If the Gown Fits
By A. P. Rowe
Melbourne University Press, 1960

Around the University of Adelaide in the mid-1950s, its vice-chancellor became known as ‘the abominable Rowe man’. Senior lecturer in English, Geoffrey Dutton, recalled that when A. P. Rowe broke his ankle on falling into a drain, the retired professor of Geology, Sir Douglas Mawson, regretted that ‘it had not been a crevasse’. A conclave of professors passed a vote of no confidence in him. What crimes could evoke such fury in a city renowned for its insipidness?

If the Gown Fits was sharp but not bitter, distinguished by analysis and long-sightedness. The parochialism of academic life in Australia meant that the Professor of Public Administration at the University of Sydney, R. N. Spann, had never heard of A. P. Rowe before receiving his book to review. Spann concluded from that acquaintance that the vice-chancellor has been ‘a man of courage and imagination’ whose most attractive characteristic was his commitment to debate with no holds barred. Which tertiary institution would today appoint as its chief executive someone who proclaimed that ‘Universities should be eternally at war, war against materialism, disease, want, and all that obstructs the highest manifestation of man’.

Menzies biographer Allan Martin acknowledged the ‘nuisance value’ of Rowe’s tenacity as a ‘vital element in changing the attitudes of Menzies and his departmental officers’ to setting up the Murray Committee on universities in 1956. That tenacity could appear tactless, and eventually despotic. The honeymoon of his first years at Adelaide had been followed by a mounting resistance among staff.

During the Second World War, A. P. Rowe had headed a radar research program in Britain. Misdiagnosis of lung cancer drove him to the dry climate of the Woomera Research Station before a few frustrating months as chief defence scientist in Canberra. He returned to Adelaide as vice-chancellor on May Day 1948 to be told that the university ‘runs itself’, which perhaps was why it had ‘more red tape than in the British Civil service’.

His University, Rowe discovered, also had the smallest State grant in the Commonwealth, while he got the funding increased by warning Premier Tom Playford that South Australia was falling behind the other States. Salaries were low, research a fading memory, study leave random, retirement ages negotiable, inbreeding rife, a staff club non-existent and student life confined to daylight hours. ‘Mother expects me home to tea’, one student put it. The ample buildings housed uneven resources, with Engineering well equipped and Physics a junk-shop.

Rowe took one of his epigraphs from Johannes Kepler who announced that his book could ‘be read either now or by posterity. I care not which’. A best seller in its day, If the Gown Fits deserves attention forty years later both from those who imagine a Golden Age before Dawkins, and from those managers who suppose themselves to be the assurance of quality.

Rowe was a man of two cultures, a leading scientific administrator who quoted Ibsen as readily as Kepler. Although he considered that Australia needed only one department teaching Greek and Latin, he wanted ‘professors of classics to see to it that knowledge of our heritage from Greece and Rome permeates through the whole university and out into the community it serves.’ He proposed a course open to all faculties on the History of Civilisation. Yet, like C. P. Snow, he was alarmed that a brilliant arts student about to leave for post-graduate work overseas thought that the atom was the smallest particle.

Rowe pushed to make teaching, research and administration more effective, each will be sketched.

In regard to teaching, Rowe found his concern for what students to be exceptional. Between 1952 and 1956, he surveyed 135 undergraduates from all faculties about their family backgrounds, non-curricula interests and their experiences at university. He coined the phrase E-factor for their general cultural standard. Not unexpectedly, he found a clear connection between the parents’ occupation, the E-factor and examination results. One task for academic staff was to compensate for that deficiency. Instead, his interviews revealed that ‘after two years at university some [students] showed no sign of being educated other than in techniques’. The prospect of any university remaining a factory for the mass production of immediately usable spare parts for industry filled Rowe with dread at the inefficiency of ‘putting on the path to responsible positions men who could only act within the grooves of a specialised knowledge which would rapidly become out of date’.

One of Rowe’s colleagues, Commerce Professor Russell Matthews, resisted these criticisms on the grounds that ‘students do not always know what is best for them’, and that self-reliance was essential after the spoon-feeding of school. Rowe endorsed that aim but contended that even the dullest students knew that the teacher who dictated notes or who ‘talked into a book for fifty minutes’ was not best for their minds. Rowe believed that the university had a duty to lead students towards independent study methods and not just throw them in the deep end. Professional guidance was urgent since four out of ten students were leaving universities without a degree.

Rowe was not fussed by students’ spelling, solecisms or inelegancies. Rather, he was alarmed that so few graduates could put ‘into words their thoughts about any concept which is not elementary’. His own writing was crisp, ironic, and aphoristic: ‘An Australian will do anything in the world for you if he hasn’t got to and as little as possible if he has’.

Research, in Rowe’s mind, excused a multitude of sins, from triviality to ‘a life of ease’. Science doctorates could be awarded ‘for little more than assisting a professor with the chores of his research work, perhaps in maintaining a complex piece of equipment’. Appointment and promotion committees, full of professors who ‘have themselves done no research for decades’, emphasised the quantity of publication The finest researchers need not excel as teachers or at administration. Rowe sought to impose his methods in administering radar research on the University of Adelaide. The time, place and talent were different, and none was amenable to a commandism that turned capricious with failure. Reviewers were united against Rowe’s assuming that first-rate researchers must  come from overseas.

On the question of administration, Rowe came with firm ideas which rigidified. After ten years on the job, Rowe was ‘not altogether clear about who is supposed to do what’. He favoured giving the vice-chancellor more power, supported by full-time deans, and advised by ‘a small stable group of wise and fearless men with whom I could talk freely and from whom a policy could be disseminated throughout the university’. In the February 2000 edition of the Adelaide Review, a retiring Dean of Humanities, Graeme Duncan, exposed the distortions to which such arrangements had led in the 1990s. Yet, the balance was too far in the other direction in the 1950s when Rowe identified egalitarianism and departmentalism as the twin enemies of intellectual vigour and effective administration.

By egalitarianism, the elitist Rowe did not mean redistributive schemes to bring more working-class children into tertiary education but the demands from those privileged to hold chairs for ‘equal salaries, equal distribution of research funds and facilities, and an equal voice in administration’. In his last year, he made himself even more abominable by opposing the Murray Committee’s increase in professorial salaries to £3500. That flat sum, he contended, was too much for the bone idle and too little to attract first-class researchers, for whom £10,500 would have been appropriate. Rowe accepted that professors who had lost the qualities that had led to their appointment should graze out their final years. His scorn was directed at those passengers who insisted on occupying the pilot’s seat.

In a Vestes review of If the Gown Fits, ANU philosophy professor, P. H. Partridge, appreciated the case for salary differentials but also knew from studies of US Universities that the going price for a professor had to be decided by competing bids. That market required that the full package on offer be made public, with no commercial-in-confidence clauses. A further difficulty was that richly endowed institutions distorted the market.

By departmentalism, Rowe meant that each department was a fiefdom ruled over by the Professor-God. If Rowe did not coin the phrase Professor-God, his book gave it currency. One result of departmentalism was that universities could alter their curricula only by adding a new subject or department, never by pruning the redundant. In industry, employees with obsolete skills could have been retrained but academic freedom prevented that solution. No matter how convinced the majority of professors were that some department was no longer needed, they would not support its winding back for fear of a precedent should their own subject one day be under scrutiny: ‘The Professorial Mutual Support and Protection Society is strong in Australia’. Rowe gave the example of the prevalence of French at a time when scientists needed basic reading skills in Russian. To make matters worse, departments resisted the provision of service courses to other faculties.

Release of If the Gown Fits on 21 March 1960, gave commentators on Australian universities the opportunity to reflect on the impact of two full years of increased funding after the adoption of the 1957 Murray Report. Some were so flushed by the extra monies that they did not dare contemplate a second inquiry into a ‘spiritual revival’. Partridge again proved the most perceptive. Rowe’s criticisms, he accepted, were apt but, in pushing his agenda, he gave insufficient weight to how the good and the bad intertwined, failing to appreciate that there could be no gains without losses.

Rowe alleged that while universities were ‘deficient in self-criticism’, they were ‘almost pathologically sensitive to the criticism of others’, a judgment endorsed by reviewers from Mark Oliphant to Manning Clark. Partridge attributed this lack of self-criticism on questions of values and direction to the universities’ attachment to tradition, passing it on, and glorying in its reflection.

In his Preface, Rowe paid ‘tribute to the Melbourne University Press which, in publishing sincerely held if unpalatable opinions, is following the best traditions of university life’. Recent events suggest that some traditions are more traditional than others.