Allegations of institutional racism at the University of Waikato by Māori staff were sparked after it was discovered two senior academics had "not met standards" over the use of hundreds of thousands of dollars on a key project, a review says.
But one of the original complainants of systemic racism at the university says the six-figure spend was authorised, no staff were disciplined and it was for a project to teach Māori culture online.
The findings of a review into the allegations released today said the claims of institutional racism were "incorrect, inaccurate, or reflect differing perspectives or opinions".
However, the review said because universities were founded in New Zealand's settlement history and adhered to western traditions and cultures, "there was a case for structural, systemic, and casual discrimination at the University of Waikato".
It was moving to set up a taskforce to deal with the issues, with one of the Māori academics at its helm.
The outcome follows a 13-page letter written by six Māori academics at the university, including world-renowned Professor of Indigenous Education Linda Tuhiwai Smith, alerting the Ministry of Education to their concerns.
The allegations, which came to light last month, included Māori expertise being ignored, tokenism, lower pay for Māori staff and no meaningful commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi.
The university commissioned a review of the claims, which was undertaken by husband and wife Sir Harawira Gardiner and Hekia Parata - a former National MP.
The review said one of the catalysts for the allegations was an employment matter involving two leaders in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies who were investigated for "flawed execution of a key project".
It related to financial and relationship management issues linked to an unauthorised attempt to spend several hundred thousand dollars of university funds.
The pair did not meet the standard required and action appropriate to the
respective levels of responsibility was taken by the vice chancellor, the report said.
"An employment matter investigated, and determined, by the vice chancellor was the catalyst for a protected disclosure and subsequent campaign against the vice chancellor and the university, asserting a number of claims, including racism," the report said.
"The leadership of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies reacted to the vice
chancellor's sanctioning of its colleagues by sending a statement under protected
disclosure to the Secretary for Education.
"The statement was subsequently sent to the vice chancellor, under cover of a letter making allegations about the vice chancellor as to motive and exercise of executive function.
"Separately, personally vilifying statements were made on a variety of media platforms either directly by faculty leadership or supporters."
The statement made a number of claims about the faculty leadership's view of executive
decisions including the status of the faculty in its reporting line, representation on
committees, breadth of power and influence of those committees, employment, promotion and pay scales of Māori staff, the academic credentials and appropriateness of
appointments, the distribution of equity funding, and the profile of Māori achievement, activities and events.
However, one of the "Waikato 6" who wrote the original letter, said the project and use of university money to fund it was legitimate and although it was stopped they hoped it would get the go-ahead again.
They said using the employment matter was a "deflection tactic".
In a statement, the "Waikato 6" said while the report found some claims were unfounded, the most significant issue raised - that of systemic racism at the university - was found to be true.
"The space that has been created now would not have existed without our call. We have
raised these issues because of the very real issue of racism that we have experienced.
"We know from research that systemic and casual racism is bad for people's health, it can
destroy careers, and limit opportunities.
"Racism is not good for our institution or for New Zealand society. We look forward to addressing those issues and supporting our colleagues nationally, and internationally to do the same.
"We strongly support the call issued in the open letter by 37 Māori professors for a national inquiry into racism across the university sector."
The reviewers had access to all relevant university files, held individual and group meetings with 80 people and received 96 submissions across one week.
A final report was presented to the University Council today after which it was released publicly.
It found that specific claims against the university made under protected disclosure in May were "incorrect, inaccurate, or reflect differing perspectives or opinions".
The report noted that "a number of positive initiatives have been taken by university leadership as part of a Te Ao Māori commitment" but that "the good intent of individuals and groups are insufficient to redress this situation".
The reviewers said their report should be the start of a process of ongoing engagement with "urgent and serious action, in pursuit of not just improvement, but transformation".
"On the basis of these findings and their own investigation of evidence relating to the claims made in the public domain, the University Council expressed its full confidence in the vice chancellor [Neil Quigley] and management of the university."
In a video statement, Quigley said he accepted that because the university was founded on a western university tradition, "our university and our university system will exhibit elements of structural and systemic discrimination and racism".
The university would immediately set up a taskforce to consider those issues, he said.
Tuhiwai Smith and deputy vice chancellor Professor Alister Jones would co-chair the taskforce.
Quigley said an action plan would be developed and implemented during the next year.
"This is an opportunity for the University of Waikato to provide leadership both here and nationally for the development of ideas that will address structural and systemic discrimination and racism in the university system," Quigley said.
"It's going to be a difficult journey, a challenging journey, and it won't be quick but we are committed to making it work."
Quigley said recent media and social media commentary on the issue had been "poorly informed" but that with support from university staff and students, both Māori and Pākehā, and leaders of key iwi stakeholders, their constructive work focusing on a resolution had provided a firm foundation going forward.
"We genuinely embrace the opportunity for transformational change and to embed Mātauranga Māori more deeply in the university.
"We thank the many students, staff and stakeholders who have expressed concern and support for the university, and acknowledge the resilience that the university community has shown in the face of adversity."
The University Council supported the recommendation for engagement in a process to determine how to apply Te Tiriti as the basis for a bicultural platform for the university.
The taskforce will operate over the next three months, with implementation projects to follow in 2021.
The timeframe will also provide scope for ongoing consultation with the university community and external stakeholders.