Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Introducing Philip Baxter

Philip Baxter, Vice-Chancellor of UNSW 1955-1969 is a 'new' characterI will introduce to my next draft of the 1940s/1950s (sneaking into the 1960s) chapter, currently entitled "Give us the money and be done with it: Commonwealth Funding and the purchasability of knowledge in the 1940s and 1950s".

Baxter, I thought, would provide an interesting contrast to Ashby as Baxter was the new-fashioned academic 30 years ahead of time. Partnering with industry, high sense of accountability to and relationship with government, an emphasis on efficiency and productivity, Baxter seems to be the antithesis of Ashby's leisured inquirer.

As it turns out, contrast is too strong. They both, for instance, advocated a greater integration of technological disciplines into the academic world. I will attempt further comparisons a little further down the track, but for now I'd like to quote from Baxter a little.

Firstly, Baxter made precisely the point I have been struggling to argue in the first version of the chapter. Having described the increased size and complexity of universities, needed to serve economic and technological needs, Baxter acknowledged that public funding was the only way societies would be able to get the universities they needed. He went on to say:
This dependence on public funds means that to a substantial extent the activities of universities are accountable for their use of the public funds. While academics are aware of the need for this accounting, some may feel that there is, at times, a divergence between the course necessary to meet the immediate requirements of national development and that which should be followed in the long term interests of scholarship and research (1966, p96)
But while Baxter tended far to utility, accountability and industrial innovation and productivity agendas, like Ashby, Baxter saw that the university's role would be entirely undermined were it, in the process of receiving public funding to perform its public role, to lose its academic freedom:
This is a large business [note this key difference from Ashby - business] by any standard and since the money is public money a great responsibility will rest on the governing council to see that the money is spent wisely, efficiently and economically. The university must give the community the service which it needs and to do this it must retain all those aspects of free inquiry, of unrestrained teaching and discussion and leadership in original thought, which universities have traditionally contributed....It must produce professional men and women who are educated and informed citzens... It must at the sam time be a large scale employer, spending big sums of public money in ways which will satisfy Auditors-General and Ministers for Education the taxpayer is getting value for his dollar and that nothing wasteful or extravagant is being done (1966b, p.114)
Commonwealth funding, needed he knew, was still, for Baxter (who, unlike Ashby, actually experienced this in Australia), the source of increased interference and specific, tangible examples of reduced academic freedom:
The degree of interference in internal affairs of the universities by conditions attached to financial supply is already very considerable, and it increases in every Act and every triennium (1966b, p.111)
Unlike Sydney University's Vice Chancellor in the 1940s, Baxter knew that the days of "give us the money and be done with it" were over and that painstaking accountability would be the price of academic freedom. In true Baxter-style efficiency obsessiveness, he said:
The price of academic freedom for the universities will be an impeccable level of efficiency, performance and service to the community, and an administration which can demonstrate that this is so to the point where it is fully trusted by that community and by the governments it elects (1966b, 113-114)
He even addresses the question of who, in the new structure, is responsible for maintaining academic freedom - something I've been wondering lately, since it seems to have been left to the Federal Court. Government can't do it, obviously, since they're the body the university needs protecting from. Now that academics are heavily in the pay of government, claimed Baxter, neither can they be relied upon to protect academic freedom. It is the lay (non-university) members of university governing bodies (Council or Senate) who have this responsibility, he reckoned, since it was clearly the job of the university (just no longer the academics) to do it:
In the context of academic freedom the important responsibility of the university is to be a place where all matters and questions can be examined, where research may follow any line of inquiry, where the non-conformist and the heretic may hold and express unorthodox and unpopular views, and be met with argument not suppression. This does not mean that the university normally seethes with heresy and rebellion: on the contrary, but should there be a time when our free society is in danger, if governments of the right or left seek to diminish our liberties, it should be in the universities that voices could and would be loudly raised in protest (1966b, 116)
I'd like firstly to note that this does not limit academic freedom to an area of scholarly expertise - and nor should it, for what if liberty was being diminished outside of, say, chemical engineering (which was Baxter's area of expertise). University administrators seem much more worried today about dissenting or unpopular opinion within their universities than Baxter, control freak though he was:
The vice-chancellor is of course the official spokesman [sic] for the University... but he [sic] will always try to indicate that universities, on most controversial issues, never have a single opinion, but many opinions, and that it is in their nature to be so. Universities being places where free thought and speech on all matters is encouraged, there are times when, on highly controversial issues, some sections of the public will feel outraged by views emanating from some people in the university. Action is sometimes publicly or privately demanded against such persons. This the vice-chancellor must firmly resist. (1966a, p.11)
One of the public roles for the VC, said Baxter, was to communicate this diversity of opinion to the public as an inherent characteristic of any university:
The vice-chancellor can do much to get the community to realise that universities are places where heresies are tolerated and that it is for the good of the community that this should be so. (1966b, 11-12)
As we will see as I go along, there was a lot not great about Baxter. But he certainly understood - at least at the end of his period as Vice-Chancellor - the importance of (and challenges of maintaining) academic freedom.

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