16 Aug 2018

The history of university controversies in NZ

From Afternoons, 2:39 pm on 16 August 2018

The recent decision to cancel Don Brash's talk - and another decision to hold a debate with him anyway - is but the latest controversy about the purpose of universities, legal historian Grant Morris says.

Don Brash grins at protestors.

Protesters challenge Don Brash at his Auckland University speaking event.  Photo: RNZ / Matthew Theunissen

Dr Brash was vocal in recent debates over free speech and scathing over Auckland Council's attempts to ban two right-wing extremist Canadians from speaking at its venues, and Massey University decided to cancel his speaking engagement at its campus after what it said were threats of violence.

Read more about the Southern-Molyneux speech furore:

The decision was met with derision, and Auckland University was quick to defend Dr Brash's rights to speech and students' rights to hear him, and set up its own event.

Legal historian Grant Morris, who examined the history of free speech debates in New Zealand on Afternoons last week, tells host Jesse Mulligan that debates around free speech like this are positive.

"I should say that I think that the vice chancellor was wrong to not allow Don Brash to speak and this has caused a lot of debate in the academic community at the moment about what a university stands for and how far free speech should go, but this is not a new debate."

"I think it shows that universities are a place where we want to have these debates, we want to have free speech and there's always going to be limits to free speech.

"Controversies happen in universities around the role of universities, and what I'm gonna argue today is that this is a good thing, and it's a healthy thing."

He says the history of such debates goes back to the European universities, Oxford University, and even as far as Plato's Academy in ancient Greece.

"In New Zealand we're very lucky because we have this historical tradition enshrined in the Education Act 1989."

He says section 161, subsection A, is particularly relevant:

Academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced ... Academic freedom, in relation to an institution, means:

a) 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

Dr Morris says there are several examples from New Zealand's history which have tested - or indeed led to - this principle.

Example 1: 1870 - Establishment of University of Otago/University of NZ

Dr Morris says there was controversy over the purpose of universities right from the beginning of universities in New Zealand, with a clash between the University of Otago established in 1869 and the University of New Zealand a year later.

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University of Otago Photo: Facebook / University of Otago

Otago was not keen on losing its university status and being subsumed into the new, national entity.

"There was tension between the two would-be universities," he says.

"It went on for a few years before a compromise was reached, that University of NZ would be the main university - so in that sense the University of New Zealand won the stand-0ff - but Otago would retain its title of university, although its degrees would be awarded by the University of New Zealand.

He says the University of New Zealand had various colleges.

"Victoria College, Auckland College, Canterbury College - and then eventually those colleges were transformed into fully fledged universities as we know them today."

Dr Morris says this was an example of a university clashing with another university.

Example 2: 1914- Sacking of George von Zedlitz (Victoria University of Wellington)

Moving along to the First World War, there was another clash - this time between a university and the government.

"A lot of anti-German feeling in New Zealand, going out to fight Germany, support Britain in this great war.

"Here we have professor George von Zedlitz, who's one of the great first professors of Victoria College."

Professor von Zedlitz who was sacked for being German during WWI

Professor von Zedlitz who was sacked for being German during WWI Photo: https://nzhistory.govt.nz

He says Prof von Zedlitz - who now has a building named after him - was an inspirational teacher, but he was a German.

"A proud German as well in the sense that he doesn't make excuses for being German. He's loyal to his adopted country and loyal to the British empire, but he's still German.

"That is too much for the government so they ask the university to get rid of him."

He says the government decided to pass a very specific statute.

"The 'alien enemy teachers statute' of 1913 … they may as well have called it the von Zedlitz statute … he didn't get his job back until 1936."

"The interesting thing in that story is the way in which the university - even in those times, controversial times - tried to protect him, but the government won out."

Example 3: 1979 - Haka Party Incident (University of Auckland)

Dr Morris says the next example took place over decades, but culminated in a physical confrontation in 1979.

"A tradition of Pākehā engineering students who would do a graduation mock haka, which was supposed to be a joke but was actually very insulting and racist."

He says it went on for years before it was stopped.

"For a long time Māori students had said 'look, can you stop this, it's inappropriate, we don't like it'.

"They went through the official channels to try and stop it, this is starts in the mid-50s so all the way through to the late '70s and eventually a Māori protest group - He Taua - goes in and says 'right, we're going to make you stop it'.

"A fight breaks out, there's arrests, and some of the He Taua people are charged with …. inciting riot, but the haka never happens again.

He says this one is an example of students versus students.

"You could say it's some kind of freedom of expression debate, you could say it's some kind of hate speech debate if we're using the modern terms."

Example 4: 1993 - Joel Hayward Holocaust Thesis (University of Canterbury)

Dr Morris' final example is of a student versus a university, when Joel Hayward's thesis was published.

"This is a student at Canterbury University in 1993 who wrote a thesis about the holocaust, and it questioned the nature of the holocaust in a way that was very controversial.

"He was accused of being part of what was a group of historians who were questioning the extent of the holocaust.

"There was a big investigation that took place over the nature of the thesis and whether it should have got the high mark it got and whether it should remain in the University library as all theses are lodged in the university library."

He says the investigation's finding was that the thesis was flawed, but that it should remain in the library. 

"I did a search on the University of Canterbury Library and it's still there, and you could go and look at it," Dr Morris says.

He says it ties in once again to the freedom of expression debate.

"This idea of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, what are the limits. It's the university's role to have these debates, to house these debates and to also debate what is the role of the university."

"We all have our different opinions but in most cases you want to promote that debate to be able to occur."