Thursday, 17 February 2011

Knowledge, democracy and the Russel Ward Case

conference abstract: comments welcome.

In 1961, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies sent a short note to economic historian Max Hartwell, arguing “that the extent of government interference in university matters in Australia has been grossly exaggerated … much time is being wasted in defending something which is not in danger in Australia – academic freedom.”[1]

The time-wasting issue, in Menzies’ view, was the Ward case. In 1955 historian Russel Ward had applied for a job at the NSW University of Technology. He did not get it. The scandal that followed was deemed the highest profile case of Cold War political repression in Australian universities. That is, until 2004 when Frank Crowley wrote a short article for Quadrant where, based on recollections of a conversation with University of NSW Vice-Chancellor Philip Baxter nearly ten years after Ward’s application, he said Ward’s exclusion was about his sex life, not his politics.[2] When Keith Windschuttle took the opportunity to ridicule Stuart Macintyre’s continued reference to the Ward case, the Cold War found renewed expression in our own history wars.[3]

Beneath the veil of cold conflicts over history and politics however, the Ward case embodies important questions about academic freedom. New trust had been invested in university knowledge after the Second World War. Knowledge was to support democracy, academics to prevent its collapse into totalitarianism. In reconsidering the evidence around the Ward case, this paper also considers the changing relationship, in the 1950s and 1960s, between democracy and knowledge.

[1] Menzies, Robert G. "Letter to Max Hartwell 6 November 1961." In Hartwell File: Ward UNSW/CN99A81. Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1961.
[2] Crowley, Frank. "The Ward Fabrication." Quadrant 48, no. 5 (2004): 30-33.
[3] Windschuttle, Keith. "Stuart Macintyre and the Blainey Affair." Quadrant 52, no. 10 (2008): 30-35.

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