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Can we really decolonise the university?

20 July 2023

To explore what is possible, non-Indigenous scholars Mahdis Azarmandi and Sara Tolbert offer an anticolonial feminist praxis for unsettling settler institutions.


When we first received the invitation to “provide practical advice” and describe “what decolonisation means”, we thought about the many conversations we have had about the extent to which it is possible to “decolonise” a settler colonial institution. We also reflected on the many ways the term decolonisation is still absent in our university or, when it does appear, how it is often reduced to yet another version of diversity and inclusion. Drawing on the words of Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith that decolonising practices “are not all about theory or all about action, but they are all about praxis”, we’d like to offer insights into how we, as tauiwi (non-Indigenous) scholars, can work to unsettle the settler colonial university. We agree with Max Liboiron, who recently wrote that decolonisation is “a very promiscuous term. I’ve stopped using it because it’s been so heavily co-opted.” Instead, these insights focus on anticolonial and feminist praxis.

As non-Indigenous scholars, we can engage in anticolonial and feminist practices that subvert the settler colonial university, but we cannot promise “decolonisation”, especially in a country such as New Zealand, where the effects of colonisation are ongoing and where, in the words of Indigenous climate activist India Logan-Riley, “land back, oceans back” is yet to be realised. Unless the university is fully engaged in land back, oceans back, decolonisation will be used by the settler colonial university to justify settler occupation of stolen land, water and knowledge (see “additional links”, below).

Rather than offer how-to tips for “decolonising the university”, we suggest a few points as a call for collective action to change things that are unjust ­– inside and outside the university. We argue that to engage in anticolonial, feminist practice, we must address the systems that produce violence and exploitation, not just in the scholarly aspect of our work but also within our own institutional and material conditions such as housing, jobs and access to health. Some of these points are taken from our forthcoming chapter “A manifesto for transdisciplinary (transgressive) feminist praxis in the Academy”. 

  1. We can’t both love and change the university at the same time. We must actively engage in the disruption of oppressive, settler colonial and patriarchal practices. Learning from abolitionist struggles, we need to engage in non-reformist reform – that is, practices that improve the lives and conditions of those most marginalised (outside and inside the university) but that do not consolidate the power of the institution.
  2. A crucial aspect of anticolonial praxis in the university is recognising and respecting Indigenous epistemologies and, where possible, engaging these as central to its curriculum while also peripheralising European and settler knowledge, which has been foundational in its formation. However, how and to what extent Indigenous knowledge should be in the university is not for non-Indigenous people to decide, but the way we act within our natural and knowledge environment must not be extractivist. We can and must resist extracting resources and knowledge from land, water and people. We need also remember that some knowledge is not ours to share; “sometimes the knowledge does not need to be moved out of the communities where it resides into the pages, websites and walls of the academic industrial complex” (Tolbert & Azarmandi, forthcoming). What anticolonial feminist praxis centres is being-in-relation (with place and people). We need to approach the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge with humility – there is a fine line between incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and cultural appropriation. What we can do is make space by disrupting disciplinary boundaries and challenging the limitations of academic disciplines that discourage collaboration and maintain competition.
  3. We must build collaborative partnerships and alliances with other marginalised communities, acknowledging the intersections of colonialism, racism, sexism, homo-transphobia, ableism and other forms of oppression. Building genuine relationships and collaborative partnerships with Indigenous and marginalised communities is essential. If these relationships benefit scholars and the academy more than the community, chances are they are meant to further empower settler colonial regimes and not disrupt and decolonise them. Adapt feminist and collaborative writing practices; refuse symbolic service requests and instead strategise and work towards systemic change: unionise, organise for a living wage and improve institutional practices such as parental leave and access to healthcare and housing.
  4. Anticolonial praxis requires institutional transformation at all levels. This also means securing the right to education and making sure public universities exist and are supported. In the institution, we need to critically examine and restructure policies, procedures and practices that perpetuate settler colonial regimes of power. It involves addressing systemic barriers that maintain inequality, such as access to education, hiring practices, tenure and promotion criteria, curricular decisions and funding allocations. Resist symbolic change and cultural window dressing. Name it; make it explicit.
  5. Anticolonial and feminist praxis requires constant self-reflection and a commitment to unlearning. It involves critically examining our own complicity within the settler colonial structures. Be mindful, however, that this reflective and personal work alone does not create change – and sometimes, as feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has illuminated, it can become another way of not doing things with words. Connect, resist and organise.
  6. Finally, we must dare to dream beyond the university. What if the university can’t be unsettled or decolonised? If we do unsettle or decolonise the institution, will it be recognisable once we are done? As la paperson (the avatar of K. Wayne Yang, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego) has written (and we cite in our forthcoming chapter), we should understand “the university as a machine that is the composite of many other [disloyal] machines” – ones that ‘break down and travel in unexpected lines of flight – flights that are at once enabled by the university yet irreverent of that mothership of a machine’. May we find each other…beyond the university, and unite in our irreverent lines of flight”.

Mahdis Azarmandi is a senior lecturer in educational studies and leadership, and Sara Tolbert is an associate professor in the School of Teacher Education, both at the University of Canterbury.

This article originally appeared on Times Higher Education (THE)’s Campus website. If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.

Additional information

We understand that “feminism is not a finished project, nor is it unproblematic” and we advocate for a transdisciplinary feminism that is an intersectional, decolonial, anti-racist and anti-capitalist transfeminism: Azarmandi, M. & Tolbert, S. (in press), “A manifesto for transdisciplinary (transgressive) feminist praxis in the Academy” in C. Hughes, C. Taylor, M. Salazar Perez, & J. Ulmer (eds), Routledge International Handbook of Research and Methods in Transdisciplinary Feminism (Routledge).

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