Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Change the university, change the world

Monash University in the late 1960s was reputed to be a hotbed of student radicalism, hosting the most famous of student protesters, Albert Langer.  For many Monash students, particularly members of the Maoist-dominated Labor Club, the drivers for change at Monash were related to the changes they wished to see in the wider community. The Labor Club distributed a roneoed newsletter – known as a “broadsheet” – called Print at uneven, but frequent intervals. The Vice-Chancellor Louis Matheson kept a file of them, along with other broadsheets and handwritten chronologies of what he thought might be important events. These show substantial attendance by Monash students at anti-Vietnam War protests from 1965, culminating in a violent protest (that is, protesters claimed to be subject to police violence) during the visit of US President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.  This opposition to the war and the character of street protests shaped the ways that students negotiated their place in the university. Matheson recorded “sit-ins” in nearly every building of the university – the library, the administrative offices, the bookshop, the careers office and more – from 1966 onwards. But it was after disciplinary proceedings were brought against Albert Langer for a sit-in in 1967 that the focus of students’ attention shifted (not entirely, of course) to the university itself. On appeal, the university dismissed the disciplinary charges made against Langer. Langer wanted a transcript of his appeal, presumably to use in the wider antagonism between university administration and the student Labor Club. Thinking its publication might result in action against the university, Matheson refused. Langer told the university that if he could not have the transcript, it should be destroyed – which, by early 1968 it was, provoking students to protest, burning an effigy of the Vice-Chancellor. This prompted students to identify Matheson as Vice-Chancellor with other authorities they decried: the police during the anti-Vietnam protest marches, the government that instigated conscription and the hierarchical society that systematically channelled wealth to the few. With Matheson now the enemy, Monash students staged countless successive protests at the university from 1968 to 1972 – a period that coincided with Albert Langer ‘s remaining enrolment.

As if to demonstrate the banal level on which student politics could play out, one of the primary issues that concerned Monash students was a long-running and bitter dispute over the car park. The university had started charging students for parking on campus and to facilitate this separated student parking from staff. Students protested not only against the imposition of fees, but against the structure of the car park as a reflection of the university’s hierarchy – and society’s class distinctions. Red, green and yellow signage designated different spaces and students temporarily painted all the signs red in protest. Students found any hierarchical organisation unacceptable and used the university to express their dissatisfaction with a hierarchical society. “No longer is the issue simply one of car parking,” claimed one issue of Print, “the issue is the place of students in the university”. 

Through Print and other broadsheets, Monash students expressed anger at the wrongs they observed in the world and frustration that the small space in which they felt they should have some influence – the university – was not as active as they were in “trying to change the rotten society we live in”.  This frustration, at Monash, was directed against the Vice-Chancellor:
A Vice-Chancellor who genuinely believed our academic freedom was threatened…would not tell students to protect their academic freedom by not exercising it. On the contrary he would resist government intimidation. He would stand up for students’ right to dissent (and not waffle in about ‘the conscience of society’ when he means the degree factory of society). He would not fit in with government plans.

It is the irony of Monash that compared to other university leaders at this time Matheson was relatively close to being on the students’ side. Actually quite a liberal Vice-Chancellor, Matheson worked to establish Monash differently to the much more hierarchical Melbourne University on which it had originally been modelled, instigating a model that included students and junior staff in decisions much earlier than other institutions.  He stood firm in insisting to government that the university administration should not assist the conscription of students to military service by making university student records available.  But the Maoist students in Monash’s Labor Club could accept no hierarchy, so the enmity with the position of Vice-Chancellor had to continue even if he had been able to implement every change they demanded.  If he did all the things a true believer in academic freedom would, according to the authors of Print, “then he wouldn’t be the Vice-Chancellor”.  Another edition somewhat guiltily justified their opposition to the Vice-Chancellor by saying, “the university is a component part of the capitalist social system” – so Matheson was structurally “still caught in the logic of it”, even if he was personally closer to their own position than many in authority.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), as might be expected, were watching the growth of the student movement. One of the files, created at a desk in Canberra (not in the field), contains a press clipping from The Australian newspaper entitled “Reform in the Ivory Towers”. ASIO staff have marked parts of the clipping, with especial emphasis on the following passage:
Self-management of universities goes hand in hand with a general movement to extend the principle of self-management throughout society.
ASIO was concerned about participatory democracy, of which we will see more later. But in ways that included, but went beyond participatory democracy, reform of universities was intended to precipitate reform of society. This meant that the place of universities in the structure of Australian government and culture was under scrutiny from those wishing to reform it and those hoping to keep the university as it was. Participants in student movements expressed the feeling that the role of universities should be to question society’s structures and values and provoke change. Revolution was needed, since universities currently did the opposite, affirming the status quo. In Adelaide, Grass Roots, the newsletter of the Students for Democratic Action (SDA) made the following declaration:
SDA unequivocally states that it stands for the destruction of this university, as it stands for the destruction of the social system to which the university is a willing bootlicker.
These Adelaide students were especially angry, for some university equipment was being used to pursue weapons research.  What had been a virtue in the Second World War was certainly not during the conflict in Vietnam. Their anger pushed this statement a little beyond their normal stand, which was that the university should be transformed. This transformation both depended on and was a prerequisite to social change, since:
Education (in the true sense) and criticism are hostile to the interests of capitalism and such a change in the University is a threat to the continuance of the privileged and powerful elite which constitutes the ruling class.
In Adelaide. the SDA sought to secure staff-student control of the university. Control was important, they said, as the current hierarchical control meant that the university was run for the maintenance of the system, perverting education to affirm social and economic inequalities.  The first step of this was a key transformation looked to in every university: the formalisation of student participation in university governance.

[Footnotes have been removed from this posting. PLease contact me if you would like them]

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