Auckland University hate-crimes professor leaves job after remark about Jews
A University of Auckland professor is to leave his job after an anti-Semitism row sparked by a letter to the Waikato Times.
Acclaimed hate crimes expert Professor Scott Poynting compared an Israeli company employing Palestinians to a German company employing Jews. The commentary rankled various groups, including the New Zealand Jewish Council and a fellow academic, who complained to the university, branding the professor's letter to the editor as anti-Semitic.
University Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon addressed the complainants in a letter, which he detailed investigations had been undertaken.
The institution had found Poynting not guilty of professional misconduct and it had been suggested to Poynting he should write a second letter to the editor of the Waikato Times clarifying he was not intending to make anti-Semitic remarks, McCutcheon said.
Poynting had refused to write a clarification, so McCutcheon apologised on behalf of the educational institution.
"... I do acknowledge that the way in which Scott Poynting expressed himself caused considerable distress to many members of the community. On behalf of the University of Auckland, I offer my own sincere apologies for that distress," McCutcheon wrote.
However, the final line of McCutcheon's letter saw the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union (TEU) wade into the debate.
"Professor Poynting's employment with the University of Auckland concludes on 30 June 2016."
It was important to note Poynting was retiring in June, as had always been the case, TEU organiser Enzo Giordani said.
The university, however, would not confirm the manner of his departure.
The union believes the final line made it seem as though Poynting had been pressured to leave the university as a result of the fracas, he said.
"The letter is misleadingly written. No action was taken against Scott Poynting," Giordani said.
Although Giordani would not expand what action could be taken, a response to the university had been drafted.
When questioned whether Poynting was retiring, the university said it had no further comment on this matter, other than what was in the letter was accurate.
The New Zealand Jewish Council was not satisfied with McCutcheon's letter, either.
In a joint statement, New Zealand Jewish Council chairman Geoff Levy and president Stephen Goodman said they were still seeking an apology from Poynting, and wanted the University of Auckland to publicly distance itself from the remarks.
"The hateful views expressed by Professor Poynting in his letter to the Waikato Times have no place in New Zealand, let alone within our academic institutions. While it is reassuring to know that Poynting will not be working at the University of Auckland much longer, the private nature of the apology from Professor McCutcheon does not promote transparency or proper accountability.
"The New Zealand Jewish Council would have expected the University of Auckland to publicly distance itself from the views of Professor Poynting, as other universities have done in similar situations, rather than privately apologise for any distress caused."
Poynting had written, "Thank you for explaining in your article how SodaStream generously provided work for Palestinians (Waikato Times, November 26). I understand that IG Farben provided work for large numbers of Jews. Not that I have anything against Germans, mind you."
He signed it Scott Poynting and did not make any mention of his professional capacity.
The letter was written as a private citizen and should not be considered as a work-related matter, nor should it come under the guise of academic freedom, Academic Freedom Aotearoa co-founder and TEU president Sandra Grey said.
Academic freedom is the belief that scholars should be able to criticise or comment on ideas or facts that may be controversial to political groups or authorities without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.
"He wasn't speaking as an academic ... There was no misconduct, so the matter ends there. Just because people were made uncomfortable doesn't mean it is misconduct," Grey said.
She also believed more was being made of it than needed to be.
"Letters to the editor cause distress quite often. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, new that someone has been upset by a letter to the editor."
Poynting could not be contacted. An out-of-office email stated he was on study and research leave from January 1 to June 30.