Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Academic Freedom and the Cold War

draft only

In 1992, Ken Buckley described the federal council of staff associations during the Cold War:
The Federal Council became very heavily involved [in] matters of political discrimination in appointments in universities; there was the Russell Ward case, and there were a number of others. There was even one academic, not known to me beforehand, who deposited with me a bulky envelope, with instructions to leave it sealed until a situation arose in which he would have action taken against him within his university on political grounds; at such time the envelope was to be opened and Federal Council informed. I destroyed that envelope, I am glad to say, unopened, years later, because no such action was taken; but it is an indication of the uneasiness of the period.[1]

Despite what Buckley said, in Australia there are not many high profile cases of political discrimination within the universities during the Cold War. The Ward case that he mentioned at the University of NSW and the Knopfelmacher case at Sydney are isolated – but significant – incidents. Buckley didn’t mention Knopfelmacher as, far from protecting him from political discrimination, Buckley’s FAUSA colleague Ted Wheelwright had been instrumental in ensuring, on political grounds, he was not appointed to Sydney University.

Internationally of course, things were quite different. (more will go here)

The Ward case started in 1956 when the University of NSW failed to appoint historian Russell Ward, who had formerly been a member of the Australian Communist Party – though at that point the identity of the rejected applicant was not yet public knowledge. As a result of the rejection, economist RM Hartwell resigned and, at a meeting of Council insisted that his reasons for his resignation were recorded: that he believed the university’s failure to appoint Ward was a result of a “political test”, on which issue he said he had “followed up extensively”.[2] Baxter and the Chancellor would not allow Hartwell to speak, saying that proceedings of appointments committees were confidential and exposing its details would “make employment in this university impossible”.[3] Four years later, when employed at Oxford, Hartwell made reference to the reasons for his resignation, creating two things: an angry and defensive Philip Baxter and new enemy for the university staff association. The staff association had written to all the universities a couple of years about political freedom and Baxter, true to his rather autocratic style, had “in effect told FAUSA it was impertinent to enquire”.[4] So when the reasons for Hartwell’s resignation emerged and Baxter rapidly, but unsatisfactorily, responded, the staff association had a reason to attack a man whose politics FAUSA leaders undoubtedly already decried. Russell Ward confessed that he was the unappointed ex-communist of the case and a media fracas resulted. Baxter, even up until the 1980s, gave multiple and conflicting versions of the events.[5] The case damaged his reputation and the university’s and he sustained a longstanding mistrust of Hartwell, keeping a personal file on him and his activities. An anonymous and undated handwritten note in Baxter’s papers gave him advice on how to deal with “attacks upon the university” in light of an impending visit by Hartwell in 1963. This advice concluded that a Royal Commission “with carefully predetermined Terms of Reference” would be best:
It would seem desirable to list allegations made recently and particularly those made in the future so that Terms of Reference advantageous to the university could be drawn up at short notice.[6]
Universities were increasingly politicised spaces and their management, it seems, was requiring new and sometimes devious political tools.

Politics plagued David Malet Armstrong, Challis Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University from 1964 until the 1990s (and continued as Emeritus to the present). In a 1986 oral history interview, Armstrong said he’d heard Frank Knopfelmacher speak before he’d taken John Anderson’s old Chair. He thought, as a political philosopher, Knopfelmacher would complement Armstrong’s own skills, so he sought to have him appointed to a vacancy as senior lecturer in the department:
I was a pretty innocent young professor. I didn’t understand much about university politics anyway. I certainly didn’t foresee the row.[7]
If that was true, he was strangely well prepared for one. The three folders of material attached to the Knopfelmacher dispute are testament not only to Armstrong’s obsessive filing habits, but also to the amount of political preparation Armstrong did to give Knopfelmacher the greatest chance of being appointed to the position. His letter shows that he colluded with colleagues to ensure Sydney University currently had no competent logicians, for instance, so that Knopfelmacher would have no competition.[8] Unsigned letters from colleagues attest to the presence of known enemies in the process:
Dick either has written or will do so very soon re. S’s latest ploy (very transparent) re. trying to make sure, without appearing to do so, That K has no chance.[9]
‘S’ refers to Wal Suchting, a junior member of staff in the department who we will see in the next chapter. However, it is enough to show that Armstrong did foresee a row and everyone around him was prepared for one. He may have felt the need to be prepared partly because Knopfelmacher was not really a philosopher. At that time he was residing in the psychology department at Melbourne University and his academic work had largely been in that field. His political publications were considered, by Sydney’s Professorial Board, to be rather fanatical anti-communist articles in semi-popular publications. The official University of Sydney history suggests that there was nothing untoward, then, that the Professorial Board rejected the recommendation of the appointments committee that he be granted the position. [10] The only real problem, according to that account, was that confidential details of the appointments committee were leaked to the press[11], leading to such media attention that the case was pointed to in NSW parliament as evidence of a Communist conspiracy.[12]

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was following the case closely too. A second appointments committee was created to consider applicants to the position and Ted Wheelwright’s ASIO file shows that the Director-General of Security reported every few days to the Attorney-General and Prime Minister Menzies on progress towards having Kopfelmacher appointed.[13] They reported on the number of eligible voters on the Professorial Board, suggesting that if a greater number attend than in the first consideration of his application, it could “reverse the Board’s previous decision and appoint Dr Knopfelmacher to the position”. Copies of these letters were included in Wheelwright’s file, as he had lobbied members of the first appointments committee to vote against the appointment. However, when Armstrong had returned from overseas the wavering committee had voted in Knopfelmacher’s favour.[14] Wheelwright lobbied members of this second committee too, which rejected Knopfelmacher’s application.[15] Harry Eddy wrote to the staff association, suggesting that rejection of Knopfelmacher’s application showed a similar violation of academic freedom as the Orr case which, as we have seen, was his personal interest. The staff association – led at that point by Ted Wheelwright – replied that they were convinced that all was right in this instance. Copies of both letters are in Armstrong’s file.[16]

Although the Cold War did not result in widespread difficulties with appointing academics of left or right persuasions, the Knopfelmacher and Ward cases suggest two new attributes of university knowledge in the period. Firstly, that the connection of knowledge to government had grown so that the Prime Minister and Attorney General might have an intimate interest in which philosopher was being appointed to senior lecturer at one of the universities. Knowledge for the nation, once fears of communism (or political repression) took hold, presented a possible security risk to ASIO. To some academics it implied that knowledge should be ‘owned’: controlled by those with political persuasions they could agree with. Secondly, a unified sense of knowledge as truth, protected by academic experts, has nearly disappeared. These cases suggest that knowledge was perceived as individualised, contingent on political and ideological beliefs.


[1] Buckley, "Early Years: The Origins of Fcusaa."
[2] University of NSW, "Transcript of Part of the Proceedings at the Meeting of Council of the University of NSW Held on 9 July 1956.," in Baxter Papers UNSW/CN1053/Box50 Loose document (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1956).
[3] NSW, "Transcript of Part of the Proceedings at the Meeting of Council of the University of NSW Held on 9 July 1956.."
[4] O'Farrell, UNSW: A Portrait. The University of New South Wales 1949-1999, 98.
[5] O'Farrell, UNSW: A Portrait. The University of New South Wales 1949-1999, 97-100.
[6] Anonymous, "Note for Jp Baxter," in Baxter Papers UNSW/CN1053/Box49 Loose paper (Sydney: UNSWArchives, c./ 1963).
[7] David Malet Armstrong, "Interview with David Armstrong, Professor of Philosophy [Sound Recording] / Interviewer, Edgar Waters,"  (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1986).
[8] David Malet Armstrong, "Knopfelmacher Dispute," in Papers of David Armstrong NLA/MS9363/6/1-3 (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1965).
[9] Armstrong, "Knopfelmacher Dispute."
[10] WF Connell et al., Australia's First: A History of the University of Sydney Volume 2 1940-1990 (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1995), 165-66.
[11] Connell et al., Australia's First: A History of the University of Sydney Volume 2 1940-1990, 166.
[12] Armstrong, "Knopfelmacher Dispute."
[13] ASIO, "Asio File on El Wheelwright," in Personal Archives of Dr E L (Ted) Wheelwright, Accession 1972, Box 1; "The Best of ASIO". (Sydney: University of Sydney Archives, 1965).
[14] ASIO, "Memorandum to Hon Bw Snedden, Attorney General," in Personal Archives of Dr E L (Ted) Wheelwright, Accession 1972, Box 1; "The Best of ASIO". (Sydney: University of Sydney Archives, 1965).
[15] Connell et al., Australia's First: A History of the University of Sydney Volume 2 1940-1990, 165-66.
[16] Armstrong, "Knopfelmacher Dispute."

No comments: