LitBits #2: Supporting Indigenous academic staff

We know from SAGE Athena Swan applications that many Australian higher education and research (HER) institutions have strategies in place to improve the attraction, retention and progression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. It got us thinking: wouldn’t be interesting to explore what institutions overseas are doing and thinking in this space for their Indigenous peoples?

In this LitBit, we look at promising initiatives for Indigenous scholars in North America and Aotearoa (New Zealand). First, we must acknowledge that this piece was written from our subject positions as non-Indigenous people. Don’t take our word for what works! When designing initiatives for Indigenous communities (or indeed any equity group), always abide by the golden rule: not about us without us. Partnership and co-design are essential in creating programs that truly respect and meet needs.

Helping everyone “succeed”: What should initiatives aim to achieve?

Consider the example of Māori academics in Aotearoa, who feel a lower sense of belonging in academia.[1] This is partly because their career motivations (and what constitutes meaningful work for them) don’t align with Eurocentric ideals of scholarly excellence. They are driven by a desire to serve and make visible Māori communities in their work – goals which are not always supported by increasingly individualistic and corporatised academies.

Thus, change initiatives must not further alienate Indigenous academics by insisting that they conform to notions of success that are not culturally relevant to them. It’s time for the HER sector to broaden its concept of success beyond institutional achievements such as graduation or promotion. For Indigenous peoples, true success includes being a core part of the academy without sacrificing their cultural integrity.[2,3]

Here are some ways to create institutions that are respectful, welcoming, and inclusive of Indigeneity.

Enhance Indigenous leadership and policies

Western institutions are managed in ways that often conflict with Indigenous governance models and cultural protocols.[2] This could be mitigated by incorporating (more) Indigenous leadership on influential senior committees, such as the Board and the Senate. A handful of British Columbian universities have established Aboriginal Advisory Committees, where Elders, Aboriginal community leaders and institutional representatives work together on Indigenous initiatives.

Institutional Indigenous strategic plans can set goals and articulate policies for promoting Indigenous research, whether by affirming Indigenous methodologies or supporting projects that are relevant to Indigenous communities.

No strategy is complete without the ability to monitor the impact of these policies over time. To enable this, HER institutions should collect standardised, high quality ethnicity data and commit to publicly reporting this data.[4] In Aotearoa, Māori representation in higher education is currently difficult to estimate, due to variable response rates and differences in recording staff numbers (as full time equivalents or headcounts, for instance).

Embed Indigenous knowledges in the staff and student curriculum

Interactions with non-Indigenous peoples form a major part of Indigenous peoples’ everyday environments. A fix-the system approach therefore requires the former’s attitudes to be founded on a truthful understanding of Indigenous histories, cultures and lived experiences. Some Canadian universities (e.g. University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University) have set Indigenous content requirements for all undergraduate students to address non-Indigenous people’s low awareness of Indigenous history and contemporary issues.[2]

Pihama and co-workers recommend formalising cultural competency requirements for non-Indigenous research supervisors.[5] This was based on an observation that Māori postgraduate students frequently encounter tensions arising from the cultural ignorance of non-Indigenous faculty and their consequent dismissal of Indigenous research methodologies.


There is a growing realisation that traditional measures of merit in academia are often too narrow and inequitable. For example, McAllister et al. noted that Māori researchers are more likely to obtain PhDs later in life.[4] Indigenous scholars may adopt academically rigorous yet culturally relevant research practices, which are pivotal in bridging relationships with Indigenous communities.[2] However, the nature of their research may mean that Indigenous scholars do not use the same dissemination processes as their non-Indigenous counterparts, and are thus disadvantaged by academia’s emphasis on short-term outputs rather than long-term outcomes, and its unhealthy obsession with single-author publications in high-impact journals.[4] Promotion policies need to better recognise these non-traditional research trajectories.

Institutions should also value service contributions more highly in their performance review and promotion processes.[3] Staff from underrepresented groups tend to take on more committee and service work than their majority colleagues, often at the expense of their research. Institution leaders must communicate that equity, diversity and inclusion is not the sole responsibility of those from underrepresented groups. When all staff take ownership of inclusion work, we can reduce the hypervisibility that minority group staff are often subjected to.

Recruit for diversity, not tokens

Haynes Writer and Watson suggest these good practices for recruiting Indigenous and minority ethnic faculty.[3] Firstly, recruitment panels should include members of underrepresented groups. To avoid overburdening the small number of staff from these groups, institutions can also invite diverse community brokers to join their search committees. Non-majority panellists can provide unique perspectives that help broaden and diversify the candidate pool. They are also in a better position to share cultural insights with the diverse candidates that the institutions seek to hire.

Cluster and target hiring can help create a community of new hires, thus reducing their risk of isolation. Identified positions are not without controversy, which usually arises when individual hires are tokenised and valued only for their diversity. This can be avoided by emphasising the scholarly expertise that they bring to the institution.

Institutions may also opt for grow-your-own strategies, where they invest in developing existing talent. Staff or students from underrepresented groups could be encouraged to pursue higher degrees (e.g. by providing financial incentives) or undertake leadership and teaching opportunities, with the view of transitioning into a longer term or higher-grade position at the institution.


The MAI Te Kupenga Doctoral Programme is a Māori-driven initiative, established in Aotearoa to support Indigenous scholars and challenge “whitestreaming” in tertiary education.[5] Participating scholars engage in hui (Māori cultural gatherings) and workshops, where they can interact with senior Māori academics outside their supervisory teams. MAI Te Kupenga’s collective mentoring model thus connects scholars to a much larger pool of Māori role models. The resulting support networks provide a space where Indigenous knowledges and methodologies are affirmed, and Māori scholars feel comfortable sharing their experiences and strategies for dealing with structural racism. The cross-institutional nature of the program keeps individual institutional structures at arm’s length, and enables the achievement of critical mass.

Mentoring is also a valuable addition to induction processes for new staff. A good mentor can introduce them to relevant networks and familiarise them with the institution’s political context. By taking a more proactive approach in helping employees integrate into their new workplace, institutions can greatly increase retention.

Culturally safe spaces

Indigenous staff and students benefit from having dedicated sanctuary spaces where they can relax their academic personas and find affinity with fellow Indigenous people. On university campuses, these areas may be Indigenous academic units or student services.[2,5] Safe spaces should honour Indigeneity, for example by featuring culturally appropriate artwork and physical spaces, such as circle lounges.[1]

Whether these spaces are located centrally or on the fringes of the campus, in buildings that are well-maintained or require significant repair, centrally funded or reliant on short-term external grants is a powerful symbol of how much an institution values Indigenous presence. Reclaiming institutional space is an important, physical step towards Indigenising the academy.

Indigenisation is not a pipe dream

Altogether, these initiatives acknowledge and attempt to undo the systemic racism that pervades academia. It is heartening to note that Indigenous scholars do not report experiencing issues of racial and cultural discrimination at Indigenised academies,[2] because it proves that mainstream universities too can create similarly inclusive environments.[5] All we need is institutional leadership and commitment.


1 Staniland et al. (2020) ‘Fit’ for whom? Career strategies of Indigenous (Māori) academics, Higher Education, 79, 589-604.

2 Pidgeon (2016) More than a checklist: Meaningful Indigenous inclusion in higher education, Social Inclusion, 4, 1, 77-91.

3 Haynes Writer et al. (2019) Recruitment and retention: An institutional imperative told through the storied lenses of faculty of color, Journal of the Professoriate, 10, 2, 23-46.

4 McAllister et al. (2019) Why isn’t my professor Māori?, MAI Journal, 8, 2, 236-249.

5 Pihama et al. (2019) MAI Te Kupenga: Supporting Māori and Indigenous doctoral scholars within Higher Education, AlterNative, 15, 1, 52-61.