Sunday, 16 May 2010

Student ratbags: opposition to university discipline

In one of his two largely sympathetic books on student participation in university governance, Eric Ashby expressed puzzlement at the 1960s student movement’s approach to university discipline. That students defied the authority of the university was (often) admirable, when done for reasons of conscience. He could not understand why then, they would not submit to the discipline that resulted. If students were genuine reformers, he argued, they would accept the consequences of their actions – true believers would be willing martyrs. Since they did not, the new student movements of the late 1960s could be seen as little more than a frivolous veneer of reform – what many Australians referred to as a bunch of ratbags.  Ashby had a perspective on the university that prevented him from understanding that university discipline was a part of the apparatus of power that student movements wished to collapse.

At Monash as we have seen, Albert Langer’s destroyed transcript of his disciplinary hearing functioned as a signifier of university authority. Disciplinary proceedings after a sit-in had led Monash students to invade Matheson’s lunch with Clark Kerr. Students were open about their opposition to the fact of university discipline. When used against them in response to political activities, university discipline appeared to be an instrument of political repression. It went still further than this. At Sydney University, opposition to university discipline was a key organising concept for student protest for a couple of years. Disciplinary proceeding following the Max Humphreys and Victoria Lee cases had led at Sydney to widespread discussion about the role and structure of the university and the knowledge it wielded as a controlling structure. 

Many more students had mobilised in support of Max Humphreys than had participated in the library sit-ins that had prompted the university to discipline him. This opposition to the university’s disciplinary practices was reinforced shortly afterwards, during the disciplinary hearings of those whose named as leaders of the student occupation of administrative offices during the Victoria Lee case. Student action against university discipline at Sydney was especially vehement as there had been ill ease amongst students for some time about the aggressive behaviour of the university’s security staff, leading many to question the right of University guards to carry guns (for although guards had been heard to say they wouldn’t waste bullets on students, this was little comfort). 

It was the combination of the character of university discipline as well as the fact of it that highlighted aspects of the university that many students and a growing number of staff found questionable. Students accused of breaching university regulations were not presumed innocent when they faced professorial judges, whose disciplinary traditions resembled paternalistic school discipline more than the democratic legal system students felt should provide their model. Those judging discipline cases – the university proctorial board – were professors whose sense of authority was most likely smarting. After the Victoria Lee case, one member of the Proctorial Board, Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor O’Neil was required to evaluate the cases of accused students, including Chris O’Connell, with whom he had been fighting in a bitter war of words in their respective publications, Honi Soit (O’Connell was an editor) and the University of Sydney News. He could not be considered to be impartial.  Students angrily pointed this out, but the university could not suddenly change its by-laws to arrange for student disciplinary hearings to be conducted by “a random selection of peers in an open forum” – but they did agree to include student representatives on the proctorial board.  Despite the best efforts of O’Neil to prevent it, Chris O’Connell and his brother Gregory (who was also a vocal opponent of university discipline) were promptly elected as student proctors – something the Student Representative Council found perversely funny.  Chris O’Connell took the opportunity to call a Proctorial Board meeting on his own authority, against the wishes of the chair (who was then Professor Taylor, Chair of the Professorial Board). All the student proctors formed quorum, though they were “forced”, according to O’Connell, to eject the (only) Professor who was acting as the Board’s secretary for “offensive interruption of student proctors”.  The objective of this coup sounds relatively innocuous, for all its drama – they instated a joint Student Representative Council and Staff Association Standing Committee on Discipline.  But it functioned to remove discipline from the members of the professorial board acting as proctors and handing control to a combination of students and the staff union – decentralising power and authority.

Students wanted to control the world that impacted them, but this was not just a reflection of youthful wilfulness. It was not, as Donald Horne argued, that the traditional authoritative structure of the university grated with emerging ideas about liberation and freedom of expression.  The student movements identified the university as a structure that exercised power. By influencing the inner intellectual lives of students and by manipulating their patterns of behaviour, universities were a formidable structure for social control. When Ashby was disappointed that students who sought reform were not willing to submit to the discipline of the university he demonstrated that he did not really understand the extent to which reform was not only about improved pedagogies and a renewal of the roles of students in an unchangeable conception of a community of scholars. Rather, it was a direct challenge to the position the university held as a technology of power. 

[footnotes have been removed. please contact me if interested in them]

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