Five AUT academics – Georgina Tuari Stewart (Ngāpuhi), Valance Smith (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu, Ngāti Maru ki Tainui), Piki Diamond (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pākehā, and raised by Tauranga Moana), Nova Paul (Ngāpuhi) and Robert Hogg (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe) – discuss the findings of their research on Māori values in their university.

A few years ago, AUT formally adopted as its values the three Māori words, tika, pono and aroha, which are used in various internal documents and staff workshops. For a university to adopt Māori values is no doubt seen as enlightened and innovative, demonstrating its commitment to biculturalism, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and principles of inclusiveness. Adopting Māori values aligns with current trends towards increasing visibility of elements of Māori knowledge in national life, such as the use of Māori names and greetings in the media, government agencies and education. Bilingual signage and Māori greetings on emails have become common practice, even for organisations and individuals with no other apparent links to Māori language and culture.

So to adopt these Māori values could be seen as evidence of AUT’s cultural competence and embrace of Te Reo Māori and tikanga Māori. But it seems the way these words are being used by AUT does not align with their traditional Māori meanings. The knowledge questions involved in adopting ancient Indigenous concepts as university values need to be recognised and addressed. Having taken this bold policy step, what is actually included in the university’s thinking and practice?

In the colourful AUT Values graphic, each Māori value is equated to one English word, which is problematic in two ways: first, because each of these three words returns many meanings when looked up in a dictionary; and second, because the assigned words seem not to be great choices. The English words used to translate tika (integrity) and pono (respect) seem to have been transposed, and the word used for aroha (compassion) is only part of its meaning.

Tika, pono and aroha are central concepts in te ao Māori, widely used in Māori discourse, from Facebook to whaikōrero. Tika, pono and aroha mean justice, truth and love – strong, fundamental values – much stronger than the AUT equivalents. A university is centrally concerned with the pursuit of truth, and justice and love represent ethics and dedication in that pursuit.

Our research finds that to adopt these Māori values, central in Māori society, implies a profound commitment on the part of the university. In the current fashion for adopting Māori terms into non-Māori contexts, traditional meanings cannot be blithely disregarded. Tika, pono and aroha are moral values, so this work holds the university accountable to their legal duty as ‘critic and conscience of society’ because conscience is determined by the practice of morals. Matariki – the start of a new year – is a good time for reflecting on our values, and what matters to us, in our workplaces and in our society as a whole.