Dawn Freshwater: ‘knowledge equity’ can help drive SDG agenda

Auckland v-c wants to use Māori knowledge and research on misinformation to help tackle UN goals

May 29, 2023
University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater

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There is a cohort of university leaders forever linked by the circumstances in which they arrived in office: the early months of 2020, as the pandemic hit and societies all over the world locked down.

Dawn Freshwater is among them. She recalls that her move from Australia to New Zealand to take up the post of vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland in March of that year coincided almost exactly with the imposition of pandemic restrictions.

She did, however, enjoy a key advantage over some of her peers. She already had significant leadership experience, having served as vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia and as chair of the Group of Eight, the body that represents Australia’s research-intensive universities.

Despite this, she says, the past three years have been the most difficult in her career, and not only because of the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The period has seen a “collision” of issues and challenges: some experienced by universities all over the world, some more specific to Auckland’s local context.

The list, Freshwater says, includes “free speech, academic freedom, what’s happening with misinformation and disinformation, the inability of some people to agree to disagree” – and that’s just for starters.

Indigenous insight

In New Zealand, Freshwater – who is originally from the UK – identifies an “extra layer” of complexity stemming from the debate about the place of Indigenous knowledge.

“There is quite a division between people who really support the traditional knowledge systems of the Māori and Polynesian people, and other people who find that really difficult,” she explains.

Freshwater believes it is vital to engage with that tension, which came to the fore in 2021 when a number of academics criticised plans to include Māori knowledge in the senior school science curriculum, provoking discussions about the university curriculum, too.

This criticism drew passionate responses from both sides of what became an acrimonious debate about the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and science.

Conversations took place across campus, with Freshwater saying that in the place of “personal attacks and entrenched positions”, she hoped to create a space for “respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views.”

Stepping back from the specifics of the row, Freshwater says the study and integration of Māori knowledge is important not just because of the “decolonisation agenda” but because it can play a key part in many undertakings, not least in the drive to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in relation to climate action.

New Zealand is home to the largest Polynesian population in the world – a fact that makes efforts to address “knowledge equity” in the country essential, Freshwater says.

Yet a paper published in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology in 2020 warned that Māori knowledge remained “largely invisible in the body of ecological research” produced in the country.

One of the ways Freshwater has sought to address this has been to “grow the research capacity of our Māori and Pacific staff”, including efforts to increase the number of early career researchers from these communities.

Explaining how these efforts can help to advance the science, Freshwater gives an example of Auckland researchers working with a local iwi, Māori tribe, to explore the impact of “unprecedented warm water temperature” in the Hauraki Gulf near the coast in the North Island.

The reef ecosystem there is changing; marine sponges are dying off and warm water species such as black sea urchins are multiplying. Together with the iwi, university researchers are seeking solutions to these problems and to increase resilience to future changes in the marine environment.

Through projects such as these, the university is making very tangible contributions to tackling SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 14 (life below water), Freshwater says. At the same time, the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in such a project is also addressing SDG 10 (reduced inequalities).

“We’ve been working on a Māori data sovereignty project and involving those people who have access or ownership of the Indigenous data,” she continues.

“We’re making sure that we’re building into that [project] opportunities for students and staff to grow…[as well as to] help hit some of those SDGs.”

Partnerships reconsidered

Another UN-identified goal that Freshwater is focused on is SDG 17 – global partnerships – which she says has enormous potential in the context of regional ties with lesser-known universities in Oceania, including in Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

“If you were to look at [Auckland alongside these smaller universities] in a rankings context, we’re not anywhere near each other,” she says. “But if you look at what we’re trying to achieve for the region, and for the SDGs, and what we’re trying to deliver in terms of health, economies, technology and inequities…then we’re on the same page.”

Seen through that lens, she suggests, there is a strong case for universities to rethink the criteria they typically adopt when considering potential partners for research.

She takes a similar view of partnerships with industry. “There are lots of benefits to being where we are,” she says. “There aren’t lots of large corporates, but there are lots of small start-ups. And that is a benefit, because people are willing to have a go…we’ll do a lot of testing and failing before succeeding.”

Tackling misinformation

One of the university’s recent projects is addressing the problem of misinformation.

Freshwater cites research by economists that found that countries with higher levels of misinformation during the pandemic – and consequently lower vaccine uptake rates – suffered more economically.

This prompted the university to consider whether a similar connection could be made between misinformation around climate change and efforts to achieve the SDGs.

Auckland went on to develop what it calls a “misinformation resilience index”, which was presented to a regional economic forum in November last year and will, she hopes, be taken up by the UN.

There is real urgency to demonstrating how misinformation can hamper SDGs, Freshwater says. “We took that very seriously, because we’re quite close to 2030 now – but we’re not close to completing targets around the SDGs.”

However, Auckland’s research also acknowledges that misinformation is complex, because it is often linked with related issues such as free speech and human rights.

This means that, as a policy agenda, it is often put into the “too hard basket”, the researchers say, whereas it should be seen as a “complex problem, but not an insoluble one”.

What more can universities do to tackle this growing global problem?

Plenty, according to Freshwater, who identifies the ability to interrogate information in an “evidence-based way” as a core graduate attribute. She also suggests that higher education can play a role by helping to equip future generations with the “moral compass” to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

A diverse community

A final area of focus identified by Freshwater as crucial to the impact of her university is the diversification of both Auckland’s faculty and its student body.

Both, she says, will help to ensure that the university’s work is effectively translated and transferred into different contexts, thereby maximising its impact.

Her thoughts on inclusion and diversity have been shaped by her own path into higher education. Freshwater, who originally qualified as a nurse, was the first in her family to go to university, and she studied for her PhD while working.

When she joined Auckland, she became the first woman to take on the role of vice-chancellor. Yet, she reflects: “I’ve been the first woman so many times [in my career] that the day I’m not the first woman to do something is a really good day – because that’s the day that we’ve moved on.”

This resistance to being pigeonholed – which might also apply to the categorisation of Freshwater as a “pandemic vice-chancellor” – is clear from her reaction to the “first woman” tag: “I don’t want to be defined in that way. I’m more than that.”

It is a lesson she applies when she thinks about issues of inclusion for others, too – be they other women, people with disabilities or members of Indigenous communities.

“All of these people are trying to develop as citizens and leaders of the future,” she says. “They are much more than [the labels we give them].”


This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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