Auckland faces ‘indigenisation of the university’ debate

New Zealand’s leading university confronts ‘enduring and complex questions’ in diversity drive, THE summit hears

September 26, 2023
Dawn Freshwater at the World Academic Summit
Source: Michael Amendolia/University of Sydney

Measures to enhance diversity at the University of Auckland are tackling “enduring and complex questions” about “whether this is an act of decolonisation, an active indigenisation of the university”, according to its vice-chancellor.

Dawn Freshwater was speaking in a session on “nurturing diverse talent” among researchers and students, at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, hosted by the University of Sydney.

In New Zealand universities, issues around diversity and equity take place in a national context where the debate over the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, and what that should mean for Maori rights and representation today, is a key question in the future of the nation’s political system.

The concept of mātauranga Māori, traditional Maori knowledge, and its implications for school and university education, has also proved controversial.

Professor Freshwater said that “nurturing diverse talent has to start by recognising that there are diverse ways of understanding knowledge systems, there are different ways of understanding traditional histories and legacies”.

“When we start to think about diverse talent, particularly in New Zealand…we have to understand the legacies of traditional knowledges…That in itself has created some tensions,” she said.

In 2021, Professor Freshwater said, she wanted the university to host a “respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views” on the relationship between science and mātauranga Māori, after a debate initiated by seven current and former Auckland professors had degenerated into what she described as “personal attacks, entrenched positions and deliberate misrepresentations of other people’s views, including my own”.

At the THE summit, Professor Freshwater referenced the Treaty of Waitangi, which she said the university was “committed to working with and understanding”.

That all “brings a different complexion to the work we do when we think about nurturing diverse talent”, she continued.

“I don’t want to talk about scholarships, I don’t want to talk about all the things we are doing in our missions,” said Professor Freshwater, though she added that Auckland, like other universities, was “enhancing those sorts of opportunities”.

“I think what we’re dealing with are much more enduring and complex questions,” she continued. “And as we work through this [university] strategy, looking at how we nurture diverse talent [in] our staff, our students and our communities, the things that we really tackle are the questions that are now being asked about whether this is an act of decolonisation, an active indigenisation of the university.”

The key question on nurturing diverse talent, said Professor Freshwater, was “how are we doing this and how are we thinking about this? Are we doing it because we authentically and genuinely believe this is really going to change the way in which we inhabit our societies in the future? Or are we doing this because it brings funding, we are able to tick the box and we can report in our KPIs to council and to government?”

The issue of “nurturing diverse talent is not simply about adding additive value to scholarships, or to [the] admissions process”, she said. “It’s actually really asking quite fundamental questions about the enduring nature of our purpose, of our place, of our space and our values.”

On enhancing diversity in university leadership, Professor Freshwater said: “We have recently pushed back on a number of shortlists for various senior leadership posts. And I work really closely with my PVC Māori and my PVC Pasifika on ways in which we can address [this] – it’s not just about the representation of the largest Polynesian population in any country in the world, situated in Auckland; it’s about getting the problem-solving around the table in terms of how to address this. And I think we’ve got to be really bold.”

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