AN OPEN LETTER TO NEW ZEALAND UNIVERSITIES
As a triple graduate, Professor, lecturer, researcher, PhD examiner and programme director with over 37 years of university service, involving five of our eight universities and their relationships with government, media, public and private organisations, I believe I am in a position to comment on certain current issues and the future direction of our tertiary education sector.
In my many years of university service, I have had the absolute privilege of representing my university employers and New Zealand, at multiple international conferences; for sabbatical periods in the UK, South-East Asia and the USA; on international accreditation bodies; and have led research for Universities New Zealand (NZ Vice Chancellors Committee).I have had papers and articles published in international journals and leading academic texts. It has been the most fantastic, enjoyable, rewarding, vocational and intellectual journey one could ever have wished for –up until now.
My personal achievements, such as they are, are not important, but the issues I wish to raise, are.
I have always regarded a university as an institution where ideas can be freely exchanged, without fear or favour; where students are exposed to a range of perspectives on any particular issue and invited to decide for themselves that issue’s validity or reliability; where scholarship and intellectual rigour is both encouraged and expected, even demanded; where research is primarily evidence-based and peer-reviewed before being adopted and/or published; where staff are valued for their intellectual attributes rather than their particular political or cultural identity; where the intellectual environment is free from political, ideological, cultural and personal coercion; and where employment relationships are built upon trust and willingness, rather than coercive measures designed to enforce particular political, social or cultural agenda. My understanding, like that of thousands of NZ university graduates of multiple ethnicities, political identities and various disciplines, has been inculcated by the world-wide acceptance of what a reputable university is supposed to be and what it actually stands for.
Have I been living in a fool’s paradise? Perhaps I have completely misunderstood the fundamental purposes of a university? Or perhaps I have completely misinterpreted the idiom that universities are “the critic and conscience of society”?
The Education Amendment Act 1990, No 60, part XIV, section 161 (2) (a) states that academic freedom in relation to a university, means:
“The freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”.
Consider then the appalling example of the Vice Chancellor of Massey University, supported by that University’s Council, in preventing Dr Don Brash from speaking on campus because “he might express “racist” views” - his topic was actually on his time as Reserve Bank Governor. The subsequent email trail was enlightening, regarding deception, dishonesty, and a total lack of transparency.
Consider also the recent incident at the University of Auckland where a group of scientists penned a letter to the Listener magazine entitled “In Defence of Science”, questioning the declared elevation of matauranga Maori to the equivalent status of world science. Whilst a very good debate could be (and should have been, perhaps must still be) conducted on this claim of parity, the outrageous condemnation by that University’s Vice Chancellor of this group for daring to raise such an issue, was startlingly bizarre and extremely damaging. This extraordinary response is tantamount to saying to world-class scientists - “what we (the university administration) declare to be ‘science’ is what you must now promote, rather than centuries of world-wide scientific advancements which you currently and falsely believe are paramount”.
It seems that such a profound, controversial claim as scientific “parity” can simply be declared to be so by university administrators without question, discussion or debate amongst staff and students, in direct contravention to the widely-held ethos of a university’s function. Have we reached the point in New Zealand universities where the administrative staff can merely declare something to be, without due academic and, in this case, scientific method, discussion or enquiry?
But the most important and deeply-disturbing trend in our universities is the extent of politically-initiated enforced acculturation of university staff, students, management, governance, courses, teaching and research, which is now endemic. It is so very sad to see once-proud independent institutions captured to such an extent by ideological and cultural activists.
Examples from a range of sources, including internal documents, include:
The (unbelievable) requirement for staff to take into account a student’s cultural identity when awarding passing grades; the now-common preferential entry to certain courses based upon a person’s ethnicity rather than their individual merit; the cabinet-directed biased weighting of PBRF research funding by a factor of 3, for projects proposed or being conducted by a particular cultural minority, to the exclusion of others; the inclusion of compulsory minority cultural elements in mainstream academic courses, which must be passed before a student can graduate (in one university, eight such papers are required in order to graduate); a continuum of coercion whereby staff are measured and monitored on their bicultural capability in tikanga and their understanding of and commitment to, the treaty of Waitangi and it’s (undefined) principles, as a condition of academic appointment and promotion; the enforced participation in and use of prayers and other spiritual beliefs, incorporating the Maori world view (Te Ao Maori) at university occasions, in management and governance, and in internal meetings; the abandonment of historical academic and university traditions going back to medieval times; and documentary evidence of direct political (Cabinet) involvement in key aspects of university life, resulting in a serious dilution of standards of excellence and intellectual freedoms.
Direct political control of our universities is in stark contradiction to the ethos of a university; is disingenuous; and is utterly unacceptable in a democracy such as New Zealand. This political control uses funding as its primary lever, and incorporates adverse career or institutional penalties for non-compliance. It is based on two politically-fabricated myths which must be exposed for the absolute untruths which they are:
Firstly, the myth that the Treaty of Waitangi constitutes or constituted a “partnership” between the Crown (ie the government of New Zealand, as it was in 1840) and some 500 individual hapu and iwi of our Maori people. In the New Zealand Constitution, the Treaty is a mere convention. It is not a legal document. This myth is based upon an opinion, an “obiter dictum” or aside comment, by Justice Robin Cooke in the 1987 Court of Appeal “Lands” case, where he opined that the Treaty was “akin” to a partnership between Maori and the Crown. Five judges sat on this case, two of who declined to share Cooke’s opinion. Cooke later lessened his opinion significantly, using the term “analogous” to a partnership. There is no law or authority which requires universities to operate in “partnership” with any entity. Adherence to the Treaty’s “principles” is an additional requirement, except that the “principles” are nowhere defined, and range from two to twenty-six separate “principles” having been discovered by modern-day “experts”. In other words the claimed “partnership” is a modern-day opinion of political and cultural activists who maintain that the Treaty does not mean what it actually says, but what they say it means. How valid is that?
If such a “partnership” was established and endures today, let our academics and legal and constitutional experts provide conclusive, unequivocal, evidence that this is, and was indeed intended to be, the inevitable outcome of Treaty negotiations in 1840. But, to base such an argument solely on presentism and personal opinion, without any evidence, as the basis for establishing significant institutional relationships is invalid, if not dishonest.
The second myth permeating our universities is the widespread incorporation of the political construct that New Zealand is “officially” bi-cultural, ie comprises just two cultures. The reality of course is that New Zealand embraces over 100 different cultural groups or identities, all of them deserving of official recognition and support. To declare New Zealand to be bicultural is to ignore the statistical reality that New Zealand today comprises many different cultural groups. Our Asian peoples, for example, now comprise 15% of the population, estimated to increase to 25% by 2030. Should not the recognition of the existence and needs of this ethnic minority also be officially recognised? Or, perhaps, the needs and wants of our African, Middle Eastern, Islamic and South Asian communities too? Apparently not. These communities are invisible in our “bicultural” society, and clearly do not warrant the attention or interest of our university and government directors.
The recognition of minority groups in our society, and their current and future well-being, is of course a legitimate concern. Indeed, our universities would be remiss in ignoring the concerns, needs and interests of minorities. But, the response of our universities in dealing with just one minority ethnic group and excluding others, is seriously and badly misplaced, especially if preferential advantages are to be accorded solely on the basis of ethnicity. Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist and former Marxist puts it very well in his American best-seller, “Intellectuals and Society” (Basic Books, 2011). Sowell advocates that for minorities to succeed, two things need to be considered - opportunity and ability. (See chapters 16-19, Intellectuals and Race). There is no doubt that unlimited opportunities exist for members of any ethnic or minority group in New Zealand today, to aspire to the highest offices in the land. There is no public office in New Zealand today to which any citizen, regardless of their ethnic or political identity, cannot accede.
So, why are our universities jeopardising their hard-won international reputations for academic and research excellence, by embracing direct political and cultural interference and manipulation in their affairs? Entry to our universities must primarily be based upon individual merit and be open to anyone regardless of their political identity. Such entry must require minimum academic standards and not discriminate by giving preferential entry or requiring lesser entry criteria based upon one’s particular political identity - for to do so creates another injustice by denying an otherwise more worthy candidate a place.
Once accepted into a university, all students must demonstrate their ability to earn their qualifications on the same basis, irrespective of their political or cultural identity. To reduce or manipulate passing criteria in favour of political, cultural or social elements is to demean the qualifications of all those graduates who in the past, have worked and strived hard to earn their degrees and diplomas, without artificial “adjustments” based on their political identity.
Using coercion to require staff to embrace and conform to cultural and spiritual practices as a condition of their employment, is not only contrary to the so-called “freedoms “ which the Education Act espouses but is also illegal under our Human Rights legislation. If embracing minority cultural values is optional or entirely voluntary, a different result could easily be realised. Surely, an individual staff member must have the right to decline such enforced acculturation without penalty? I challenge the universities to confirm that a staff member or any other person who opposes or declines to participate in tikanga protocols, will not in any way be penalised, explicitly or implicitly, for their stance?
Finally, our universities are part of the world-wide academic community, where merit, excellence and individual abilities in teaching and research determine their reputation and therefore their credibility. Direct political interference in the governance, management, programme content, research and teaching in our universities cannot and must not continue, if our hard-won reputation for international excellence is not to be diminished.
In summary, I have been privileged to contribute to the education of a very large number of students of all nationalities and ethnicities. My graduates of many ethnicities and backgrounds, including Maori and Pasifika, whose collective and individual achievements I am particularly proud of, did not receive, nor did they expect or request, any particular preference or advantage, over any other student. Today they hold many senior positions in business, management, the bureaucracy, government, Maori incorporations and education. They would be appalled to think that somehow they did not get there by their own hard work and efforts. The same can be said of the many hundreds of Asian students I have had the privilege of teaching. To assume any of them would have needed, or been offered, (let alone expected or demanded), “special treatment” is insulting and demeaning in the extreme.
Henry Armstrong is retired, follows politics, and writes.
This piece first appeared at Breaking Views