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  • Phoebe Robertson

Nic Smith Is *My* Favourite Spineless Creature


OPINION: On April 24th, Te Herenga Waka’s senior leadership team decided to postpone a scheduled freedom of speech event, aiming to reschedule it for late May due to concerns about the polarization of views. This decision was made because it has become "challenging to even schedule a conversation about how to have challenging conversations."

If you’re unclear what this event is then you’re not alone. Remarkably, the university never directly communicated with the students any of this. The basic run down is that Nic Smith (Vice Chancellor) decided to host a panel all about Freedom of Speech and its role in universities. Maybe it would have been a good idea, but he decided to only name Pākehā panelists with a median age of over 40.

The first official notification Salient received about the event was on April 8th, inviting us to attend. A registration email was sent to all staff on April 16th. Then, on April 24th, a staff-wide email announced the event's postponement.

Organizations such as The Platform have blamed the "woke left" for the postponement (which they have falsely called a cancellation); the official email sent on behalf of Smith lacked clarity. Seeking answers, I reached out to him directly. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

But why are students (who know what’s going on) frustrated? Is it because there was no direct communication with them, despite the event being planned for The Hub, arguably the most heavily populated area on any of the campuses? Or perhaps it's because the university's "Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Framework" emphasizes values like respect, responsibility, fairness, integrity, and empathy, yet failed to uphold them in this instance.

Could it also be the absence of Māori voices on the panel, despite the university's own Te Tiriti o Waitangi Statute stating: “The principle of Kaitiakitanga (Protection) ensures Māori rights and interests are actively protected through honorable conduct, fair processes, robust consultation, and good decision-making”? 

If, according to their own Framework, "Merit is the overriding criterion for decisions affecting individuals," whose merit holds more weight? That of a panelist who actively supports transphobic rhetoric? Or that of an LGBTQIA+ student, under their care, who is adversely affected by that rhetoric?

As the Vice Chancellor, Smith has a responsibility to, at the very least, show respect to his students. However, he failed to communicate effectively, provide clarity, and uphold the values of the university. At this moment, there is no indication of when the panel will be rescheduled, who will participate, or what specific changes the university intends to implement.

Now, Smith finds himself caught between Jonathan Ailing and a hard place. If he cancels the event, he appears to concede to the "woke left narrative." However, if he proceeds with it, he risks alienating and disrespecting his student body. Additionally, both choices are likely to attract significant media attention. He’s left with two options: cancel the event and receive backlash, or keep the event running and receive backlash. 

If I, a mesley editor, could suggest anything, it’s a third option: be honest with your students about your intentions, and move the event to a conference room or facility that students won’t wander into while attempting to buy an overpriced coffee. You’ll be playing the middle ground, but isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from a Vice Chancellor who’s biggest moves are blaming other people for the university's deficits? 


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