Massey racism provokes call for university name change video

Warwick Smith/Stuff

Massey University lecturer Steve Elers is calling for a name-change for his university because he says its namesake, former Prime Minister William Massey, was a racist.

A racially-charged debate is igniting over research that has revealed "white supremacist" comments made by the prime minister Massey University is named after.

Now, almost a century on, a top academic is calling for the university to consider a name change.

The controversial call comes from Massey lecturer and recent PhD scholar Steve Elers, who was startled to uncover blatantly racist comments made by William Ferguson Massey.

William Ferguson Massey was Prime Minister from 1912 to 1925.
Warwick Smith

William Ferguson Massey was Prime Minister from 1912 to 1925.

A farmer and entrepreneur, Massey was prime minister of New Zealand between 1912 and his death in 1925. The then Massey Agricultural College was founded in 1926 and named after him.

Elers of Ngati Kauwhata, said he was surprised to discover Massey's beliefs, during his research into Maori representation in newspapers.

He presented the findings at a talk on the Manawatu campus on Wednesday, challenging the institution to consider the symbolism of using Massey's name.

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A lecturer has uncovered disturbing comments made by the Prime Minister that Massey is named after.

Some of Massey's quotes presented included: "New Zealanders are probably the purest Anglo-Saxon population in the British Empire. Nature intended New Zealand to be a white man's country, and it must be kept as such"; and, "I am not a lover or admirer of the Chinese race. I should be one of the very first to insist on very drastic legislation to prevent them coming here in any numbers, and I am glad such is not the case."

During Massey's lifetime many people freely expressed views considered unacceptable today, Elers said. However, any justification that his comments were made "a long time ago" and in another context was "irrelevant".

"I definitely think that the past has an influence on today, but we generally don't speak of it, don't read of it, don't hear of it today.

Massey University lecturer Steve Elers highlights the racist views of former prime minister William Ferguson Massey.
Warwick Smith

Massey University lecturer Steve Elers highlights the racist views of former prime minister William Ferguson Massey.

"When I first started reading [Massey's quotes], I was like, 'why haven't I read about these before', and most academics didn't know about it.

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"For me it's important that it's discussed, rather than just 'racism doesn't exist'. Let's get it out there."

Massey's attitude to Chinese did not sit well, considering the importance of international students to the university now, but the campus was a good environment, he said.

"The university is very good, very diverse. For staff and students it's completely not what William Massey's ideas are."

Elers is in favour of a name change, however, he believes a decision should be made after an open discussion among the wider community.

Massey University spokesman James Gardiner indicated the matter would have to be raised formally with university management before it could be considered.

The university supported academic freedom, but despite Elers' challenge to the institution to act, "we don't form views on the opinions of academics" .

Victoria University head of history, associate professor Jim McAloon, said there should be a "fairly high threshold" for an institutional name change, but the good and bad should be remembered together.

"If we only memorialise the perfect we're not going to have anyone to memorialise. Rather, let us debate the lives and legacies of those who are memorialised and ensure that memorials represent the breadth of our history."

Massey was a "wily tactician". He insisted New Zealand prime ministers be consulted on war policy by the British when it affected our troops, asserted New Zealand's sovereign independence following WWI, and favoured a stable property-owning democracy.

He is also remembered for his aggressive approach to trade union strikers, conscription during WWI, and the "deprivation of civil rights" of thousands of conscientious objectors, he said.

Similar discussions have taken place this year about the name of Rhodes University and a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Cape Town University, because of criticism Rhodes was racist and his actions paved the way for apartheid in South Africa.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post said a dormitory would be renamed at the University of Oregon because its namesake had been a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. In March, it reported Harvard Law had retired its shield emblem because of an association with slavery.

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