Mr Aspinall replies

Following Professor Griffith’s defence of the Liverpool students in the 8 May issue of the New Statesmen, there were several responses. This one, from the father of one of the ten victimised students, appeared in the issue of the journal on 22 May:

Sir, As a parent of one of the 10 disciplined Liverpool University students, I much welcomed Professor Griffith’s article (NS 8 May). The subsequent correspondence from Father McGoldrick and Mr Kent (NS 15 May) dismayed me. I can only wonder how Mr Kent comes to be a reader of the NS at all, and what has happened to Father McGoldrick (apart from the additional ‘some evidence’ which he mentions) since he wrote his perceptive memorandum from which Professor Griffith quoted and which I had read with admiration.

Let us get the record straight. The sit-in was a deliberate act of indiscipline undertaken to attract public attention after fruitless struggling within the rules. Certainly the participants knew that they could expect disciplinary action, and were prepared to take it. They were not prepared for the victimisation of a select few (the unanimous view of the NUS executive), or for procedures which exhibited features more usually associated with lynch-mob ‘trials’, or for the savage sentences. Mr Kent either lacks comprehension or misrepresents. The sit-in was a well-conducted, non-violent event in the pattern now long established in industry and other universities as a form of protest.

(What would have happened if selected participants in some industrial sit-in had been jailed for two years – the equivalent sentence?) Mr Kent’s thesis is that in the worthy interests of self-discipline, one must always meekly accept whatever authority chooses to impose – good, indifferent or downright bad; and further, that such a sheep-like mentality is a necessary qualification for a degree. No doubt he has never exceeded a speed limit. It is always contra-authority to steal, but I can readily envisage circumstances in which to steal a loaf of bread is both honourable and morally proper.

Father McGoldrick has (on the face of it) been swayed from his original views by ‘some evidence’ that a small group of students were intent on a sit-in whatever the Vice-Chancellor said. If so, that group included neither Jon Snow (see Guild News of 10 March) nor my son, yet these are among the pilloried. The phrase ‘some evidence’ arouses suspicion. I fervently hope that the promised statement by the V-C does not constantly refer to ‘some evidence’. There has been a lot of evidence in this case which has been challenged or discounted or withdrawn, but which nevertheless remains properly described as ‘some evidence’·

What we want to know is whether the evidence has been established beyond reasonable doubt – in view of the severity of the sentences.

The Chaplain goes on to convey the impression that the V-C’s meeting with his students on 9 March was at the V-C’s own initiative. If the reports in Guild News (10 March) are correct, nothing could be farther from the truth. Those reports show that at a general meeting of students the previous Tuesday, the proposition of a sit-in that same day was rejected provided that the V-C would agree to meet them to discuss their worries. Only after a series of delegations from that meeting to Senate House did the V-C eventually accept to meet them on 9 March. Surely Father McGoldrick knew this. But my main quarrel with Father McGoldrick lies in his effort to show that the V-C’s meeting was essentially good and that it was only the manner of its conduct which provoked. The two are inseparable. I am convinced that no worthy TU official, nor even a junior industrial manager, would have displayed such a lack of sense of man-management.

The many facets of this sorry affair and its history lead me to the reflection that the universities are these days too important to be left to the universities. Gone are the days when they were cloistered retreats where academics could harmlessly pursue their learnings, and when they could be left to run themselves, well or badly, with little repercussion on John Citizen. These days the unive.rsities are the principal generating houses of the streams of graduates into industry and commerce which are vital if the inhabitants of this country, whatever their status, are to enjoy their due place in the sun. Because of this vast sums of public monies are now channelled into the universities. Student unrest and university mismanagement are the obverse and reverse of one and the same thing. Which comes first?

Knowledge of personnel management, or any significant experience outside cloistered academic life, seems not to be a requisite for potential V-Cs and their staffs. Yet V-Cs and their immediate staffs are paid to manage. I quote Barbara Castle as reported in The Times (19 May):

It is now becoming conventional wisdom that management no longer has the divine right to rule; that it can only manage by consent; that it can only succeed by persuasion, conviction and therefore by the dissemination of information.

This, in my view, is this Liverpool case to a ‘t’. On a personal note, though grieved by the thwarting of our plans for our son’s ambitions, I have changed my mind from my first and uninformed reaction to his participation in this event. I now take some pride from the part he played; that he cares enough to fight for the same essential principles that I believed that I was fighting for at Dunkirk, Tobruk and Alamein; that he has the guts to stand up and be counted ; and that he eschews the ‘I’m all right Jack’ approach. At the same time he has creditably discharged his every academic obligation thus far and additionally has been instrumental in bringing a modicum of extra-mural honour to his university for which he patently cared a great deal. We still have faith in him. We shall see.

KJ Aspinall, Leidcn, Holland

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