Sunday, 11 April 2010

Ascent to power: Baxter continued

While still on the ship that would bring him to Sydney, Philip Baxter later claimed, during a pause in he journey at Adelaide he received a telegraph:
‘I am setting up a committee to study the Australian requirements of nuclear energy, would like you to be a member of it,’ signed Menzies, who I had never heard of.[1]
Once Baxter figured out who Menzies was, this must have seemed a promising start to his migration.[2] Baxter brought industrial and managerial experience to the professorship of Chemical Engineering, a history of working with government on focused projects of national significance and political experience (he had been very active in local politics prior to his move, leading the local conservative party). He hoped that Australia would provide the room he needed to unite these experiences and promote his ideas about industry and defence, which he saw as the “same problem”.[3]  The Australian press made a fuss when Baxter arrived, too, which must have fuelled his sense of potential influence.[4] What Baxter did not have, which most of his university colleagues did, was academic experience (excluding his youthful PhD of course). Convinced as he of the value of his industrial experience, Baxter did not mind that the NSW University of Technology did not adhere to a lot of university traditions. Many of his colleagues did, however.

The NSW University of Technology’s humble beginnings were as barely an offshoot of the Sydney Technical College in Ultimo, then an industrial area full of factories and warehouses. The administration of the university had initially been merely an extension of the college’s administration, which placed academic staff within the NSW public service.  This meant that academic staff were subject to the same working conditions as members of the public service. Most controversially, this included clocking on and off, rather than the autonomy traditionally granted in the tradition of creative intellectualism. Changing the working conditions was more difficult than it might at first appear, since the public service had a standard award system and the same teachers often taught towards both university degrees and college diplomas in the technical college system, which had long been under the public service. At first, teachers in the new university were whoever was available from the College, including a number who had to learn what they were teaching as they went, so the conditions were not a problem to them. But as the university expanded and started to move to its own campus in Kensington, the new academic staff who were recruited expected to be treated with the same privileges as their colleagues at other universities. Objections sent to the University Director Arthur Denning and the industry and public service dominated Council were initially ignored as mere irritants – and were not supported by Baxter, whose self-esteem held no requirement for signifiers of status. However, while Denning was on study leave a coup was arranged. Baxter had been acting Director while Denning was away and, when he returned Council held a crisis meeting in which they voted Denning out and Baxter in. By 1955 his title changed from Director to Vice-Chancellor, a role he held until he resigned in 1969 to take a full-time role as chair of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission – a position he had for some time occupied on a part-time basis.

If those supporting Baxter’s rise to leadership thought that this would lead to a more traditional university environment, they must have been disappointed. In writing about the University of New South Wales for Vestes in 1960 (shortly after its name change) Baxter said:
The lot of those who choose to work in a new university is not a comfortable one. We cannot be like the professor described in Mr Rowe’s If the Gown Fits, who wanted, not an efficient university, but a more comfortable one. We have, we believe, achieved an efficient university.[5]
Baxter was here deliberately contrasting himself and his university to the more stately and aristocratic images of Adelaide University presented by the then recent autobiographical account of its Vice-Chancellor AP Rowe, who retired two years earlier.[6] Baxter did not want the University of New South Wales to be like other universities and he certainly did not shape its early years on the basis of academic tradition. Reflecting on his tenure as Vice Chancellor in the 1980s, Baxter proudly spoke of the influence of the “procedures of industry” on his leadership style, claiming he understood “but does not identify” with academic work practices, which he seemed to find inefficient.[7] He had little faith in academics’ administrative and financial skills and appointed Deans on the basis of administrative skills over academic seniority.[8] Baxter’s personal preferences for efficiency, financial prudence, links to industry and support of government policy shaped the physical and cultural environment of the university.[9] Baxter sneered at universities that did otherwise, considering them to be undermining the trust of the public on whose funding they relied:
This is a large 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.... It must at the same 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) [10]
Baxter was explicit about what universities had to give away in exchange for public funding – their autonomy, or at least some of it. Other university leaders – Eric Ashby, Clunies Ross even Keith Murray himself – had tried to find a way to secure both Commonwealth funding and preserve of academic freedom, which included institutional autonomy. Baxter was different. Having described, in a 1966 article, the increased size and complexity of modern 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)
Baxter saw that the increase in public funding to the universities since the Murray report had also resulted in an increase of government involvement in their management:
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 Sir Robert Wallace in the previous chapter, Baxter considered the days of "give us the money and be done with it" to be over and that painstaking accountability was now required. With his characteristic focus on efficiency, Baxter 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)
Baxter certainly believed in academic freedom (which we will see more a little later), but he also considered public funding to come with a hefty responsibility for explicit social accountability. In this sense Baxter separated university autonomy from academic freedom – considering some sacrifice of autonomy to be fair exchange for the intellectual freedom of the academics within the institution. In fact, Baxter even considered university autonomy to be a problem – for this autonomy meant most universities failed to provide appropriate service to the community by neglecting technological research and education, which he thought was what the universities were being funded to do. Not possessing the same fears for university autonomy, Baxter forged the links with government and industry that would direct knowledge and graduates that he thought would advance technological progress.


[1] Baxter, cited in Gissing, "Sir Philip Baxter, Engineer: The Fabric of a Conservative Style of Thought", 104.
[2] Although, given that Baxter had been involved in Conservative party politics at home, was moving to Australia partly for political reasons and Menzies had recently conducted a tour of the UK in which Baxter may well even have seen him, it is highly unlikely he’d not heard of him. Gissing puts this statement down to Baxter’s dry wit, rather than the arrogance it suggests on the surface.
[3] Baxter, "Oral History Interview with Jp Baxter Conducted by Laurie Dillon, Edited by Linda Bowman. Transcript," 9.
[4] Gissing, "Sir Philip Baxter, Engineer: The Fabric of a Conservative Style of Thought", 103-04.
[5] J.P. Baxter, "The University of New South Wales," Vestes 3, no. 4 (1960): 18.
[6] Rowe, If the Gown Fits (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1960).
[7] Baxter, "Oral History Interview with Jp Baxter Conducted by Laurie Dillon, Edited by Linda Bowman. Transcript."
[8] Baxter, "The University of New South Wales."
[9] J.P. Baxter and Rupert Myers, "Administration in a Post-War University," The Australian University 4 (1966).
[10] J.P. Baxter, "Problems in the Administration of Modern Universities," Vestes 6 (1968).

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