Petitions against the sentences

A petition from academic staff

In Professor Hair’s archive there is a letter addressed to the Vice-Chancellor and signed N Blake, dated 20 April 1970.  Intriguingly, the letter refers to an attached petition, signed by an unstated number of the university academic staff, protesting at the severity of the Board of Discipline’s sentences.  I have been unable to locate the petition itself, and there is no indication in the Hair archive of how many people signed it.

In fact, the petition had been signed by 140 academic staff, as revealed in the letter below from June Walker, a postgraduate student at the University.

Dear Vice-Chancellor,

The signatories to this document are united in their concern about the severity of the penalties imposed upon the ten students who came before the Disciplinary Committee.

We are concerned partly because we feel that as members of the staff of the University we are in some sense to blame for the inadequacies in communications which, as you have recently pointed out, are not as good as they might be; but also because we believe that these penalties are such as will damage future staff-student relations.

Consequently, while in no way condoning the action of the students in occupying Senate House, we feel moved to appeal for a suspension of the sentences, or, alternatively, for a lightening of the penalties imposed.

We are aware that this affair has been a severe test of the revised procedures for discipline, and we trust that the opportunity will be taken to review them in the light of this experience.

Yours,

N Blake

A petition from postgraduate students

The petition signed by academic staff became public knowledge with the publication of this letter by June Walker,  one of the signatories of another petition – this time signed by 140 postgraduate students – in the 30 June issue of Guild Gazette (her letter also appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post):

Dear Sir,

Now that the Board of Appeal of Liverpool University has completed its hearings of the appeals lodged by nine of the ten students disciplined in connection with their part in the occupation of Senate House last March; and that the only changes in the penalties imposed are that two of the students have had their suspensions reduced from two years to one year, I feel that the public should be made aware of the following facts:

1. At a meeting called by the Vice-Chancellor, Mr T Thomas, MA, LLB, on 9th March, the University Treasurer expressed the view that morality did not enter into the question of where a University had its investments. The meeting was abruptly ended by the chairman before many questions from undergraduates, postgraduates and staff could be answered.

2. The occupation of Senate House, which immediately followed the above meeting, was well-disciplined throughout, and when the students voluntarily left the building on 20th March, it was found to be in a spotless condition.

3. Although 170 people signed a witnessed statement to the effect that they had participated in the sit-in, only ten students have so far been disciplined by the University. One student was expelled, seven were suspended for two years, and two were suspended for one year. (One of the students suspended for one year did not appeal).

4. Between 23rd and 28th April, 140 postgraduate members of Liverpool University, including myself, were signatories to a petition to the Vice-Chancellor. Those who signed had taken their previous degrees or diplomas in universities overseas as well as in the United Kingdom.

The petition stated our belief that the sentences were harsh,  out of all proportion, and appear to be a form of exemplary punishment of which we strongly disapprove.

We also feel that the University has failed to take into sufficient account the very real difficulties students feel in getting their deeply held convictions over to the administration.

We consider that if the penalties were upheld a very serious injustice would have been done to the ten students involved.

Professor Griffith, of the London School of Economics, who defended five of the students at their re-hearing, and Mr E  Rex Makin, LLM, a leading Liverpool Solicitor, who defended three of them, were given copies of the petition and its signatories. The Vice-chancellor passed on the petition and signatures to the Board of Discipline in time for the first re-hearing, which was held on 1st May, 1970.

In the same week a petition signed by 148 members of the University’s teaching staff, including 13 Professors-was given to the Vice-Chancellor. The petition expressed the united concern of those who signed it, over the severity of the penalties. It stated that, “As members of the staff of the University, we are in some sense to blame for inadequacies in communications which, as you have recently pointed out, are not as good as they might be; but also because we feel that these penalties are such as will damage future staff-student relations. Consequently, while in no way condoning the action of the students in occupying Senate House, we feel moved to appeal for a suspension of the sentences, or, alternatively, for a lightening of the penalties imposed. We are aware that this affair has been a severe test of the revised procedures for discipline, and we trust that the opportunity will be taken to review them in the light of this experience.”

Considerable efforts have been made to stifle any expression of student feeling. For example, when the Guild of Undergraduates passed a resolution for a boycott of all lectures on 1st May in sympathy with the ten victimised students, a small number of professors made it clear that checks would be made on the attendance of students at lectures that day.

Yours very sincerely,

June M Walker, Diploma in Social Studies, London University (External); formerly Social Worker, Liverpool Personal Service Society; at present, student Diploma in Applied Social Studies, Liverpool University

June  Walker also wrote to each member of the Disciplinary Board.  Her correspondence with Professor Rosenhead, Department of Applied Mathematics, is to be found in the archive of HH Burchnall, the Registrar:

11 June 1970

Dear Professor Rosenhead,

In the light of the Registrar’s statement of 26 May that no disciplinary action will be taken against any of the 171 people who, after the notice of disciplinary proceedings had been served on the 10 students, wrote individually to the Vice-Chancellor stating that they were involved in the occupation as of 9 March and that they were equally responsible for any action taken in accordance with the wishes of the corporate body of the occupation, I am asking you to reconsider your sentences on the 10 students who have been disciplined, none of whom have been able to sit for their examinations this year, and to reinstate each of them at the University at the commencement of the autumn term 1970.

Yours Sincerely

June Walker

Rosenhead replied the following day:

12 June 1970

Dear Miss Walker,

[…]  I do not know why you wrote to me as you did on the 11th June, because I have no power to reopen the issue, nor, indeed, have I any wish to do so in the light of the evidence that was revealed to the Board of Discipline.

If you have any additional evidence, or any new arguments, may I suggest that you submit them in writing to the Registrar for transmission to the appropriate authorities in the University. Better still, you should induce the ten accused students to appeal on their own behalf. [? – marginal comment by Burchnall]

Yours Sincerely

Professor Rosenhead

On 14 June, Ms Walker wrote again to Professor Rosenhead:

14.6.70

Dear Professor Rosenhead,

[…] I wrote to you because I knew that you were one of the seven people who sat on the Board of Discipline.  I wrote on the 11th to each member of the Board and to the Registrar telling him I had done so, rather than to the Board of Appeal, because one student did not appeal.

After taking the postgraduate Petition to the Vice-Chancellor, for which Mr B Miaty and I were jointly responsible, I decided to try to meet the ten students involved and I have come to know them all, except A Burton who did not reappear in Liverpool until 12 June.

I was amazed and delighted to find what mature and likeable people they are. [Burchnall marginal comment – ‘Mature & Likeable people – my backside! What drivel!] and grieved to find how the severity of their sentences had depressed and wounded them.

The great interest that has been shown in the contents of my 6-point letter has encouraged me no end in the past four weeks and the replies I have received and its publication in the Liverpool Daily Post on 26 May have encouraged me and indeed made me certain that public opinion has changed considerably once certain facts about Liverpool University and the occupation were widely known.

None of the ten students have asked me to help them at all – they have been too disillusioned to believe that the University would even suggest reconsidering its position.  However, after receiving your letter I have seen some of them and they have been given new hope, and all of them would, they assure me, love to return to Liverpool in October if they could.

I shall certainly do as you suggest and present new arguments and additional evidence to the Registrar in writing, when my present two-week holiday is over.

Yours very sincerely,

June Walker

[Burchnall – ‘Just ignore it all?]

A letter to the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Science

This letter, signed by 7 members of staff, provides another example of the disquiet amongst academic staff about the disciplinary proceedings:

In the period since the occupation of Senate House by students on 9 March 1970, the academic staff have been informed from time to time about the disciplinary proceedings by means of a verbal statement from the Vice Chancellor and several printed notices, culminating in the Report of the Board of Discipline, 14 April 1970.

At no time have we been given details of the facts which led to the findings of this Board…In subsequent discussion of the penalties imposed on ten of the students, which we have had with members of staff and students, opinions have ranged very widely.

We think it is true to say that we have all been greatly handicapped in reaching rational conclusions by the absence of accurate published reports on the details of events and the evidence presented to the Board.

We should like to propose that the Faculty discuss, and if agreed, make a reccomendation that the proceedings of Boards of Discipline be opened to a limited number of observers and that reports be published, unless Boards and accused agree that the hearings be held in camera.

Signed by 7 members of staff

A letter to the Vice-Chancellor

This letter, dated 25 March, was found in the Registrar’s archive, and provides evidence of concern amongst both staff and students before the hearings began that the punishments should not be harsh.  It is from Anthony Bradshaw and one other in the Department of Botany:

Dear Mr Thomas,

We have been talking to our Honours students.  They are a reasonable bunch and were very much against the sit-in.  However, they have their own worries, which we feel we must pass on to you since in many ways they are our own as well.

  1. The disciplinary measures that might be taken should be tempered with mercy as a gesture rather than as a severe punishment (like all the best disciplinary measures).
  2. The University must be seen to be doing something.  Statements that there is nothing to worry about are not good enough for those who are worried .  We often find ourselves having to do things not because we think they are necessary, but to put the minds of our students at rest.
  3. The University does unfortunately sometimes appear to be a silent, insensitive octopus which keeps its own counsel.  While we know from all you have said that this is not true, the students do feel that way, which is a great pity […]

Yours

And a counter-petition

There was another petition, initiated by Barbara Kirk, a secretary in the Engineering Department and a Miss Lobley that took the opposing side. The petition – and associated correspondence – ended up in the Registrar’s archive.

The petition

It would appear that the petition, which eventually attracted 943 signatories, was circulated mainly in parts of the Wirral, where Ms Kirk lived. It was worded as follows:

For a considerable time a very small but vocal minority of the students in this country have been behaving in a manner both unnecessary and objectionable.  Whilst there are no stauncher supporters of the principles of free speech than we the undersigned, it is felt that a protest must be registered, in the strongest possible terms, against any action on the part of students (or others) which causes either inconvenience to the public or private avocations of other members of the community, or damage to public or private property.

We are not concerned in any way with the merits or demerits of the miscellaneous views expressed by students…but it is our strongly-felt communal opinion that the maintenance of the principle of law and order…should both be and be seen to be vigorously upheld.

With this objective in mind, we the undersigned, urge the appropriate authorities to take legal measures, both immediate and salutary, to combat those activities on the part of small minorities which disrupt the public…and the great majority of the ratepayers and taxpayers of this country.

Ms Kirk forwarded the petition to Tim Fortescue, Conservative MP for Garston on at least two occasions.  On April 21 he replied:

I too regret very much that the action of the University authorities is becoming a political issue in the House of Commons, and your petition will, I am sure, help the authorities to ignore those who seek to influence them when considering the appeals of the students against the disciplinary measures already taken.

On a later occasion he wrote:

At the moment I believe that the moderate elements of the University are in command, but if support for the militants appears to be growing, I shall find your petition very useful indeed.

Ms Kirk may have sent the petition to all the Liverpool MPs, since there is a reply in the files from Eric Heffer, Labour MP for Walton:

I too have discussed the question of students with people in Liverpool and find that, whilst it is generally agreed that some form of discipline was necessary, it was felt that the sentences on this occasion were too harsh.  This is why I raised the matter.

You will be interested to know that my motion which was also sponsored by Sir Dingle Foot, the ex-Solicitor-General, has now received the support of 133 MPs.

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