Sunday, 23 May 2010

God-professors: delegitimising academic authority


In 1973, Sydney University PhD students Jean Curthoys and Liz Jacka proposed to teach “Philosophical aspects of Feminist thought”. The proposal was hotly debated in the Sydney Philosophy Department, deeply divided since the mid-1960s (and soon to split officially). Despite some fierce opposition, the Department approved it and it went to the next Arts Faculty meeting, where it was also controversial. One professor gave his reasons for voting against it, roughly along these lines:
I shall vote against this course. I have a feeling about it. It doesn’t smell right. 
The Faculty vote was split, with just over 50% of members voting to support delivery of the course. This was the only approval needed for an elective course, so ordinarily the story should stop here.

Perhaps using similar senses to that anonymous professor in the Arts Faculty meeting Deputy Vice Chancellor O’Neil thought something did not seem right with signing off on the Faculty’s decision. He contacted another professor, David Armstrong. We have already seen the approaches that Armstrong took to try to employ Knopfelmacher in the Sydney philosophy department. A vehement anti-communist, Armstrong was a member of James McAuley’s Peace with Freedom movement and continued in the Congress for Cultural Freedom, becoming heavily involved in conservative thinking in Sydney, including membership of the editorial board of Quadrant (a role he continues at the time of writing, at 84 years old).  Informed during a 1986 oral history interview that one of his many on-campus political “enemies” described him as the most reactionary person they had ever met, Armstrong said, “oh, no, David Stove would win easily”.  Stove was a fellow philosopher, colleague in the Congress for Cultural Freedom and personal friend.

 In 1971 Armstrong had successfully put a stop to staff proposals for a course on Marxism-Leninism – but then, he had been Head of Department. Even then the department had publicly censured him for exercising his veto in relation to the course and he had sought (and received) written reassurance from the Vice-Chancellor that he possessed the right that he had exercised.  As professor, and indeed senior professor, he felt himself to be absolutely responsible for the content on every course delivered in his department. He had taken a strong interest in the recent definitions of the roles of professors, especially in departments where there were more than one, as in Philosophy. The rotation of the Head of Department role to someone else did not make him feel any less responsible for the material taught – nor did it incline him to allow courses with political inclinations he disagreed with. His previous tactics in the department indicated that Armstrong would not hesitate to use his professorial status to stop the course, whichever way he could.

After his phone call with Armstrong, O’Neil declared there to be no funding for the course. Outraged members of the Philosophy department descended on his office in protest, leading the Deputy Vice Chancellor to refer the issue to more professors – the (soon to be defunct) University Professorial Board.  This was exactly the type of behaviour that was making students suspicious of professorial power and hierarchical knowledge. Professors were using whatever power was available to them – in this case funding-power – to control knowledge.
In an open letter, Jacka and Curthoys said:
Professor O’Neil has made it clear that be believes the best decisions can only be made by those with the highest rank.
They informed the Professorial Board that “In our case at least, your high rank in no way qualified you to judge the issue”, since feminist thinking was “an area which is entirely new”:
It is the nature of the case that we don’t have a long history in the subject. There are no established, recognised authorities to whom we can appeal.
This was entirely new knowledge. Furthermore, unlike other types of university knowledge, the nature of this new feminist knowledge excluded established expert judgement. The Professorial Board was by definition out of touch with this new knowledge and therefore could hold no authority to decide what knowledge is:
The kinds of things that bodies like yours usually consider, don’t apply in this case. This, of course is not to argue that whether or not we are competent is unimportant or undecidable, but rather that you aren’t the proper people to decide it.
Following this none too subtle declaration that professors were no longer the legitimate owners of knowledge, Jacka and Curthoys announced a revolution:
We feel, then, that those who are in a position to judge our competence have already done so. This week we will be asking these people to demand of Professor O’Neil that we are immediately appointed.
It could hardly have been expected that this letter to the Professorial Board, denouncing professorial authority and staking a claim to knowledge owned and approved by students and junior academics in its place, would encourage the Board to a more sympathetic position than those held by O’Neil and Armstrong, who were already suspicious of feminism and defensive of their academic authority. Department Head Keith Campbell fought very hard to convince the Board of the competence of Jacka and Curthoys and the value of the course, but was opposed by some very vocal professors. Armstrong pointed out that “a majority of professorial and associate-professorial members of the Department were opposed to or had grave reservations” about the course.  The minutes suggest that what really clinched the matter was a reading by Armstrong from an ABC radio interview with Jacka and Curthoys. The transcript of the interview was not quoted in the minutes, but a copy prepared especially for the meeting is in Armstrong’s papers in the National Library. A largely innocuous document, the only item that I could see that might have influenced the Board was that the interviewer asked if the course was “propaganda” and the women confirmed that they were not “unbiased”.  Armstrong was to use this interview as evidence at later meetings and would continually refer to it as giving a “different complexion” to the official course proposal throughout the controversy.  It obviously resonated with professorial fears. The professorial board represented the university’s system of knowledge: those deemed to be academic “masters” could decide what university knowledge was – a legitimising arrangement. That these experts were also the creators of knowledge who then validated it was a problem students and junior staff were starting to associate with the broader problems the movement had with capitalism. Just as the structure of economics promoted concentration of wealth for a few, so did the structure of the university hoard knowledge as a type of wealth amongst the professors.  That knowledge might flow like money – even when that conception is put to the purpose of reorganising it as shared wealth – forged a new conceptual connection that will become important in later chapters. But in 1973 this revolution was just starting and was fuelled as much by the generation gap as the structure of legitimacy.

The large influx of staff during the sudden period of growth afforded by the Murray report created a significant age gap between longstanding senior staff. Universities recruited a large new generation of junior staff, many of whom had quite recently been students themselves. Many junior academics were influenced by emerging ideas about student-focused pedagogies and 1960s criticisms of university hierarchy, outdated courses and an “overall conformity of the university to dominant political and social values” – and they wanted to offer their own contributions to knowledge.  While there was a lot to stand in the way of junior staff assuming some of the authority Professors had held as a matter of tradition, change was enabled by this generation gap. The generation against whom protest was directed were on their way out and a very large number of new generation academics were on their way in – with few in between to temper revolutionary change. The professoriate had reason to fear the consequences of this change and they started examining the “meaning” of being a professor and its structural and authoritative implications.

These fears were compounded by anti-feminist sentiments that some professors held passionately. Professor David Stove, even nearly twenty years later was still outraged by the inclusion of feminism in valid intellectual inquiry:
After the defeat of America by Vietnam, the attack [on the university] was renewed, amplified, and intensified, by feminists. Their attack has proved far more devastating than that of the Marxists…Of the many hundreds of courses offered to Arts undergraduates in this university, what proportion, I wonder, are now not made culturally-destructive, as well as intellectually null, by feminist malignancy and madness? One-third? I would love to believe that the figure is so high.
The result of the combination of suspicion of feminism with fears for the status of professorial authority was that, although O’Neil’s own committee had recommended appointment of Jacka and Curthoys, the Professorial Board rejected it by thirty-nine votes to seven. 

Thus commenced the highly publicised Philosophy Strike. In this, many staff and students from several departments went on strike. The Builders Labourers Federation weighed in with their support and media contacts and a Women’s Tent Embassy was constructed in the Main Quad.  A University Senate Inquiry resulted in approval for the course.  Leonie Kramer, then Professor of Australian Literature, felt the published Inquiry report failed to give an adequate picture of the Philosophy Strike and insisted that her own analysis be published alongside it. She was concerned to publicise the fact that, while a majority in the philosophy department had supported the feminist course, the majority of professors did not. Kramer thought that this would persuade the public about the intellectual invalidity of the subject. She believed the public would respect the opinions of professors over even a large number of others.  There is some evidence that she was right. One newspaper said:
How absurd to give such a course, how presumptuous of two women graduates to suggest that they could give it! That’s what you get if you allow professors to have no more than one vote among many.
But the fact that there was sustained opposition to feminism and non-professorial knowledge does not remove the importance of the change this event exemplifies: the delegitimation of professorial authority over knowledge. The strike announced that knowledge was possessed by hundreds of individual knowers – individuals who would no longer accept the authority of a group of self-proclaimed experts. They were, as Lyotard put it, “sounding the knell of the age of the Professor”. 

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