Education

New Zealand debates academic freedom over criticism of Māori

A debate about the nature of science has become a litmus test for academic freedom in New Zealand, as some leading scholars face possible expulsion from the country’s learned academy.

The Royal Society of New Zealand is investigating current and former University of Auckland professors whose controversial letter to the editor of The New Zealand Listener, published in July, criticized plans to embed mātauranga Māori (knowledge of the Indigenous Māori people) in the school science curriculum.

The RSNZ received five complaints demanding disciplinary action against the three society fellows who had contributed to the letter: medical scientist Garth Cooper and philosopher Robert Nola, along with psychologist Michael Corballis, who initiated the letter. Corballis, who won the Rutherford Medal—RSNZ’s highest honor—in 2016, died suddenly last month.

New Zealand’s Education Act guarantees academics and students the freedom to “question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and state controversial or unpopular opinions” within the law. The Listener letter authors insisted that they were exercising this right in criticizing the incorporation of mātauranga Māori in school and university science programs, which they likened to giving creationism the same scientific status as evolutionary biology.

But the complainants alleged that the authors had committed at least nine breaches of the RSNZ Code of Professional Standards and Ethics—including failing to “behave with … integrity and professionalism,” “claim competence commensurate with their expertise” or “take reasonable … precautions to protect vulnerable people”—and violated the society’s “good character obligation.”

The RSNZ then launched a formal investigation. Its complaint procedures state that the society’s council “may initiate an inquiry if it has reason to suspect that a member may have breached … obligations.”

Massey University theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger, who won the Rutherford Medal in 2014, said the society’s approach was baffling. “I think they had a choice, but it was just bluntly rejected. The Royal Society now is so influenced by mātauranga Māori ideology that they started an official procedure, and once you start it, you can’t stop it,” he said.

Nola said the investigation was currently determining whether the complaints could be pursued under the RSNZ rules. He said the Listener letter was not a piece of research and therefore not covered by the society’s code.

“The Education Act and the code give us the right to express our views, in a clause about being a critic and conscience of society, even though the views might be unpopular. We had no idea at the time how popular or unpopular they were. They’ve proven to be more popular than we thought,” he said.

Critics have questioned how the RSNZ can undertake an impartial inquiry after its president and the chair of its academy executive committee denounced the Listener letter authors in a statement posted on the society’s website.

Times Higher Education understands that two of the three panelists originally enlisted to investigate the complaints were removed after it emerged that they had signed an open response condemning the Listener letter.

The RSNZ’s activities have drawn criticism from the New Zealand Free Speech Union, which took out a full-page advertisement in The New Zealand Herald to defend the surviving authors’ “academic free speech.”

The episode has also drawn attention overseas. In a Radio New Zealand interview, Harvard University experimental psychologist Steven Pinker lamented the treatment of his “beloved” friend Corballis: “If you’ve got a regime where merely voicing an opinion gets you silenced or punished, then we’ve … turned off the only mechanism that we have of discovering knowledge.”

The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. Times Higher Education also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.

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