Treaty because of institutional racism.

Moss and Sampson are co-leaders of the university’s Māori support group, Te Kāuru, and say Māori students have been “left in the dark”  when the decision to not re-appoint the Professor Hokowhitu was made.

“Essentially these decisions are going to have a trickle-down effect to us as tauira (students) and the future of our studies here,” Moss says.

Protest

On Friday,  August 21 , Moss and Sampson organised a protest at the university.

“We wanted assurance that the faculty will not be divisionsalised as it was proposed to be two years ago. The second was the dean’s position to still be upheld whether or not Brendon returns and thirdly we wanted to know why he wasn’t being reappointed,” Moss says.

Following the protest the students were assured by the university that the faculty would not be divisionalised, the dean’s role would be reappointed but they were not told why there was a need to not reappoint the dean.

In a statement to Te Ao Tapatahi, a University of Waikato spokesperson said Vice-Chancellor Professor Neil Quigley and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori Dr Sarah-Jane Tiakiwai met Moss and Sampson on the day of the protest.

“The vice-chancellor indicated to the students that, although the university is unable to discuss matters relating to individual staff or provide details as to why Professor Hokowhitu’s role has not been renewed, the university had good reasons for its actions and Professor Hokowhitu was well aware of these reasons,” the spokesperson said.

The university could not discuss employment issues relating to individual employees, the spokesperson said.

“However, it can confirm that during April and May 2020 the vice-chancellor became aware of a large transaction that did not appear to have been through the required approval processes, and requested an audit of the project to which it related. The audit revealed planned expenditure of $500,000 that in the view of the university was not authorised.”

The vice-chancellor confirmed that the reporting line of the dean and the separate identity of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies would remain.

“They were negotiated and agreed in good faith and he is committed to making them work.”

The vice-chancellor also indicated that a process to recruit a new dean would start shortly.

Alleged institutionalised racism

Moss and Sampson believe the appointment of a new dean aligns with the claims from Māori academics that there is institutionalised racism at the university.

They say they haven’t experienced racism themselves at the university because teachers in the faculty of Māori and indigenous studies make sure they are sheltered from it.

“We feel safe coming to university and study here but I do know and I have friends that have experienced outside of the faculty, within different spaces of the faculty,” says Sampson.

Moss says he’s also seen other students at the university experience racism.  

“Racism I guess in today’s world is sort of evolved. It doesn’t look like racial slurs from people yelling at you not being allowed to enter certain buildings, but what it does look like is processes within the university that are said to be put in place to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi but when things like that aren’t being followed, I have to agree that is systemic racism.”

He says an example was earlier this year when a student emailed him wanting advice.

“She wanted to submit one of her assignments in te reo Māori. She was told by a staff member she couldn’t, which is not holding up the Treaty of Waitangi and the students should be allowed to submit their assignments in te reo Māori.”

Moss says the student was later allowed to submit the assignment in te reo Māori.

Māori staff members

Moss and Sampson are concerned that other Māori staff members might leave after Professor Hokowhitu leaves.

“I came to this whare wānanga because of the kaiako that are here. So if they were to leave, it leaves us with all these patai and what does that mean for the future of our studies, what does that mean for the quality of our tohu and the mātauranga that we’re learning from this whare wānanga, what does that mean if our kaiako that we came here for are no longer here anymore,” Sampson says.

Moss says, “What we’re worried about is the future of our faculty and what the future of education looks like for Māori within Waikato and the quality of education that people are going to get if they come to Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato.”

The university spokesperson says the university is committed to providing an environment conducive to learning and academic enquiry for all students, staff and other members of the University community based on the ethical values of mutual respect, honesty, trust, responsibility, tolerance and empathy.

“We are also committed to the creation of an environment in which tikanga Māori, te reo Māori and mana Māori are preserved and promoted.”

The spokesperson also said the university takes allegations of racism seriously and, if any members of the community have concerns, they're encouraged to raise them through the appropriate channel so that the university has an opportunity to investigate them.