29 Jan 2021

Māori left in 'precarious position' after resignations at Unitec

8:42 pm on 29 January 2021

By Ella Stewart

Several Māori staff at Auckland's Unitec have resigned over what they say is institutionalised racism at the campus.

The Unitec Māori staff collective - Te Roopu Mataara - say they have been disrespected and staff and students feel culturally unsafe.

About 300 people gathered from the community this morning to stand with Tui Ah Loo who has resigned as the chair of the rūnanga.

Te Rūnanga o Te Whare Wānanga o Wairaka is Unitec's non-executive advisory group which was founded in 1991 to ensure they were considering how the Māori perspective was being represented and heard within the institution.

Tui Ah Loo

Tui Ah Loo, who has worked at Unitec for 21 years, cites disrespect shown to Māori (file pic). Photo: Supplied

Tui Ah Loo, who has worked there for 21 years, cited disrespect shown to Māori.

In protest she removed the framed portrait of her father, Sir John Turei, from the tertiary institute and walked it down to the Te Noho Kotahinga Marae.

Sir John was a Tuhoe rangitira and one of the most respected figures in Māoridom through his lifelong involvement with the community and the Waitangi Tribunal.

Spokesperson and member of the Runanga Hare Rua

Hare Rua said the situation at Unitec deteriorated after a leadership change in August 2020. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Spokesperson and member of the rūnanga Hare Rua said Tui and her whānau are devastated.

"I feel for Tui, obviously taking down the photo is not an easy decision and that's a reflection on how they feel right now in regards to our koroua John Turei being removed from the walls of the whare here at Unitec."

Change in leadership

Rua said that Unitec had thrived under previous leadership with a model that prioritised listening and working alongside Māori.

However, in August 2020 the leadership changed and new chief executive Gus Gilmore was appointed. Rua said that was when the situation deteriorated.

"Now we've got this new leadership onboard and they didn't show any interest in continuing with that model."

A new model was now in play which saw "Pākehā sitting on top and then Māori sitting underneath and following instructions", he said.

The rūnanga was not comfortable with that and they wanted to see Te Tumu Glenn Mckay sitting alongside the chief executive in a partnership, he added.

Mckay - of Te Arawa descent - is Te Tumu and executive director of student success at Unitec.

He also resigned because of alleged racism at the institute.

Rua said Te Tiriti o Waitangi is not being upheld at Unitec by the current leadership.

"They can go back to the government and they can say 'oh we consulted with Māori, we consulted with the rūnanga'. I mean really all it is, is ticking boxes but they're not interested in actually sitting eye to eye and meeting and discussing some of the simple things that we as a rūnanga felt were really important."

Researcher and spokesperson Rihi Tenana

Researcher and spokesperson Rihi Tenana Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Researcher and spokesperson Rihi Tenana said without any Māori on the senior leadership team they feared for their cultural safety.

"We are leaderless and rudderless as Māori in this institution and we have to ask ourselves who are going to look after our staff.

"This is a very precarious position that we are in, but as a united group we believe we can sit and hold and strategise and think about how do we want to move forward."

Student Irene Farnham

Student Irene Farnham Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Student Irene Farnham echoed similar feelings that she said were being felt by the others who had called out the chief executive for not listening to their concerns as Māori.

"One thing that was very clear to me is he did not see us; he did not hear us. There's been a breach of Te tiriti o Waitangi, there's been a breach of our rights."

Board wants open dialogue - chair

Unitec declined to be interviewed but provided a statement from board chair Peter Winder, who acknowledged the contribution of Sir John Turei and said the board was committed to honouring the treaty.

"On behalf of the board of Unitec - Te Whare Wānanga o Wairaka, I acknowledge the sadness of this day.

"We also acknowledge the mana of the late Sir John Joseph Te Ahikaiata Turei, his immense contribution to Unitec, education and Aotearoa.

"Our board and institute leadership will continue open dialogue with kaimahi and te rūnanga as we move forward from today.

"We are dedicated to effective partnership and honouring Te Tiriti principles in all that we do. We are committed to working towards a resolution of the issues raised so together we can support the future success of our students."

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