Saturday, 26 July 2008

Sydney in the 1960s/1970s Part 2: The Victoria Lee case and the discipline of students


A student named Victoria Lee got some bad advice from her school careers advisor and didn’t study maths for her HSC. She had been told she didn’t need maths to do the kind of archaeology that was only offered at Sydney - but this was incorrect at that time. She had the marks, just not the maths. So she enrolled at Macquarie (that apparently didn’t mind a lack of maths) and took the courses at Sydney she needed (they were being credited to her MQ degree) with the intention of transferring to Sydney after a year. The rules were that Sydney would accept students from other Australian universities, so this was a reasonable plan. However, when it got to the next year, the Professorial Board had changed the rules so that students from other universities couldn’t just transfer like that. They had forgotten to put this new rule in the University calendar so understandably Ms Lee was quite shocked to find she couldn’t continue her study in the area she wished.

Students rallied in support of Victoria Lee’s cause to a remarkable degree. While angry that she had been summarily dismissed they were incensed that the Professorial Board could make a decision, not publicise and then use it against students. At this point, the SRC realised they needed representation not just on the Senate and the Proctorial Board but also on the Professorial Board. This was a tougher ask, as most staff didn’t even have access to the Professorial Board (only professors – and it was all of them).

Interestingly, student feeling about Ms Lee’s right to admission was quite elitist in itself: they could understand that the Professorial Board would want to limit transfer of sub-par students from UNSW and Macquarie (their words, definitely not mine!) but Victoria Lee was different – she had qualified for Sydney (except for the maths).

Students, wanting to actually do something about it, forced their way into the administrative offices in the Main Quad and for three days occupied the Registrar’s office. A whole lot of contradictory details of the occupation can be gleaned from the reports the Proctorial Board made to the Professorial Board – the proctorial board of course called in to discipline a handful of the students afterwards. Incidentally, the proctorial reports are funny, definitely worth a read. The secretary taking the minutes seemed to be quite supportive of the students under discipline.

A second incident in the year was much smaller incident where the Governor, visiting the university on (of all days) May 1st, was hit by one and a part of one tomatoes (the exact number given by the DVC). This incident for students highlighted the potential brutality of campus security (still gun carrying I believe) but was a minor incident to the Deputy Vice Chancellor, since <1.5 tomatoes was only slightly embarrassing.

Honi Soit, during 1970 was under control of some left students who, while a little better than the 1973 Honi editors that seemed constantly drunk, persisted in including really, really long articles giving every detail of who in which part of which left organization said what on what day and so on. One of the things that is obvious from both Honi Soit and the Professorial Board minutes (when those two match up you’re probably really onto something) is a particular and even personal antagonism between one of the Honi writers, Chris O’Connell and the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor O’Neill. They wrote responses to one another in Honi Soit all year long.

The character of the proctorial board was under real scrutiny throughout the year. In an open letter students charged over the Victoria Lee occupation, students complain that justice is traditionally understood to be served by a jury of peers – but not in the university:
“We neither accept these regulations, which have been set up to protect those who hold power in this university from challenge…In our case we will be tried by persons whose impartiality is questionable to say the least…Nor in our case is an open hearing or presumption of innocence to be allowed”

Their argument must have been compelling for, by the end of the year, the university allowed six student representatives on the Proctorial board – more than a token number in this case. Of the students voted to represent them, the O'Connell brothers were included. The Professorial Board initially rejected these, angering the SRC and the students who voted for them of course. Deliberately provocative, one feels, is the response to the SRC letter requesting reasons the two students were rejected as proctors, was the Professor who wrote to them that “the Board did not say” – when (from the minutes) they clearly did.

I have not yet found the reason why (the Professorial Board minutes can be a little evasive and fragmented) but despite the very strong opposition by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the DVC’s arch-enemy Chris O’Donnell was elected proctor. O’Connell promptly called a Proctorial Board meeting against the wishes of the Chair (Professor Taylor) in which a majority of students present formed quorum. They got rid of the Professor present who was acting as secretary “due to [his] offensive interruption of student proctors” and formed a SRC and Staff Association joint standing committee on Discipline: that is, a committee more likely than representatives of the Professorial Board (current proctors) to be sympathetic to the student cause.

Amongst many of the protests about exams and assessment was a persistent (though, by the 1975 report to the Academic board, seen as marginal) claim that it was unfair for teachers to assess students and that instead students should be assessing teachers. There is more to this that needs exploration in a future post I hope. But there was enough reason in the argument for the SRC to set up a Teaching Ability Survey, a precursor to the current ubiquitous evaluation schemes.

Finally: the Professorial Board changed the rules again, under which Victoria Lee would qualify for entry. The Professorial Board told Honi Soit something along the lines of “she is invited to re-apply” – but students were still a little miffed that the Board did not admit that they were wrong to have refused her admission in the first place.

(For this posting I have drawn on several editions of Honi Soit, Professorial Board minutes in 1970 and reports of the Proctorial Committees assigned to discipline students).

Friday, 25 July 2008

Revolution in knowledge and its ownership - thinking about the 1960s and 1970s

I have been struck by two things in the last two days.

One: yesterday (Friday 25 July) I was reading a speech by Kim Edward Beazley (Sr) in 1972 to the Melbourne convocation, where he was talking about student protest and other “problems” (despite the ways that university staff and politicians might sympathise with student opinions, it still constituted a problem requiring some sort of response). The university Beazley Sr described was barely recognisable to me. It was a placid, civilised, quiet place - a detached location for contemplative knowledge. Furthermore, it is obvious, in his speech, that Beazley Sr believed that protesting students would come and go but the university (the university form, its idea, that is) would remain the same. The fact I could not recognise the obviousness of his ideal university’s qualities, suggests that it did not.

Two: On Thursday I went to a workshop on assessment (Noel Myers presenting at ACU) where it was clear that our assumption is now that we should assess students constructively as a part of their learning to equip them for knowledge and work that does not yet exist. This contrasts to some of the ideas around traditional examination, which were never for students at all. They were for society to know that all its graduates in (say) medicine had achieved a minimum standard. This changes the place of the (idea of the) university in society from a bureau of standards, an examining organisation, to a training one. It shifts the university’s claims in relation to knowledge, since examination presupposes the existence of a stable canon, to contingent, shifting and multi-located knowledge – including knowledge located in the future.

The university seems so permanent, so stable. It seems so bureaucratic, slow to change, cautious (some, more than others). The university has a conservative position in society, though it may not have (many) conservative members. (Consider the double-meaning – I think intended – in the Bradley discussion paper “[Higher Education plays] a key role in the development and maintenance of the nation’s culture and social structures” (p.2).

So the fact that lasting change was made in the university idea in as little as 7 years – maybe as long as 10 – says (as do some other things) the student movement of approx 1968-1975 in Australia was a revolution of knowledge – and a revolution in who owns it.

And I was all prepared for finding that it was all a lot to be passionate about at the time, but fizzled out after a while. Hmm.

Library Fines and a Free University:Sydney in the 60s/70s (Part 1)

I am going to summarise events 1967-1975 (as they relate to owning knowledge) as I see them at the University of Sydney. It is my hope that I can manage to be less Sydney-centric, so if anyone has suggested or remembered events at other universities – especially ones that relate to curriculum, knowledge, assessment – please let me know. This posting only covers '67 and '68.

In 1967 the University of Sydney librarian decided to raise the fine for overdue books. Students felt very strongly about this, though of course library fines is a difficult thing to be morally superior about and their arguments were things like richer students would keep the books ad get a better education. The main issue, repeated over and over again in Honi Soit, was that the university librarian had not consulted students and was therefore treating them like “morons”. Students held two fairly mild sit-ins in the library, until after it closed. University security officers (as they are now called – then Guards. Who also carried guns, incidentally) came but, on the second attempt, around 50 students undoubtedly had a fabulous time staying the night in Fisher library, after which one student was disciplined (and his cause was then carried on, of course). The disciplining of a student protest leader on an issue that directly impacted students (or at least those who returned their books late, I suppose) suggested to the SRC that it should have representation on the university Senate and the disciplinary body, the Proctorial board.

The brand spanking new Macquarie university appointed a student senator who would sit on its proctorial board during that year, and students expressed shame that the new university was ahead of Sydney (HS40(18)200767).

In 1968 some staff and students from Sydney set up the Free University (known as the Free U) in a house in Calder St Darlington (just around the corner from Sydney), based on similar organizations in the United States. The Free U was an experiment in pedagogy, largely, allowing course convenors and students to have a say in how a loosely planned course would. It was a movement against the traditional assumptions of university teaching, where teachers know and students don’t, meaning courses are based on what teachers already know. At the Free U, courses could be based on what no one knows and they could try to figure it out together. It also meant they could freely explore issues such as Marxism and democracy in education, which were less readily explorable on campus at that time. At its peak the Free U had around 300 members, though it closed in 1972.

David Stove was, alongside the (even) more vocal Armstrong , was especially concerned about student protest. In fact, many professors and university administrators were after Berkeley and would become after Paris’ Mai 68.

At the start of 1968 Stove wrote an article for Honi Soit that seems to have no point except to be insulting and suggest that more was to come. Here’s an excerpt of Stove’s article:

“Not all the campus radicals are so disoriented by the thoughts of Mao-Tse-Tung or other hallucinogenic drugs as to be incapable of action. Some of them found enough energy, for example to inaugurate the Free University (though admittedly this involves no more than the assembly of an article which is imported from America all ready-cut, complete with instruction-manual of assorted meaningless sayings about alienation, etc.).”

David Stove">Stove and – more so, really – Armstrong, over the next 5 years, would come to represent the attitude of ‘god professors’. Indeed, Armstrong’s real success, we might think, was in embodying the image of the type of professor students were so angry about – helping to create a focus and reality for the rebellion and transformations to come.