The Times: letter from Professor Hair

There is a letter about the occupation  from Professor Hair of the History Faculty in The Times today, in response to that of the Bishop of Whitby two days ago:

Judged by behaviour

From Dr P E H Hair


Without disclosing his personal interest, the Bishop of Whitby (April 15) has given his episcopal endorsement to one of the points of view expressed during the recent “occupation” of the administrative buildings of Liverpool University. Perhaps he would care to consider whether his extra-diocesan diagnosis is not based on biased information ? His statement that ” the Liverpool authorities could not bring themselves to meet the students” is inexact and tendentious, as well as incivil. It is true that the normal channels of communication between the student body and the Vice-Chancellor were blocked last term by the attempts of a group of political activists to seize power in the Students’ Guild, which resulted in an extraordinary situation when the Guild, by the resignation of its elected officers, constitutionally ceased to exist.

However, the ” occupation ” occurred immediately after a two-hour meeting between the Vice-Chancellor and several thousand members of the University, during which the Vice-Chancellor answered at length formal and informal questions put by students. A rump of some 300 persons remained after this meeting, declared the answers unsatisfactory, occupied the administrative building, refusing entrance to all administrative staff for a fortnight, and issued literature calling for “all demands to be met”. It was perhaps typical of the behaviour of this group that while at the start the prime issue was declared to be “political files”, this issue was later abandoned.

During the “occupation” a section of the original group withdrew, representing a division between those whose concern was principally the avowed liberal and “anti-racialist” aims of the exercise and those who, with the help of outside supporters, were organising a “commune” in the buildings. It is hardly surprising that a large section of opinion in the University, students and staff unconnected directly with administration, considers that the organisers of the ” occupation ” should be judged by their behaviour rather than by their public appeals; and that the last thing that these persons desire is more ” constructive discussion “, as the Bishop thinks.

Discussion implies the possibility of being convinced that one is wrong: it excludes crusading, intolerant dictation on controversial issues, and violence. It is no secret that at Liverpool, as at other British universities, a small group of staff and students are devoted to ‘smashing’ our present democratic society, and that their tactics are ‘to expose the contradictions’, i.e, to produce confrontations between forces now in peaceful balance. They believe, possibly sincerely, that logic and morality have engendered their own views, but that the opposing views are self-interested and blind; hence, their ain is not to discuss but to preach.

This said, I would in one respect support the Bishop’s plea for more “constructive discussion”. The first task of a liberal university is to communicate and extend learning, not to act as a centre for political agitation, however high-minded. It has therefore been a tradition in Britain that university staff should keep private their political beliefs, in the expectation that this would force students to develop independent critical awareness of the issues. However, the concealment of political beliefs is today apt to be regarded by students as evidence of disinterest in the ‘real world’. Those of us in universities who passionately support a centralist position in politics, i.e, the peaceful, constitutional development of parliamentary democracy, must now I believe make clear our stand: and be prepared to discuss its implications with our colleagues and students, in a way we have not hitherto done.

As to the disciplinary procedures at Liverpool University which the Bishop deplores, I suggest to him that they are a necessary evil. If violence within universities is not stopped by the universities themselves, the public outcry- very evident on Merseyside – will mount, and is liable, to be directed quite unfairly against the whole body of students. Further, there is some danger that the matter might become an election issue with extreme positions taken up, each damaging to the centralist conscience.

Finally, the breakdown of university discipline – and I would remind the Bishop that the disciplinary procedure at Liverpool was recommended and approved by the Students’ Guild last year – could only lead to further state control over British universities, which some of us think would be unlikely to benefit either staff or students.

Yours sincerely

P E H  Hair, School of History,  University of Liverpool, 8 Abercromby Square, Liverpool


Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

One thought on “The Times: letter from Professor Hair”

  1. It’s an interesting letter, read afresh after four decades. It seems pretty clear that some academics at the time, along with the university authorities, lost all sense of proportion. Their paranoia and aggression, manifested in a selective and exaggerated treatment of events, points to a fundamental misjudgement of the forces at work.

    Whereas we, the occupants, can be both held to account and excused with the passing of the years, people like Hair can only be held to account. His principal charge is that we were a threat to democracy. His principal complaint is that we were ill-disciplined. So it follows that, to be democratic, we should have done as we were told. But that would have meant paying respects to a racist Chancellor at the head of a racist-tolerating University, a man let it be said who openly and frequently spoke out against democracy in southern Africa.

    Hair, as an apologist for the university authorities, prefers to ignore this contradiction in his argument. Instead he retreats behind a plea for ‘more discussion’. Frankly, I would support that, then as now. But I’d be keen to know the terms of the discussion, who frames the agenda, and who calls time on it, before taking up Hair’s offer.

    That said, he deserves full honours for having created this archive which Gerry is so assiduously uncovering.

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