Vice-Chancellor’s address, Mountford Hall, 9 March 1970: draft notes

Liverpool University Special Collections holds an archive, donated by Thomas Kelly,  of material he used to prepare his History of the University, For Advancement of Learning: The University of Liverpool, 1881-1981. The archive contains the hand-written draft notes which the Vice-Chancellor, Trevor Thomas, prepared for the mass meeting in Mountford Hall on 9 March 1970, which he addressed immediately before the occupation began. These are some extracts from the manuscript:

Mr Chairman, it is a fair old mixture of topics, some domestic, some of wider import, on which I have been asked to make a statement and I am not sure that we shall find any real connecting link – or chain of causation.

Now, as I understand the position, there is a general complaint that the University authorities (the Council, the Senate, the administration generally, the Vice-Chancellor) have refused or failed to do some things and that information is lacking on others.  My purpose in calling this meeting was to attempt to answer some of the criticisms and to give information when I can, if it is not lacking.

May I take each of the topics in turn (though on the last one, may I say that the University Treasurer [Mr Chrimes] has kindly agreed to offer some explanations.

I believe that there is no necessity here, either to recount in detail the events of this term concerning the visit of the Chancellor, and since the Chancellor was invited by the editor of Guild Gazette to explain his views in an article which appeared in the issue of 24 February, it would be an impertinence on my part to add anything to what he himself has written.

But the present complaint, as I understand it, is that both Senate and Council have said, in answer to letters addressed to them, that they do not intend to consider or reconsider the position of the Chancellor. And I should have thought that the reason was plain and simple for all to see – and was in fact set out in the exchange of correspondence between the President of the NUS and the chairman of the Vice-Chancellor’s Committee: “We accept that the political opinions of students and staff are no business of a university.”a claim to which Chancellors equally with all other members of the University ought to be entitled. […]

Mr Thomas then turns to the question of “channels of communication between members of the University and the decision-taking bodies”:

Now while the question put to me related exclusively to channels of communication between students and the so-called ‘administration’, I believe the problem to be a wider one, and to affect all sectors of a university as large as ours is now: and the prospect of these problems becoming more acute as we grow even larger over the next few years. It seems to me that the rate and extent of our growth has made not only a quantitative difference to our problems…but qualitative ones as well. […]

How can we improve the channels of communication?  Well, first we ought to see if existing channels can be improved – I mean through Guild officers or officers of A societies. Then, there has been under discussion for some time the production of a Student Newsletter – something on the lines of the Staff Newsletter.  But again, I should have thought that the so-called Structure Commission should have in mind the problem and consider whether there are other ways in which students can be given more information more expeditiously than at present. […]

I have been asked to say how freedom of speech within a university can be secured and safeguarded.  How indeed?  I adopt the words of a colleague here for the need to remind ourselves of our purposes as a university:

“A university thrives on enquiry; it is invigorated by argument; it revels in debates; it is refreshed by dissidence.  But unless it breathes the air of freedom it dies.  The questioning of accepted opinion must somehow observe one boundary, and that is tolerance for the opinions of others.  Force must not prevail over reason, else freedom will degenerate into anarchy.”

In a lengthy section of his notes, Mr Thomas then turns to the matter of the collapse of constitutional government in the Guild, with the resignation of the President and the whole Executive.  He rather testily remarks, “I had hoped that what Council and Senate had done in this matter had been sufficiently explained in the Notices issued after their decisions.”  He goes on to enumerate the steps taken by the University to deal with the situation. He refers to the ‘Caretaker Government’ [aka ‘the Committee of Six’] elected by a mass meeting on 10 February:

On 10 February, at a mass meeting of undergraduates at which I understand about 1000 were present, a ‘Caretaker Government’ was elected, but clearly it was an unconstitutional government in the sense that the officers had not been elected in the due manner and form proscribed by the Constitution and none of the persons elected to the ‘Caretaker Government’ had any legal powers to act. That ‘Caretaker Government’ had no more authority than if they had been elected by a mass meeting while there was in existence a President, deputy President and other Guild officers. Or suppose another 1000 students at another meeting had purported to elect other officers?

Mr Thomas goes on to describe the steps taken by the University to try to resolve the impasse. He concludes: “I believe there is no ground for criticising the University as having infringed the autonomy of the Union”.

He then turns to the issue of files on students:

May I first say that Senate has not met since this matter was raised nationally, and there has therefore been no opportunity for them to discuss the issues.  But I propose that the matter shall be on the agenda for their next meeting in ten days time. […]

He endorses the views set out in the Vice-Chancellor’s Committee letter to the NUS.

Pending these further discussions at national level, and our own Senate’s consideration of the issues, I have made enquiries within the University as to what our own practices are.  First, I discussed the nature of the documents held on what I may call ‘the central file’ with the administrative officer in charge of those documents.  This consists of the forms which the student completed himself, and signed, when he was admitted.  Also on that file would be kept a record of his marks in examinations, of any reports which a ‘progress committee’ might have made on him and any other academic information, including any appearance before the University Board of Discipline.

All this information is regarded by the University as confidential: it would not be released to any third party without ‘good cause’ – a ‘good cause’ is not easy to define, but, for example, it is when…it is sometimes necessary to certify to an outside professional body that a student has reached a particular standard… Otherwise, nothing on the file is disclosed to any other person.

But secondly, I discussed with the Deans of all the Faculties the nature of the documents held on Faculty files.  THese are essentially the UCCA files; the forms (again completed by the candidate) submitted through UCCA, together with any correspondence with referees, whether schoolmasters or otherwise.

As a result of these enquiries it seems to me that I can give an assurance that in this University (to adopt the words used by the Chairman of the V-C’s Committee) “we accept that the political opinions and affiliations of students and staff are no business of a university and that no university should keep files on such matters, and that the same applies to their political activities provided that these are within the law.”

It also seems to me that the headmasters’ and referees’ reports on a candidate for entry and reports and references originating within the University must, if they are to have any value, remain confidential.

On the question whether any further factual information, beyond what is available under the Individualised Data System, should be available to a student, I believe it would be wise to await the further discussions which the NUS are to have with the V-C’s Committee. […]

Mr Thomas’ notes include a photostat of Dave Jenkins’ open letter to the Vice-Chancellor on chemical and biological warfare and a typed list of research projects in the University financed by, firstly the Ministry of Technology, and secondly four projects financed by the Ministry of Defence. He was clearly preparing himself, if pressed, to answer questions on this issue, but did not prepare any statement on it.

He concludes:

I believe most of the problems (including those of which specific mention has been made today) can be resolved by a determination to re-establish mutual respect among the constituent elements of our university.  That will not be done by threats of any kind – the paraphernalia of the law is not the stuff universities are made of; nor are “sit-ins”.  We need the “trust, cooperation and goodwill” to which my questions referred.  It is high time we set about working towards those ends.  And may I make one further plea: that we lose neither our sense of proportion nor our sense of humour in these, or any other matters.


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