Monday, 11 May 2009

Short bit about the philosophy strike

When they were PhD students, Liz Jacka and Jean Curthoys would have been astonished to hear the language now bandied around the Professorial Board room. “Student-centred”, now a catch phrase for any ambitious academic, had never entered the minds of most on the Professorial Board in 1973 when they voted 39 to 7 against the Jacka and Curthoys-proposed unit of study, “Philosophical Aspects of Feminist Thought”.

The Feminist course had been approved by the Philosophy department, and just scraped approval through the Faculty of Arts by a vote barely over 50%. That is officially where it should have ended.

But professors still controlled the money. David Armstrong, Professor of Philosopher and a vocal opponent to the course, called his friend, Deputy Vice Chancellor O’Neill, who was soon to receive the paperwork to fund the approved course. The Deputy Vice Chancellor said there was no money to cover Jacka and Curthoys’ salaries, so the course could not run.

Angry members of the Philosophy department – both staff and students – appeared, to the Deputy Vice Chancellor’s horror, “unannounced” to make their case. O’Neil referred the matter to the Professorial Board.

Professors were different then. Mostly, one professor ruled each department absolutely. Their job, as a matter of tradition, was to protect and uphold academic standards for the good of civil society. They were the masters, controllers and protectors of knowledge.

Students – and many junior staff, it should be said – started to call them “god-professors”. “Professor O’Neil has made it clear that he believes the best decisions can only be made by those with the highest rank” said Jacka and Curthoys in an open letter to the Professorial Board.

Jacka and Curthoys were among those who believed that it was time the control of knowledge shifted away from professors. They thought that this would allow new knowledge to be explored. Knowledge like feminism.

Jacka and Curthoys’ open letter declared that professors were no longer the legitimate owners of knowledge: “The kinds of things that bodies like yours usually consider don’t apply in this case. This of course is not to argue that whether or not we are competent is unimportant or undecidable, but rather that you aren’t the proper people to decide it.”

They declared a revolution in the control of knowledge: “We feel, then, that those who are in a position to judge our competence have already done so. This week we will be asking these people to demand of Professor O’Neil that we are immediately appointed.”

Hardly likely to be sympathetic to this position, the Professorial Board voted against the course.

This led to the Philosophy Strike, where many students and staff, with support from the BLF, went on strike in support of feminism and participatory democracy. A “Women’s Tent Embassy” was erected in the Quad. The strike was highly disruptive and gave the university a lot of bad press.

A University Senate inquiry eventually recommended that the course should go ahead. Which it did.

The Professorial Board room in the Quad, unlike the Academic Board that replaced it, has still kept the old name, evoking the elite group who once ruled it. But in it, as elsewhere, feminism is now considered to be a valid area of intellectual inquiry.

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