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‘The tip of the iceberg’ — University of Auckland staff raise safety concerns

21 December, 2023

Interview by Liam Hansen, adapted by Sofia Roger Williams

Staff members at the University of Auckland are waiting for a response to their open letter calling on the University to address staff safety concerns. Professor of Physics in the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland, Nicola Gaston, says these issues need to be taken seriously. Image: University of Auckland Grafton Campus - Wikimedia Commons

119 University of Auckland staff members signed an open letter to the Chancellor and Chair of the Council of the University of Auckland, Cecilia Tarrant, raising concerns about their safety.

This comes after Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles took the University to the Employment Court, claiming they failed to protect her from threats regarding her public commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines. 

Although the judge reserved their decision on the case, the hearings exposed ongoing unsafe working conditions for staff with a public profile and subjection to harassment, hate, and threats. 

Acting as a witness for the University’s defence in the Employment Court, Vice Chancellor, Professor Dawn Freshwater, also told the courts about being followed home from work. 

Professor of Physics in the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland, Nicola Gaston, told 95bFM’s The Wire that “there is something wrong here if this is considered normal.”

The open letter states that in the absence of a court ruling on Wiles’ case, University of Auckland staff are continuing to face misogyny, racism, transphobia, antisemitism, and Islamophobia.

“We are particularly concerned for marginalised groups including Māori, Pacific, transgender, and non-binary colleagues,” the letter states. 

Gaston says many academics have silenced themselves in response to concerns about their health and safety, and some signatories of the open letter have left their names anonymous to protect themselves.

“People who work on a particular area of public importance have been asked by the media to comment and have said no because they don’t believe they will be safe adopting a public profile on the issue.”

“The signatories are just the tip of the iceberg.”

As a part of coalition negotiations with ACT and NZ First, the National-led government has put forward a policy that would require tertiary institutions to refrain from de-platforming speakers perceived as controversial, offensive, or hindering the wellbeing of students. 

However, Gaston believes ACT’s policy confuses free speech for academic freedom.

“There’s been a conflation that’s really unhelpful and has perhaps made some of these issues more politicised than they should be.”

“That worries me… They’re not at all the same thing.”

Gaston says upholding free speech within universities should involve the government welcoming expert critique on its policies. 

“That would be a really healthy way of reinforcing the value of free speech, rather than trying to institute policies within universities that I think ultimately will be very unhelpful.”

While Gaston acknowledges it would be challenging for the University to assure the physical safety of all its staff members in public settings, she urges the Council to introduce practical measures to look after their emotional well-being.

"That is relatively easy to do, and where I think the university leadership has really missed the boat.”

As the governing body of the university, Gaston says the Council has ultimate responsibility over its employees’ health and safety. 

“We’re really just asking for awareness and reassurance and for our university to step up and take this seriously. That’s what we haven’t seen.”

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ on Air