Student bashing: New Statesman article by Professor Griffith

This article by JA Griffith, Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, appeared in New Statesman magazine on 8 May 1970. Professor Griffith provided pro bono legal support to some of the ten during the trials and appeals. The piece sparked a number of responses in following issues.

The Catholic chaplain to the University of Liverpool has said that if the mass meeting at which the Vice-Chancellor addressed his students on 9 March had been allowed to go on for another hour – instead of being abruptly terminated by the chairman when there were still matters to be discussed which came within the terms of the agenda – ‘there would have been no sit-in in the Senate House’.

Anyone who has been involved in student protest knows how often large developments come of such small events and how often, alas, university authorities, by not understanding what sparks light what fires, blunder. Students passionately want to know what are the answers to the case they are making. A few of them may believe their case to be overwhelming but the others, without whom no protest can be got on its feet, are open to persuasion by either side.

And nothing is more likely to persuade them that their fellow-students, who have made the initial protest and raised the questions, are to be supported than the apparent reluctance of the authorities to answer the substance of the charges made against them.

At Liverpool the protest was about racial discrimination, and the position of the Chancellor, Lord Salisbury; about university investments; about secrecy, political files and chemical and biological warfare. One event which undoubtedly made it possible for sufficient numbers to be rallied for the sit-in to be effective was the statement by the University Treasurer that moral considerations could not be taken into account when investing money on behalf of the university.

For the outside public – and this happens in industrial disputes also – the  form of student protest quickly obliterates what the protest is about. Publicity centres on the sit-in, the occupation, the disciplinary action, the trials and the sentences. The substantial issues are forgotten. Yet how seldom in British universities is the form of protest politically or morally more significant than its reasons.

Perhaps at Liverpool it is more easy to understand why the real issues are already almost forgotten. For, not surprisingly, the sentences have hit the headlines. The parallel with Robin Blackburn’s dismissal from the staff at LSE is obvious. At Liverpool one student was expelled, seven were suspended for two years and two were suspended for one year. For many, perhaps all, of those suspended for two years the sentence is equivalent to expulsion. It is now six weeks since some 170 other students stated in writing that they also took part in the sit-in and the university is contemplating proceedings against them also. So we may see the first mass expulsions from a British university.

And all this is for what? The 10 students  were charged with ‘conduct which was detrimental to the discharge of the duties of the university’ in that they occupied the Senate House and excluded the staff of the university with the intention of hampering the discharge of those duties. It was not suggested that, during the days of the occupation, damage was done or that those charged were guilty of physical violence. The occupation was, on any definition, peaceful though inconvenient to the administrators.

The duties of a university – teaching and research – were not affected.  No attempt was made to interrupt lectures, to keep students from their work, to disrupt the library. What happened was that a large number of students – probably some 300 in all – felt strongly enough about issues, generally regarded as not unimportant, to draw attention to their views by inconveniencing the administration. And for this, 10 of them have been ejected.

Nearly 150 MPs have signed a motion standing in the names of Eric Heffer, Michael Foot, Eric Ogden,  David Marquand, William Hamilton and Dingle Foot which calls these sentences harsh and asks the university authorities to think again and reconsider the sentences imposed.  A general meeting of the National Council for Civil Liberties expressed a similar opinion. The chaplains at the university have protested against the sentences. The Council of the Guild of Undergraduates at the university have demanded that the decision of the Board of Discipline be declared void because of the way its proceedings were conducted and that the students should be reinstated pending a reconsideration of the whole question of discipline within the university and of those proceedings in particular.  In addition, protests against the severity of the sentences have also been made by over 160 members of the academic staff (including several professors), by 140 postgraduate students and by the Liverpool Trades Council.

A division is now becoming apparent in the attitude of the university authorities to student protest in Britain. One attitude has been recently exemplified at Warwick University, where, even there, the authorities decided not to take disciplinary action against those who participated in the sit-in last term, but instead to concentrate on the continuing development of the university as an academic and social community. This attitude, whatever its motive, recognises that universities today are moving through such a period of fundamental change as happens to all institutions from time to time when they are put under great pressure. The universities as they have existed, some for hundreds, some for scores of years, are disappearing before our eyes as a consequence of great social upheavals in their size and composition. The wiser vice-chancellors and their colleagues do not believe that the future is best safeguarded by strong disciplinary action, by student-bashing. For the inevitable consequence of such action is that the university becomes a place where the attitude of different groups hardens quickly and the restoration of working relationships is postponed for many years. In the short run, protest may be quietened but only at the cost of frightening alienation. In the long run, strong disciplinary action is fatal to the purposes of university life.

Footnote: John Griffith

J.A.G. Griffith (1918-2010, on right, above) was a student at LSE from 1937-40 and a member of staff there from 1948 until 1984. He was appointed Professor of English Law in 1959 and Professor of Public Law in 1970. He is well known for his writing on law, Parliament, and politics and government. Griffith believes that a judge’s background, personal experience, and circumstances can affect their decisions, and that as legal judgements these decisions have important and influential consequences for individuals and society.

John Griffith was at the LSE at the same time as Ralph Miliband,and their experiences at the LSE of the expulsion of staff and students during and after May ’68 directly contributed to their founding in 1970, the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy (CAFD).

This is John Griffith, writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement in 1998:

The current unsatisfactory climate within universities has been building up for some time. In the late 1960s, there occurred a series of incidents involving individuals at Hornsey and Guildford Colleges of Art, at Birmingham University and, most seriously, at the London School of Economics. These and other incidents suggested an increasingly overt threat to academics’ freedom of speech, teaching and research. They also marked attempts on the part of the authorities both inside universities and in government to deal with a developing crisis triggered by student protest questioning the character, purpose and management of higher education.

Some of us who were alarmed by the attitude of university authorities to staff and students worked with others in setting up the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy in 1970. Over the next decade, the Council campaigned and took up a large number of cases throughout the country.

And so to the Education Reform Act 1988 and the ending of tenure. Universities were to be “first and foremost corporate enterprises to which subsidiary units and individual academics were responsible and accountable”. The only advance was that, under great pressure, the government agreed to a section in the Act to ensure that academic staff had freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions “without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges”.

But, as Ian Gilmour wrote in 1992, “the Thatcherite espousal of market forces was accompanied in the universities by increased state control, thereby further jeopardising the worldwide reputation of British universities.

The Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy gradually ceased to operate during the 1980s. Academics were unwilling to court disfavour when their employers were being required to draw up lists of those whose services might be dispensed with.

John Griffith died in May 2010.  Read his Guardian obituary and Pete Cresswell’s response here: John Griffith 1918-2010.

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