WAR AUSTRALIA - UNIVERSITIES IN THE 1950s
|If the Gown Fits
By A. P. Rowe
Melbourne University Press, 1960
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?
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
pushed to make teaching, research and administration more effective,
each will be sketched.
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’.
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.
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’.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.