Political Activism, Academic Freedom and the Cold War: An American Experience

By Deery, Phillip | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Political Activism, Academic Freedom and the Cold War: An American Experience


Deery, Phillip, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


In the closing months of World War I, William McKell, a future leader of the Australian Labor Party, raised the issue of academic freedom in the NSW State Parliament. He questioned why the Senate of the University of Sydney had refused to confirm the recommendation of a selection committee to appoint Vere Gordon Childe to the position of history lecturer. Childe, a future eminent archaeologist, was in 1918 a socialist and pacifist and had actively campaigned against the introduction of military conscription. The Department of Defence, whose military intelligence section had been monitoring Childe, advised the university against his appointment, and the University Senate complied. (1) This was one of the earliest instances of the intervention of the state in academic appointments in Australia.

Nearly 40 years later, during the Cold War, another historian, Russel Ward, was also denied an academic appointment on political grounds. Ward, who had been a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) until 1949, applied for a lectureship at Sydney's University of Technology (soon to become the University of New South Wales) in 1955. As with Childe, the selection committee recommended his appointment but was vetoed by the authoritarian and deeply conservative new vice-chancellor, Philip Baxter, Professor of Chemical Engineering. Baxter informed the University Council, which acquiesced, that Ward had been 'active in seditious circles in Canberra'. (2) Although the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Colonel Spry, denied supplying any 'security information' in the Ward case, (3) it can be inferred from Menzies' response in federal parliament that the NSW Police Special Branch was responsible. (4) Frank Crowley has attempted to challenge the charge of Max Hartwell (Dean of the Faculty of Humanities who chaired Ward's selection committee and who went public in 1960) that Ward's political leanings underlay the vice-chancellor's decision. Crowley referred to 'the Ward file' in Baxter's possession that allegedly contained reports about Ward's 'questionable conduct' in relation to female students when employed as a schoolteacher by the NSW Education Department. (5) The problem for historians is that the 'Ward file' has never been found. Ward himself was convinced what the central issue was: in a letter to the university administration in 1956, he condemned its 'contempt for traditional academic freedom'. (6)

It is very difficult to establish a causal connection between the political activity of an academic applicant and the decisions of a university selection committee. Such committees do not readily disgorge their secrets. As with Childe and Ward, suspicions and hearsay exist but proof remains elusive. A rare exception was the confidential file of a selection committee at the University of New England in 1954 (which in 1957 appointed Russel Ward). The likely appointee to the Chair of Physics--a physicist, Dr Thomas Kaiser, whom the committee assessed as 'the most brilliant of any candidate'--was stymied by the chair's judgement: 'Doubtful whether suitable in view of political activities'. (7) Kaiser applied unsuccessfully for at least another 33 academic posts positions in Australia before, like Childe, departing for England to commence an illustrious career. (8) A fellow scientist, Dr Richard Makinson, was consistently denied promotion at the University of Sydney because of his security record. (9)

There is also extensive evidence from the early Cold War of ASIO interference in university matters, and thereby trampling on academic freedoms of a wide range of academics, many not members of the CPA. (10) Most notably, ASIO was directly involved in the vetting of new appointments to the Australian National University (ANU). Spry informed the Prime Minister of 'the inadvisability of employing ... lecturers who are likely to infect students with subversive doctrines', and recommended a 'properly organised system' whereby ANU would submit to ASIO 'for security checking, the names of proposed appointees'. …

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