Impediments to speaking freely in New Zealand academia

May 28, 2023 • 12:45 pm

The article below, published in NZ’s Stuff magazine, summarizes a big yearly survey taken by the country’s Free Speech Unions (find the big survey here or here, click the FSU icon below, or ask for a pdf). The upshot is that Kiwi academics often have difficulty saying what’s on their mind for fear of ostracism or reprisal—something we’ve long known from hearing academics beef privately, or from the reprisals visited on those who say what’s “politically incorrect”—people like the Satanic Seven (two have since died) who signed the Listener letter in 2021 and got demonized for it.

Click the first screenshot below for the short take-home lesson, or the image below that for the full report. The author of the Stuff piece is the head of the FSU:

So here’s a summary (note that I haven’t compared the data here to that in America, but perhaps some reader should. At any rate, from what I recall the degree of self-censorship is at least as great in NZ as in the U.S.

First, the a list of the questions that were asked (452 people were polled in April):

The FSU report (click to read, or ask me for a pdf).

A summary from Stuff:

The second annual survey on academic freedom by the Free Speech Union is an eye-opening read for those of us who value ideas and solutions being openly debated in Kiwi universities.

. . . Concerningly, this report shows that a majority of academics who responded at five of our eight universities disagreed that they were free to state controversial or unpopular opinions, even though this is one of the specific features of academic freedom as defined in the Education and Training Act 2020.

Across all eight universities, only 46% of academics agreed they felt free to question received wisdom and state controversial and unpopular opinions.

The rest disagreed. Men in particular, (59%), believed they were not free to voice these views.

Claims that those who were more senior (and therefore supposedly more secure) in roles, such as professors, were freer to speak on controversial subjects did not play out.

In fact, only 31% of professors agreed that they were free to state controversial or unpopular opinions. If those who have dedicated their careers to exploring specific subjects feel unfree to voice their views if they are unpopular or controversial, how can these conversations move forward?

Not surprisingly, the degree of self-censorship was correlated with political affiliation: the Left is, of course, on the side of “indigenizing” education in the country, and wokeness sets the agenda for “acceptable” speech:

Problematically, it is clear that the flow of political persuasion mapped almost directly onto whether academics felt free. About two-thirds (64%) of academics who identified as “very left” and 70% of those who identified as “left” felt free to state controversial or unpopular opinions.

It decreased from less than half (46%) of those who are “slightly left” to one-third (34%) of those who are “centrist” down to one-quarter (26%) of those who are “slightly right” to 18% for those who are “right”. No academic who responded as “very right wing” agreed with the statement (admittedly, there was a small sample size for this group).

This, in the context of an academy that we already know has a left-leaning bent (the respondents to our survey reflect this disposition), is frightening for intellectual diversity.

Academics were asked about six specific subjects which might be controversial; a majority of academics felt comfortable discussing only three: religion, politics, and sexual orientation.

The topics that made people most uncomfortable were, as you see above, sex and gender, the Treaty of Waitangi and colonization, and race. Not surprising.

Some 59% of academics did not feel comfortable discussing the Treaty of Waitangi and colonialism, with at least one-third (30%) of academics at every single university feeling “not at all comfortable” (45% of academics from Otago were “not at all comfortable”).

Otago is one of the most Māori-centri unviersities in New Zealand.  Finally, Māori self-censor far less than do European descendants, which is also not surprising since Māori are seen as the victims.

Interestingly, Māori academics were much more likely to feel comfortable discussing this issue (54% felt “very comfortable”), while almost two-thirds (61%) of European academics did not feel comfortable (44% “very uncomfortable”).

This is more or less what I expected, but I wonder if the Kiwis themselves think these figures are disturbing (I do). Ideally, except for those who are pathologically shy, academics should at least feel free to broach the topics mentioned above.

The authors drew five themes from the survey. I’ll just mention them in the authors’ words and give their take on one: the Māori-related issues (like the Treaty, or Mātauranga Māori) that are more or less taboo to discuss.  We’ve talked about MM before, and the government’s attempt to stick it into the science curriculum as a form of “indigenous science”, so it’s worth a special look.

  1. Academic freedom is under threat and there is a climate of fear

  2. Freedom to do research is constrained by the ability to attract funding, or to do certain types of research

  3. Certain issues are off-limits for debate.  [JAC: see below]

  4. Universities themselves are not always upholding academic freedom

  5. Trends in universities reflect wider societal trends

This is what you read under #3:

The survey asked people to say how they comfortable they felt discussing a number of issues at their institution. Many of the comments made related to those topics, with people elaborating on what they perceived as the difficulties in discussing those issues. There were very few comments on issues such as politics, religion or sexual orientation – these were also the issues that fewer people in the main survey said they felt uncomfortable discussing. Comments were more likely to be made about the Treaty of Waitangi and colonialism, race, or sex and gender. There were a few comments on topics not asked about in the survey, such as climate change. Respondents who commented on these issues often described them as being out of bounds or not up for debate. Fear of being misinterpreted or being called racist or phobic, as well as the impacts on job security and promotion mentioned in Theme 1, resulted in many people saying they had decided that it is best to say nothing at all on these topics.

I have the impression that saying anything around race, gender, the Treaty of Waitangi, sexual orientation, or what political structures lead to the best outcomes for society, or what the best outcomes for society are, would be fraught with career danger.

The pressure to be ‘PC’ and ‘woke’ is enormous – and my views are pretty PC and woke! But I feel the most gentle, careful questioning of ideas around issues such as trans rights or mātauranga Māori would result in ostracism by staff and negative feedback from students (at best).

Treaty of Waitangi/biculturalism/Māori/race-related issues featured particularly, in relation to teaching and assessment, course content, research, promotion and general discourse and debate. This was especially the case in institutions that were moving to becoming ‘Te Tiriti-led’. [JAC: “Te Tiriti” refers to the Treaty of Waitanga.]

The greatest challenge to academic freedom relates to Treaty of Waitangi and race issues where there is no ability to speak without dire consequences for academics.

There is definitely a chilling effect on academics when it comes to debate on topics such as colonisation and racism for fear of being labelled racist.

Our university has a host of pre-ordained positions on things, especially Te Tiriti, race, colonialism and rainbow topics. I don’t know what would happen to someone if they spoke out in disagreement with these positions because no one ever does. I think everyone knows not to touch these issues and not to try to explain any nuance or slight disagreement on their part, as we know it will likely end badly.

Many respondents emphasised that their comments should not be seen as dismissing concepts such as mātauranga Māori, or the role of the Treaty in informing the university’s work. However, they wanted to be able to ask questions, discuss and not compromise on quality.

I teach a science and while I am happy to include cultural examples of that science as appropriate, my priority is making sure the students learn the science. I am feeling pressured to include cultural constructs at the expense of the science. I strongly believe in the value of affirmative action and changing our language to be more inclusive. At the moment, I feel excluded from the discussion.

This all jibes pretty well with what I hear from New Zealand academics who write me privately. Of course, you might say that I’m only going to hear from the disaffected ones, but you’d think that I’d also get emails from those who disagree with my opposing the hegemony of Mātauranga Māori in secondary-school science classes. Yet I’ve never heard from one correspondent who disagreed with me about that. In contrast, I get all kinds of comments and emails from creationists who deplore my acceptance and popularization of evolution.

The problem with this self-censorship about the fulminating indigenization of New Zealand is that, even more than minorities do in America, Māori bear the “authority of the sacred victim,” so that opposing initiatives like putting MM in science class is not only going to get you called a racist, but may well get you fired.

Open debate is essential if New Zealand isn’t going to be wokified to death, and taking science down with it; but open debate, particularly on item #3, is precisely what is taboo.

Case in point: in December, 2021, I discussed the demonization of the Satanic Seven by the University of Auckland’s Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater. Freshwater had previously issued a statement explicitly criticizing The Listener letter and its seven signers, but backed off when she realized she was violating academic freedom. She then got all kumbaya-y and said this (bolding is mine):

The debate that initially started as about the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science in the secondary school curriculum in Aotearoa New Zealand has intensified and extended over recent weeks, with a number of overseas commentators adding their opinions.

Unfortunately, the debate has descended into personal attacks, entrenched positions and deliberate misrepresentations of other people’s views, including my own. This important and topical debate deserves better than that.

I am calling for a return to a more respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, and I am committing the University to action on this.

In the first quarter of 2022 we will be holding a symposium in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully. I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.

Well, that debate has never taken place, and there are no signs that it will. Freshwater’s words were just cant: a way of placating those concerned about free expression.

17 thoughts on “Impediments to speaking freely in New Zealand academia

  1. “About two-thirds (64%) of academics who identified as “very left” and 70% of those who identified as “left” felt free to state controversial or unpopular opinions.”

    I suspect the woke still imagine their wokery to constitute “controversial or unpopular opinions”, despite the fact that they now have full institutional and governmental backing for their position, are firmly in the driving seat in New Zealand, and face no career danger from saying what they say. It’s just that their opinions are “controversial and unpopular” with people like Richard Dawkins and our host. I guess some more questions would be required to disambiguate their answer.

    1. To the academics of NZ :
      After returning to Keyaurastan this morning following a holiday in Paris, there is a palpable difference between a nation that still pays heed to its intellectuals and high arts ( France ), and one which has historically not valued either, except for token genuflections.

      But the paradox of NZ is that nonetheless, local universities take themselves far too seriously. This quote from Neil Postman’s book on TV ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ is broadly applicable to our universities if one substitutes these institutions when Postman describes television : ‘The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as most significant… TV is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous, when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of Important Cultural Conversations. The irony is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do.’

      Therein lies the rub. The NZ Universities’ manageriat have taken upon themselves the role of intellectual pimp. In the example of CK Stead’s letter to the ‘Listener’, the NZ universities should have taken no institutional stance on the Virgin Birth, whether Matauranga Maori is a 100% valid scientific method, or indeed an institutional stance on anything except freedom of speech and thought. The pimping occurred because the university manageriat deviated from this, and viewed itself far too seriously as an upholder of Important Cultural Conversations about incorporating the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori thought into every conceivable and inconceivable orifice of its institutional mind and its students’ minds. And academics can’t speak freely in this atmosphere of pimping.

      Ramesh : 2% Denisovan, and advocate for Matauranga Denisova.

    2. If the overall percentage of NZ academics who are left wing is very high (as in the UK, USA and Canada), that will swing the results into a less disturbing picture. After all, their opinions are the only ones that are allowed to be openly expressed.

    3. In our 2018 survey at Berea College, about 70% of respondents (mostly students but some faculty and staff) identified themselves as liberal or very liberal. However, none of the “liberals” and only about half of the “very liberals” believed that it was acceptable to shout down a speaker with whom they disagreed.

  2. I suspect the results would be similar in the US, but higher education (both colleges & universities and intercollegiate organizations such as the AAUP) often have granted hecklers from the Left a veto to prevent (or punish) such studies. Collectively, campus communities (students, staff, & faculty member) have become enemies of inquiry and a diversity of viewpoints. Another case in point: (7) The Sad Case of David Porter and His Fight for Academic Freedom (

  3. Jerry. Some of us have tried to fight for the integrity of education and science but right now it’s not looking good. Over the last two weeks alone various university people have informed us of being reprimanded for their resistance and told that their words have caused hurt. Seems as though we have not moved beyond the inane reactions to the original Listener letter. Meanwhile, reconfiguration of primary and secondary education, tertiary education and science proceeds unabated. However, we are still in the fight. David

  4. As an ethnic minority , I feel offended when certain people at the university say NZ is a bicultural country as it makes me feel unwelcome in my own country and denies the reality that we are now a multi cultural country . But I don’t go around trying to stop these people saying what they think . Shameful really . I think Freshwater should offer to resign .

    1. Well Karuna, more people could do what I do, and complain widely about ‘biculturalist’ propaganda, including in writing.
      If you look at the Auckland Art Gallery website landing page, you will note it now conforms to standard international museum web page formats eg Art Gallery NSW and the Australia Museum Sydney. It was only after my written complaints that Auckland Art Gallery introduced for the first time visitor info in Asian and non-English European languages [ prior to my intervention it was only in English + Maori ], and AAG was forced to remove its propaganda banner from the web page about how it assiduously ‘promotes and displays Maori and PI Art’ — forgetting completely about Asians, even though Asian ratepayers fund 30% of the art gallery’s expenses. Also, Auckland Council’s landing web page for public art before my complaints featured in its drop down menu 2 tabs for Maori art, 1 tab for Pacific Island artists, 1 for women artists, and 1 for ‘international artists’ — but none for Asians! Now that has been fixed.

      Incidentally I spent 8 years at University of Otago, and I can attest it traditionally had the Whitest student body. Still has. So the Maori wokery is performative.

  5. “Māori bear the ‘authority of the sacred victim,’ so that opposing initiatives like putting MM in science class is not only going to get you called a racist, but may well get you fired.”

    Indeed. And being sacred victims, any critical words about MM will be treated as blasphemy against the sacred, with violators being punished the way heretics and blasphemers used to, albeit with social death instead of the real thing. That’s why it’s so dangerous when critical discussion of any topic becomes taboo.

  6. The situation does seem pretty bad to me, but I’m a little wary of that study. The sample population was every academic who has a publicly listed email address – I’m guessing this is in the thousands – and the sample size – ie the number who responded – is only 452. My guess is that the sample will be highly skewed towards those not happy with the status quo. Of course there could be many reasons for this, of which one is that only people with certain views are likely to be recruited. However, it would have been nice to see some discussion of possible biases in the report. I’d be interested from hearing from David Lillis on this, as he is knowledgeable about statistics and I’m guessing knows at least some people within the FSU.

  7. Andrew. The sample may well be biased and respondents may be drawn largely from those unhappy with the present situation. However, I am told that in New Zealand many staff either self-censor or decline to participate in surveys such as this for fear of discovery through their email addresses. Whether their fear is grounded I do not know, but evidently some of them are not willing to take the risk. So the biased sample issue can cut both ways. David

  8. Andrew. A corollary to my last post: I worked as a statistician and researcher in New Zealand’s public service, rather than in the universities. I saw first-hand how staff were humiliated, degraded and smashed out of their jobs for saying the wrong thing. Could the same happen at the universities? I suspect that there are greater protections there but nevertheless it’s risky. A colleague once said to me that the problem with reaearch in New Zealand is having brilliant people managed by nobodies. David

    1. Management by nobodies is a perfect definition of bureaucracy. The entire DEI phenomenon represents a power play by the nobodies in all institutions. The nobodies, as a group, may also be a significant part of the ongoing campaigns against tests of academic proficiency and accomplishment: once these uniform criteria are eliminated, selection of students and candidates will have to be left in the hands of the nobodies, according to their difficult-to-explain noparadigms, nostandards, and norules.
      This kind of thing is to be contrasted with the Japanese tradition of noh theater,
      in which actual talent is required. However, there are certain correspondences: two major characters in <noh theater are called shite and waki, terms that may be helpful in the world of DEI.

    2. David. Thanks for your thoughtful replies. I agree that the biased sample issue can cut both ways, but I think it’s regrettable that Jonathan Ayling didn’t even mention the issue in his article. It makes it that much easier for people to casually dismiss the study as the biased moaning of a few disgruntled people who can safely be ignored – for example, this is a typical response from a Professor of Physics at Auckland:
      I must admit I don’t know what the answer is. It drives me absolutely spare that just about nobody here, with honourable exceptions like yourself and foreign imports like Nick Matzke and Peter Schwerdtfeger, seems to even know what’s at stake or to care. Mostly the media narrative seems to be smug self-satisfaction, and annoyance that foreigners think that we might learn something from them. The typical attitude is well expressed by what some one said on twitter just now: “arrogant Oxford dons (great books in the 80’s by the way) should just keep the fuck out of it. This is our issue.”

    3. One factor that is likely to be very chilling at the moment is that at least four NZ universities are in serious financial difficulties and there are mass redundancies – mainly among academics as the mushrooming “nobodies” seem to be largely exempt for their mismanagement – aid I should add by massive government under-funding

  9. Speaking of free speech, here’s a statement which is attributed to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin: “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech.”

  10. Perhaps the history of a different educational ideology in NZ will shed some light on the future of MM. NZ’s teaching of reading has been a mess, and the mess is now so bad that it has provoked a hard-hitting TV doco exposing the issue and advocating for reality over ideology: .

    If the messing-up of science ed stumbles along a similar path, the failures of MM-as-science ideology will eventually be addressed after much damage has been done.

    (The last segment, where the reporter managed to pin down the Minister of Education on the issue despite her many evasions, was a joy to behold.)

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