Saturday, 26 July 2008

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

1970

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).

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