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Academic stands by students defending Pacific and Māori spaces at NZ uni

Professor Jemaima Tiatia-Siau says despite the intense backlash over Auckland University’s decision, she praised the students’ solidarity to fight for their "second home".

Pacific and Māori students unifying to defend their spaces at the University of Auckland have been praised for their solidarity.

New Zealand's world-ranked university was criticised in March about a controversial sign outside a study area on campus saying: “This is a designated area for Māori and Pasifika students. Thank you”.

The university said it was proud of the support it provided the students, given there was a large group of students with “diverse interests and needs”.

However, the coalition government did not agree. The Act Party condemned Auckland University tuākana rooms as “racist, segregated spaces”.

“Blocking access to spaces based on ethnicity has an ugly past and has no future in New Zealand,” the party posted on social media.


New Zealand First compared the spaces to alt-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

“It is phenomenal that we not only would accept this as New Zealanders but that some people have not learned the lessons of our world’s history of horrors with this type of thinking,” Deputy Prime Minister and NZ First leader Winston Peters said.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon also weighed in, saying he was “highly disappointed”

“There is no place for discrimination or segregation in New Zealand. Universities should be places of inclusion, not exclusion,” Luxon said.

But Auckland University Pro Vice-Chancellor and Pacific Studies Professor Jemaima Tiatia-Siau praised the students for unifying to defend their "second home" amid the threats.

She told Pacific Mornings’ William Terite that the university received the threats through their website.

She said the threats were "triggering" and especially harmful to students.

"I'm so sorry to our staff and students who have gone through this because it caused some harm. That aftertaste is still felt now," Tiatia-Siau said.

Watch Professor Jemaima Tiatia-Siau's interview below.

She said that despite the negativity, which "no human should be subjected to", she marvelled at seeing the "most powerful thing" during the controversy - unity.

"An example of that solidarity is they all wore cultural attire," Tiatia-Siau said.

"It was to put this stake in the ground in a place they consider a second home. Where they spend most of their day."

The opposition agreed with Te Pāti Māori calling the Act’s assertion “damaging and inflammatory“, and an attempt to misrepresent tangata whenua, and paint a picture of preferential treatment for Māori.

“Safe spaces for minority groups in universities aren’t new. Creating safe spaces to empower minority communities to thrive and achieve while creating a sense of interconnectedness should be celebrated.”

Labour said there was a long-standing need to ensure more Māori and Pasifika students enrolled in university education to complete their qualifications.

“If providing spaces where Māori and Pasifika students can meet helps with enabling them to complete their degrees, then it’s worth doing so.”

The Greens said: “We support designated safe spaces for tauira [students] to gather to freely express themselves and their cultural practices in an academic setting. This is integral to supporting student well-being and academic achievement.”

Photo/Ngā Tauira Māori - The University of Auckland's Māori Students' Association

But Peters said this type of action was only seen before in apartheid South Africa and the segregation days in the United States.

"This is the seed of segregation. They try to justify their actions by attributing it to some sort of ‘moral cultural crusade’ and wilfully ignore the direct comparisons to the KKK and the apartheid way of thinking where we are divided by race."

Tiatia-Siau said from an academic point of view, decolonising and reclaiming spaces were historically stripped and it was vital because this gave voice to express that disenfranchisement.

She said the responses by political leaders showed they were “ill-informed and ignorant” of the historical context surrounding race relations in Aotearoa.

"I’ve been on the end of that vitriol many times as my colleagues have, as our students have. If that means that our voices have been censored in any way because of the colour of our skin, our biological maker, the background that we come from, then what kind of society are we creating here?"

Righting historical wrongs in Aotearoa

Tiatia-Siau said those spaces upheld equity in light of the historical mistreatment of Māori and Pacific peoples, as equality was a pitfall that assumed everyone possessed equal resources to succeed.

"The popular view is that if you're filling one pot then you're taking from another and that's far from the truth.


"With equity, it recognises the distinct differences and caters to specific needs accordingly. It's levelling the playing field and responding to historical trauma and injustices."

She said the university’s Tuākana Programme, which provided cultural spaces for all Māori and Pacific students and staff, showed they were more likely to succeed among their peers.

"The perpetual discrimination and prejudice that our students have experienced, does so much more to damage their mental well-being.

"Our institution is completely committed to nurturing students' success for all and if that means tailoring it for specific populations then that's what you have to do."

Tiatia-Siau said everyone’s entitled to their opinion and the public must approach those opinions with empathy and kindness.

"I know that's very simple but you're talking to someone's daughter, son, cousin, brother, neighbour, or leader.

"It needs to be a human approach rather than one of vitriol [that causes] further harm."

The university has since removed the signboard.