Many academics are nervous about saying what they think – but they should be okay if what they say is mana-enhancing

ACT MP James McDowall alerted us to new research showing an ominous level of apprehension among Kiwi academics about speaking freely at New Zealand universities.  He said this highlights the urgent need for his Member’s Bill, which requires tertiary education institutions to protect freedom of expression.

Curia research, commissioned by the Free Speech Union, found almost half of the academics who responded are concerned about raising differing perspectives or discussing issues related to gender and sex and half don’t feel free to debate or discuss Treaty issues.

McDowall acknowledged that tertiary education institutions are required by the Education Act 1989 and the Bill of Rights Act 1990 to uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression.

But universities have barred speakers and cancelled events citing ‘mental harm’ to students.

“Essentially, there are no consequences if an institution actively inhibits freedom of expression without legitimate cause.”

His Bill requires tertiary education institutions to protect freedom of expression, including the issuing of codes of practice that set out the procedures students and staff should follow to uphold freedom of expression, and by ensuring that the requirements of codes of practice are met.

Tertiary education institutions would not be allowed to rely on their duty to eliminate or minimise potential risk of mental harm to students, staff, or visitors under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 as a reason not to comply with their duty to ensure freedom of speech.

Tertiary education institutions, moreover, would be ineligible for funding, and may have funding suspended, revoked, or withdrawn, if they failed to comply with the requirement to protect freedom of expression.

“I encourage the Government to address this growing problem across our academic institutions and adopt my Member’s Bill.”   

Good luck with that.

Sam Sachdeva, Newsroom’s national affairs editor, today has reported on the new survey and the insight it provides into how lecturers perceive their own ability to speak out

The researchers asked academics to assess their own freedom on a number of issues on a scale of zero to 10.

Newsroom reports:

The lowest scoring area was freedom to debate or discuss issues around the Treaty of Waitangi and colonialism, with an average rating of 5.4.

On freedom to question and test received wisdom, the average score was 5.9, while for freedom to raise differing perspectives and argue against the consensus it was 5.8.

The areas of greatest perceived freedom were in engaging in research of their choice, with an average score of 7.4, and criticising the Government, at 7.0.

Curia principal David Farrar told Newsroom he believed the most noteworthy aspect of the findings was not the overall results but the large numbers on either extreme of the spectrum (as shown in a table published by Newsroom).

“If I was a university, that’s what I would be very focused on: why is there such a big difference in views amongst the academic staff?”

Around 17,000 academics were contacted for the survey, with 1266 responding.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan told Newsroom the country’s universities were “committed to upholding the principles of academic freedom enshrined in” legislation.

“These state that academic staff and students are free, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.”

Whelan said the only limits on those freedoms, other than illegality, were breaches of ethical standards such as misrepresenting or ignoring evidence which would normally be determined by other academics.

Point of Order sensed a big “but” was coming.

Sure enough, Whelan proceeded to say universities were also committed to upholding the principles of Te Tiriti, including broader goals of supporting mātauranga Māori (or Māori knowledge systems).

They asked that discussion of the topic remain “respectful and mana-enhancing”.

Mana-enhancing? What does this require?

It would be good to know the answer, because “mana” is a critical factor for Tertiary Education Union national secretary Sandra Grey when she determines what is acceptable.

Asked about the discussion of mātauranga Māori, she said the union had received more reports from academics who felt under pressure to stop their teaching on the topic than from those who felt unable to express critical views.

“We would defend the right of all scholars to sit down and do proper scholarly debate, but there are limits to academic freedom, the same as any type of speech…

“As a union, we would say that if the words you are about to speak are going to cause harm to others, you should reconsider, because actually, there is nothing in academic freedom that says we should be able to go out and make other people feel belittled, or their mana taken down.”

It would be instructive to know what  Whelan and Grey make of the mana-enhancing (or otherwise) opinions exchanged after the Listener published the letter in defence of science from seven University of Auckland professors last year.

Yes, the language would have been vituperative on both sides, but we had our attention drawn to the language of Joanna Kidman, daughter of a celebrated New Zealand writer Fiona Kidman.

A Māori sociology academic of Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Raukawa descent and “a full professor at Victoria University of Wellington”, Joanna twittered:

Oh settlers! Opened the Letters page of the Listener to find a bunch of University of Auckland professors, incl Liz Rata, denying that Mātauranga Māori is science. Where do these shuffling zombies come from? Is there something in the water?

When celebrated British scientist Richard Dawkins pitched into the debate on the side of the defenders of science, she twittered:

Richard Dawkins, OWG in excelsis, argues, with numerous factual errors about indigenous knowledge, that @royalsocietynz shouldn’t follow up on complaints made about its fellows In other, related, news, OWG barks at moon.


Old white guy, we suspect, but “w” might be short for “wisdom”.

Siouxie Wiles, a British-educated microbiologist and science communicator who is an associate professor at the University of Auckland and 2021 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, characterised some of her critics as “dinosaurs”.

I am listening to a talk by @WellingtonUni economist Peter Fraser & it is just the antidote I needed to all the emails I’m getting from the dinosaurs outraged by the fact that I have publicly supported my incredible Māori colleagues and their scholarship and world view.

Newsroom proceeded to note something that that has escaped the attention of the mainstream media.

In the aftermath of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s dismissing complaints against Professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola (who chose to resign as members and fellows citing an “untoward political focus”), a group of over 75 society fellows has written to the society demanding an apology to the co-authors over its handling of the matter, as well as a review of its code of conduct and wider organisational structure.

Massey University professor Gaven Martin, who has led the call for an apology and review, said the Royal Society had attempted to “completely shut down debate” on an academically contentious issue.

Martin said a number of academics no longer trusted the organisation following the investigation, while there were broader concerns about how members of its council were appointed and the inability of members to have a say over its decisions.

Newsroom understands the Royal Society is due to hold an extraordinary meeting in Wellington on April 13 to discuss the concerns.

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