Monday, 5 October 2009

Trouble at Monash

Those (kind) people who have read the first draft of my 1960s/1970s chapter know that this chapter is about a clash over the ownership/control of knowledge between student movements and the professoriate. In it, students (and junior staff) are constructing new knowledge, exploring new ideas and ways of knowing and challenging the legitimation processes of the hierarchical university.

They will also have noticed that the first draft is - perhaps unsurprisingly - a little too Sydney-centric. In order to combat this, I recently spent some time in the Monash University archives.

The student movement at Monash was famously active. Then Vice Chancellor, Louis Matheson, recorded at least 15 incidents (sit-ins, mostly) in his rough, hand-written chronology in 1969.

What was really irritating, though, is that it didn't conform to my previous research. My chapter thus far presented a nice story, showing students genuinely grappling with new knowledge in the face of professorial opposition, abusing hierarchical power to prevent non-canonical knowledge from emerging. At Monash, though, a liberal and progressive vice-chancellor consulted widely to assist staff in re-thinking the idea of the university, its governing structures, assessment strategies and the types of knowledge that could emerge within it - particularly since at that point Monash was brand new. Matheson, first V-C at Monash, considered the new university an opportunity to reconsider the legitimising structures of the university and instigating a major consultative review which ended in recommending most of the things students elsewhere were demanding.

Opposing this unexpectedly progressive Vice-Chancellor, was a Monash Labour Club led by a young man who, as far as I could see, selected his politics to align to his penchant for violence - Albert Langer. Langer was later famous for suggesting (and being imprisoned for suggesting) a method of voting that would not favour the major parties. More recently he has maintained a website in support of the Iraq War.

Langer and other Maoist members of the Monash Labour Club were generally quite open about the fact that their Vice-Chancellor was a pretty liberal guy who generally upheld academic and political freedom. The problem for them was the 'degree-factory' university itself and the fact of the role of Vice-Chancellor, which they saw as inherently complicit in capitalism. It would not have mattered what the Vice-Chancellor did, they would oppose him on principle.

Reading through all this, I started to squirm. I could (and can) not see how I could in good conscience present Matheson in the same light as other more authoritarian professors who worked to suppress student-sourced knowledge in the period. Nor could I see any way of presenting this young thug (a certainly intelligent one, though) as a source of new, but suppressed knowledge. It really can be annoying that history is nuanced and complex.

But perhaps the students were right: the structures were significant, not (just) the hopelessly flawed (and unexpectedly progressive) actors within them.

Langer's political activities were extensive and high profile, making him a target for those opposed to student radicalism. He was arrested for inciting riot in 1969. Three trials were commenced, two cancelled under credible suspicion of police collusion to manufacture evidence. Langer's trial and his general treatment by the police the justice system, looks like an attempt to make an example of him and discourage the movement. This treatment structurally positioned him as a political scapegoat, regardless of what his specific politics were or whether he added anything to student ways of knowing (which, as far as I can tell, he didn't). It is most likely Langer's rather egomaniacal loudness (a loudness students started to complain about at Monash and Melbourne university, where some hoped that student-controlled knowledge might encourage diversity rather than agree with Langer or be declared fascist) that made him structurally - but undeservedly - representative of the student movements in the media and as the justice system's scapegoat.

Where Monash made a mistake, in the end, was in not admitting Langer to a postgraduate degree. From the looks of things, this was the fault of the Registrar, who was thereafter supported by his colleagues. You can imagine how it happened. Finally this guy was graduating and the administration must have been anticipating it like a holiday in Fiji. Langer, obviously wanting to continue his leadership in the university that had made him famous, applied for postgraduate study in maths. His marks and feedback from his teachers made it reasonable to assume he would be admitted for 1970. He was not. The Registrar made it clear, on enquiry, that he would not be admitted to any other course either, for a variety of unconvincing reasons. Furthermore, as the year progressed, it was declared he was not to attend lectures for courses he was not enrolled in.

Students - and staff - felt that this failure to admit Langer was evidence of political bias in Monash's admissions policy, though they described it as 'exclusion' (a word that has quite a different meaning in student discipline than what happened to Langer). Langer then applied to the University of Melbourne, who also rejected him, leading to the massive 3.3.18 controversy over admissions policy there in 1971 (already described in my draft chapter). Again, whether or not they actually wanted Langer to study there, students and staff were sure they did not want a system that rejected people on the basis of their politics.

Langer then applied to Sydney University, who checked with their legal counsel and found they could reject an application from anyone they want for any reason. Students and staff at Sydney, perhaps more interested in their controversies about philosophy and political economics (and also had shown themselves to be potentially elitist themselves, especially in relation to admissions), appear - from what I have seen - not to have said a word. If anyone was there and can tell me otherwise, please do!

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