The University of Auckland called claims of white supremacy “utter nonsense” on the same day its crisis alert was raised to the highest level, documents show.
Concerns about white supremacy at the university were raised twice this year. In April, students complained of racist graffiti and of being intimidated, harassed and subjected to jokes about mass killings.
The issue reared its head again in October when posters and stickers appeared on campus pointing to the website of a white supremacist group.
Documents released under the Official Information Act showed both incidents provoked a response from the university’s crisis management team.
In April, concerns around white supremacy were marked as a “Level 3 incident” by the team.
University documents indicated this was a “major” incident lasting more than one day. Incidents of this level are defined by having a “significant impact” and needing extensive resources.
Fatalities, serious harm or incidents that are a “near miss with serious implications for UoA” fall into this category.
In an email notifying staff of the status, “known issues” were listed including graffiti and offensive materials posted on campus and two students who were subject to formal complaints. However, it said there was “no evidence of increased white supremacy on campus”.
The email also noted the university was “subject to negative media scrutiny regarding perceived university response”.
On the same day, Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon and staff in his office discussed how to respond, emails released under the OIA show.
McCutcheon suggested the statement should reference the university’s impact rating.
“How about a strong rejection of the claims that also links to our #1 ranking for impact?” he wrote.
“To ‘Good Health and Wellbeing (1), Gender Equality (=6), Peace and Justice (7), and Working Together (1)’.”
That came after he was alerted via email to a tweet describing visible swastika tattoos, white supremacist graffiti and fascist posters on campus.
An email from October 4 showed the crisis alert was re-activated at Level 2, or moderate, on the day about 100 students occupied the university clocktower.
Three days later, the vice-chancellor publicly responded, saying he recognised the most important matter was “not a debate about free speech”.
In that letter he did not clarify whether the university would be actively removing white supremacist material from campus. However, the email from the crisis management team said the university had removed “offensive material” as soon as it was identified.
Documents released under the OIA also revealed the university received more than 20 complaints from students, prospective students and members of the public about the university’s handling of the white supremacy row over April and October.
The vice-chancellor also received a number of emails applauding him for his defence of free speech.