Peter Townsend was both the founding Professor of the Department of Sociology and one of two Founding Professors of the University. (Alan Gibson in Physics was the other). This extract comes is part of a much longer interview with Peter Townsend conducted by Paul Thompson in 1998. This section speaks of Peter’s time at Essex and covers his very earliest days, his vision of the department, the troubles and his achievements.
Part Seven: Interview held on 14th September, 1998
So we’re going to talk about Essex. I think the best thing would be to start by explaining how you came there, and what you hoped to achieve by going there.
My association with Essex was totally unexpected. I was written to in 1962, I think it was, by Albert Sloman, who was … He was a man who was very precise, compact, he’d been an RAF pilot. He was so orderly that he never liked even a stray letter to be on his desk when he interviewed you. This immaculate tidiness that he embodied was a major fault in some ways because, of course … I say “of course”; but I mean that a very interesting example of his management of the University, all the way through, were the gardens: the estate on which the University was built, was kept like a billiard table, with very few even plants of any interest. And his room was a bit like that. And it gave an impression to other people of unapproachability. I think it was also a sign of insecurity, because he somehow wanted the image of the Vice-Chancellor, and the status of that to prevail, rather than the job in hand, or the people he was seeing. He was a bit like that. But an interesting man who at least was efficient, in many respects, in getting business through, for example. And he was pretty young, he was only a few years older than I was. And Noel Annan, who was the Chair of the Academic Advisory Committee which was advising about the setting up of the University and how it might be the same or different from the other new universities, I’m sure suggested me to be approached for the job of Sociology.
Now, it’s rather interesting that they chose, in the Social Sciences, to go emphatically for the combination of Economics, Political Science and Sociology, without wanting to have more Departments. I think there was a deliberate decision to try to restrict the number of Departments at the University of Essex on the grounds that if you built a new university, you would gain not just credibility, but gain success by managing to develop a few large Departments very quickly, in relation to other universities; and in a sense you could claim to be in the lead as a new university, because you were able to establish some very large Departments which the others couldn’t compete with. I think that was a very bright idea. In some senses it can’t possibly be more than short-term, because it does mean there are all kinds of problems about what you include within a subject, where in many universities you have separate Departments, for example, of Social Anthropology, of Social Psychology, in relation to Sociology … [or] Social Policy and Administration. These in many universities, were separate Departments, and at Essex, the idea was that they would be much more – well, I was going to use the word “grandiose”, but I think – much more comprehensive in their set-up than would normally be the case.
Sloman wrote to me out of the blue, inviting me to take the first Chair in Sociology, and to meet him and talk about it. I went to Richard Titmuss at the London School of Economics, who was flabbergasted! He went to great lengths to dissuade me, and I remember, to this day, a very uncomfortable meeting I had with him at his home at 32 Twyford Avenue in Ealing, where, for an hour and a half or two hours, we debated this issue. And I simply took the view – well, I doubted whether I could do it very well, in the early stages; but there was a huge opportunity both for Sociology and Social Policy, and that, as a young person just developing, I felt I just had to take it. I very much had that sort of attitude, of being bequeathed – as an opportunity which I hadn’t bargained for arising for many years. And he was very put out when I decided I’d look into it seriously and accept it if it seemed appropriate. So I met Albert Sloman, and I met Noel Annan, and it all was confirmed and went through.
Can I just ask you about that? Did you get the impression that Noel Annan had got a lot of the ideas? Because I think that’s one of the things that people don’t understand about Essex, how far the concept was Sloman’s or Annan’s. Did you have any impression of that?
I think it would be very hard for me to answer. My own belief is that Albert never had a great deal of imagination. He had a flair, he had a precision, he was efficient, but the ideas, I think, came more from Noel Annan in basic form. I think they may have been, as it were, enlarged by virtue of the contacts with people like Jean Floud and Kenneth Capon. To some extent, a new institution which departs from the form of other similar institutions, depends on more than one person, and I think that that academic advisory group was more responsible for the ideas that developed. One of the ideas, as I’ve mentioned already, is that of large Departments, but few of them, so that you can get them to quite a respectable size very quickly. That appealed to me enormously because it meant that I, personally, had a lot of criticisms of Sociology in England previously, was well aware that although the London School of Economics, the leading Department of Sociology was there, I know that it was very poorly managed, and very unimaginative and uncreative, and had objections to things that I was interested in in Social Policy, and was really pretty …
You were talking about LSE.
Yes, I had known from past experience that the London School of Economics had a reputation as having the best Department of Sociology in the country, but sociology was very ill-developed in the country. There were very few sociologists, and especially few with academic appointments, and the London School of Economics was both very eclectic and uncreative, in many respects, to do with what has since developed. And I was very much aware that by starting a new Department, and being promised that it would become the largest in the country, there was a chance of doing all the things which LSE’s Department of Sociology wasn’t doing. This was a tremendous attraction. I then went, when I was thinking about it, to Richard Titmuss, and said, rather apologetically to him that I was thinking of leaving LSE, although I hadn’t been there very long. He was flabbergasted, didn’t like the idea, persuaded me to come to his home at 32 Twyford Avenue in Ealing, to talk about the issue. He did everything he could to dissuade me and to cause me to stay at LSE, and certainly floated before me the idea that I was proceeding so well that it would be only a matter of a very short time before I would get promotion there. However, the newness of the opportunity at Essex, and some of the arguments that Noel Annan deployed were convincing to me.
I think perhaps I’d better pause here, and say a little about Noel Annan and the role he played in both my decision to go to Essex, and the part he played in building that University. He was Chairman of the Academic Advisory Committee, a very creative, cultured man, with lots of bright ideas, some of which he couldn’t sustain too well, but he was a very congenial and attractive personality. He persuaded me, because he believed in social arithmetic, and he thought that this was something that Britain badly needed. I happened to think he was right then, as he is, in a sense, now. But I wasn’t, myself, eager to restrict my work to that of what could be described as social arithmetic. Sociology was far more important and vaunting than that, and was an intellectual and emotional challenge of the first order, because I believed then, as I believe now, that it is … although we all, in our different ways, say that each subject has an equality with every other, nonetheless, when we do choose a subject, we tend to think it particularly important in the whole range, and I happen to believe that sociology is pre-eminent in some respects in relation to other subjects, as I believe it has been neglected and scorned, politically, in ways that are going to come to be recognised as highly prejudiced.
But surely that’s more recent, isn’t it? Going back to that time, in the sixties, it was a subject of rising esteem. Is that not so?
It was at that stage, and that was partly to do with the politicisation of schools’ policy, and the contributions made by Edward Boyle and others, and not only the Left-wingers in the Comprehensive Schools Committee, and those among the teaching profession who had ambitious ideas for teaching pupils who’d never had opportunities beforehand. I think that there were adventurous but also principled ideas afloat during the mid-sixties, which remain crucially important, and there was an opportunity to develop some of those ideas then, which was greater than they have been since. And I was aware of all that, and therefore this is one reason for my responding as I did, with alacrity, to the invitation to set up a Department at Essex.
And then you were saying that you met Sloman and Annan, and I was wondering how you see their different contributions to the thinking behind the University?
Noel Annan was, I think, the one who contributed more than anybody else to the seminal ideas for the distinct form that the University took. Sloman was not so imaginative. He was very efficient, he was concise, but he was a bit insecure about his own ideas. I remember that, even in the first year or two of the University, unusually in relation to subsequent events, he sought my detailed opinion, not just very general opinion, about the development of the Reith Lectures. He clearly felt ill-equipped to pronounce about the development of the whole clutch of new universities in the country, and I tried to contribute a few thoughts, and wrote about them too, I believe, before but also during one or two of the drafts of this. So there’s that example which gives me reason for saying that I don’t think some of the key ideas stemmed from him, so much as they stemmed from Noel Annan; who also, let’s face it, was malleable in terms of other intellectual advice that he got from people like Jean Floud, and who wanted to give Kenneth Capon, the architect, his head. And so there was a bit of a coming and going between the idea of a university with a few large Departments, also trying to break new ground in the sense of being built in a form that was rather different. And Capon certainly did that. And the idea of the new university, which was to build in a valley, so that you had a spine road serving high-rise student residential towers, either on the shoulders of the valley, so that there were few roads to be built, and where access could be easy for people bringing computers and machinery for physics and so on: this was a good idea. And it also meant it was environmentally attractive, because it left the flatter landscape around, which Constable, after all, had painted, around Wivenhoe House, it left that intact, and meant that this was a kind of blow against urban sprawl, and institutional sprawl. That was very attractive, although, of course, the idea hadn’t been thought through. And I think Noel Annan also contributed to the thinking about large Departments, and he certainly contributed to the idea that sociology should have a different thrust from that which had been established so far.
Sociology hadn’t been established very much in Britain before the 1960s. I think I was only about the seventh or eighth professor of the subject in the entire country. The London School of Economics was in the van; it virtually was the only place where the subject had been very strongly or institutionally developed, and attracted a lot of criticism at the time, and much more could be done. And therefore I was seized with the idea that not only … the things that I was interested in, in terms of Social Policy and Social Change [were] likely to prosper in such a new environment, but that there were other features of Sociology which I personally didn’t know much about, but which I was aware in the United States were doing well, and I could encourage at this new university. So the whole set of ideas was very attractive, although, of course, I was very doubtful about my capacity to follow them through, because I was very new to some of these developments, and had to learn fast.
What developments are you talking about there?
I’m thinking about developments in extending sociology and giving it several dimensions which would consolidate it’s capacity to be intellectually, but also politically important, in the world at large. Perhaps I should give a few examples here. One of the choices that had to be made in those early days, was what form the Department would take. I remember very clearly going to tea parties in the garden of Jean Blondel and Dick Lipsey, to debate how they were thinking that Politics should develop, and Economics should develop, and I remember Lipsey, in particular, was a bit condescending. He, of course, didn’t think too much about Sociology or Social Policy, I may say, and he was eager to develop Economics in a rather narrow way – as I see it now, I didn’t see it quite like that at the time – because he made concessions to the teaching of Economics in relation to unemployment, for example, which I was wholly in favour of, but which he didn’t really carry out. I mean that he was, he seemed to be, let’s say, appreciative of Keynsian Economics more than he revealed in later work, and was very much rooted in the possibilities of Mathematical Economics, Econometrics, and what I like to call “near monetarism”. The Department, I thought, was very narrowly based in that way, and that it recruited too many people who really didn’t have much sensitivity about the need for Economics to be generalist as well as specialist, and there were all kinds of implications of that remark, which I’m sure you’ll be aware of. And the turnover in Economics was quite rapid, because there was a sense in which it couldn’t quite deal with the problems that were posed by keeping it too narrowly specialist, both in research and teaching.
So I – early on, in those very early months, when we were meeting in early 1963, we had conversations about the form of the Departments – and I was being urged by Lipsey in particular, to recruit people in my own mould, people who were just interested in Social Policy and Administration, for example, and I was trying to say, “Hey, hang on a minute, I’m also … I was formed in Social Anthropology too, and I’ve a much more broadly-based young career as well as interest in Sociology”. So early on, I was confronted with the idea – well, this was a new subject, or relatively new subject, there was a big question as to how it should develop, and I just took the view that it should be as catholic, that’s the wrong word – as general as possible, in the sense of trying to enthuse and take the best [of] a variety, a cluster of subjects that the subject covered, and attract the people who had the highest potential for developing the subject fast. So what I’m trying to say is that, quite deliberately, we made the first four appointments, including yours, which were in quite different fields of Sociology, and wanted very much to emphasise that Social History, Social Policy and Social Change, Social Anthropology, Mathematical Sociology, to pick another example, these were absolutely crucial to the advance of Sociology as a discipline, intellectually. And, of course, we didn’t succeed in doing everything that we wanted to do, but it was extremely important, I think, looking back, to have taken the view that some of these new aspects, or new sub-departments of the discipline, could be advanced as rapidly as we enabled them to do so. I think that it’s evident that although the numbers stayed very small, what we did for Mathematical Sociology, I take pride in. What I think we did for Social History I take pride in. What I think we did for Social Anthropology I’m less sure about, but I hope was good. What we did for Social Policy, I think, was crucial.
And it meant that the kind of people who were appointed were fascinating, were extraordinarily good in their field. I felt that David Lockwood would not fit in very well because he came from the London School of Economics with predispositions about the nature of the subjects and the status of certain theoretical work which would mean that he would not be willing to embrace what I regarded as some important strands of the subject. I think he never quite embraced them, he went along with them is the honest truth. But he did well at Essex, and was an important stability. There were other appointments which we made, who were extremely good, and as we know, have been long lasting. The surprising thing about Essex has been the small amount of turnover, considering the nature of the growth of the subject during that particular period.
Going back to the beginning again, which is important for me to do, we had this idea both about the size of the Department, that it could be adventurous, pioneering, and I think that partly because of the values that the staff brought with them, it was both democratic in important ways, but intellectually galvanising. There’s an interesting thing to say here, which derives from my interest at that time in comprehensive schools, it’s rather like saying we had the opportunities, not merely to widen the discipline into areas which hadn’t been much thought about previously, but by doing that, it actually had an impact on the more traditional areas, and galvanised them into more appropriate research, teaching and theorising. So there’s that idea of give and take, which I think lies behind comprehensive schooling. Rather than having an elite, it actually benefited you by trying to widen the net of teaching and research. I don’t mean that you spread your activities thinly over a wider area, I mean that you suddenly realise you have to act both widely and narrowly, or in general terms as well as in specialised terms, and that idea I’ve lived with all my life. It meant within the teaching and the development of the University of Essex, that we were able to establish a lead in the kind of students who ought to be taught, and who would actually help each other and provoke each other to reaching higher standards than they would otherwise reach if they were being taught [only] among a group who were very much the same in background. I remember that the year before I left Essex, and I take great pride in this, that one of the classes I taught had a 60 year old former Shop Steward from the Ford Company; it had two or three black students who were actually second generation immigrants who’d been brought over in the early 1960s by their parents who were immigrants; we had one or two nurses in their mid-thirties and forties; we had two or three people from Asia. In that class of twelve there were, perhaps, three “ordinary” – I put the word in quotes – 18 or 19-year-olds in addition. Now, I firmly believe now, as I did then, that that kind of setting can be daunting for the 18-year-olds, but while it may be very daunting for the first six months or a year, it can be inspirational and very broadening if it’s allowed to endure for two or three years. And that was great.
Was that idea of having a wider range of types of entry, including mature students, was that there at the beginning, or was that more of a response to the difficulties later?
It got established fairly quickly. Let me give you a reason. In the very first year, I was very conscious that, partly from my background in Social Anthropology and early research at LSE, that as a manager, as a policy director, as a Head of Department, there is an importance in beginning as you mean to go on: and [so immediately in 1964] we established an MA course. I think others were quite taken aback and certainly put out by the fact that we recruited five MA students in the very first year, and actually succeeded in getting them through [the MA] twelve months later. So between October 1964 when the University actually started teaching, by the summer of 1965, we had five MA students who had done a co-ordinated course, and they were the first MA students of the University, and the first degree students that the University produced! And that was a kind of symbol, because these were mature students, two or three of whom had not previously had opportunities that they could deservedly fulfil, I mean in terms of great success, and some of them have gone on to higher things ever since, that particular group.
It was almost like saying, you’re not just going to invest in 18-year-olds, you’re going to go for a broader view about academic teaching and training, which didn’t take as seriously as others had hitherto, the idea that, oh – there were certain things you couldn’t do at the first stage of teaching, and you had to wait until a second year, or a third year, or a fourth year; and there were these almost artificial structural divisions that had been accepted beforehand, which I don’t think need be accepted. People today may not appreciate the extent to which these overtures in race relations and [taking] mature and immature students, or older and younger students, were innovations, and were known to be innovations at that particular period. Though people believed in them, they often didn’t appreciate some of the difficulties which would arise, and the knock-on consequences, both for administration and examining and so on, that would arise.
We had other inventive things, which I take pride in talking about, even though some of them were changed: [one] was the idea of a kind of comprehensive assessment. It was well known that some students broke down with three hour exams, and couldn’t do them as effectively as their talents really justified. So we devised a system, a three-way system, of teaching people so that they did three things – they did ordinary essays, which attracted a third of the marking; there were end of term exams, take-home papers which had to be returned within a specified few days; and thirdly, there were three-hour exams, the traditional form of assessment. And we made it so that it was possible, and one or two students actually did this in the early years, to take a degree with hardly any dependence at all on a three-hour exam. And I still think that was justified. But the problem about it was, of course, that being an assessment where you could actually leave aside some of the scores you had, or some of the assessed work, you didn’t have to use all of it in coming to an overall degree result, and the consequence of that was that the staff got a bit fed up with having to mark too much, and there were other Departments in the University who were very antipathetic to this kind of assessment. So both from the Institution, as it became more traditionalised, dare I say, and from other staff, who felt that they wanted to have more time for research than doing all this marking, the system was modified considerably after a few years first experience.
But this is an example of the enormous advantages there were at the stage of building a new university and developing numbers very quickly, when there wasn’t the elaborate hierarchical system of committee structures which would tend to have the influence of pressing everything back into a traditional or well-established mould, rather than breaking free from that mould. And I think we all got very excited by that.
Projects were another area which you built into your vision, is that right?
Yes. This was partly on the same lines as the idea about wider assessment. The kind of short question and answer system of ordinary exams is one thing, and the way you prepare for that, and you think about that, and the way that influences your intellectual approach to subject matter, conditions you into, I think, superficiality, in some senses. Whereas if you’re expected to choose a subject and then work on it for several weeks, or a few months, even as an undergraduate, to do a project this was relatively unknown. I wouldn’t say it was not attempted beforehand, but it was certainly relatively new, as far as I remember, that for undergraduates to be given a project to do, was very rare indeed, if not [unprecedented]: even if it had existed, I can’t remember. [But] often I’m well aware that new ideas, [which] you think are new ideas, have really been tried somewhere else.
There was a staff appointment of somebody who was responsible to help the students, the Project Officer I think?
That’s right. This was an idea which, unfortunately, Albert Sloman dropped after a few years, that we had two people who were paid by the University. May I say, [how] unprecedented this was. The way we sold it to the Vice-Chancellor originally, when there were very few staff, and when he couldn’t resist the argument (LAUGHS), was that this was really like the Sciences, where we needed laboratory assistants who had to be appointed and given tenure. And so we needed Project Officers, people who were appreciative of the fact that Sociology was a skill, that research into it was a great skill, and that advice had to be given about the way in which visits of observation, research interviews, group interviews, etc., were conducted. That had a lot of specialised qualities, and that we needed people to be technicians to teach some of the approaches to that. And that was an extraordinarily good move which, I think, established the idea, but it wasn’t sustained by the University. What happened was, we reverted, like other universities, into research foundations and other organisations giving money for particular projects, and therefore, the business of overseeing people’s new research assistants introduction to the conduct of their research skills was neglected, and still is neglected.
But that was also in relation to the student projects, wasn’t it?
Looked after undergraduates as well as graduates. Yes, you’re quite right. The undergraduates had to go through more of a thinking process and discussion process [to control] what they were doing, and what the implications were, and how it could be done best. They were given a lot of scope for choosing subjects which they could enthuse about, and it gave them a kind of responsibility early on, which I think was good in the sense that it introduced them better to, let’s say, the multiple dimensions of either the subject they were taught or the people they were going to meet, or the situations they were going to observe, which was excellent in terms of giving them a better intellectual basis for well, observation and explanation, let’s put it no stronger.
And another innovative idea about the University as a whole was that there was no separation of staff and student social facilities. Was that something you were involved in, as an idea?
Yes, it had many different ramifications. One of the ramifications was my objection, which I succeeded in holding to for some time, to having a Senior Common Room. I think that still gives Essex some of the flavour of its mixing, and there were enormous debates, highly politicised, about Senior Common Rooms. I remember to this day some of the scientists and mathematicians being absolutely totally upset about the idea of not having a place at lunch time to which they could retreat and get away from the students. But it was, of course, more than that, it was also some acknowledgement that they deserved special treatment and that can, of course, be debated at great length.
It’s not a cut and dried issue. But it was one which affected us a great deal, and which lay beneath a number of other things that went on at the University in those early years. It underlay the student protests in 1968 in some important respects, that there was a kind of democratic approach to life at the University, in the sense that the number of people who were involved in decision-making and discussions, was wider than had been accepted hitherto, and that gave a thrust to what happened during the student protests where the extreme of this was reached when we had General Assemblies and a thousand people attended them in a new university, and that thousand people included the porters and the cleaners as well secretaries and professors.
Would you say that that particular social idea was one that you were pushing at the beginning, or was it one that Sloman had initiated himself?
I don’t remember Sloman having that at all. He was much more … I think he was Left-wing inclined, but I think we’d put it today, if I dare say this, and I’m sure he would disagree … he seemed to me, looking back, to fit into what we would now think of as SDP or even the rather conservative New Labour!
And what about the idea of students being treated as adults in terms of their private behaviour, and not having wardens for the accommodation, was that his idea?
I don’t remember this as coming from any particular individual, so much as it coming from a kind of culture of association. I would certainly have argued [for] that, but I don’t think I was particularly instrumental in getting that established so much as it being shared – the thought of how students should be treated being shared with people like Kenneth Capon and a number of others, especially the younger people like yourself, who were appointed at the University quite soon.
It’s in the Reith Lectures that, I think, isn’t it, that particular idea, so it was there right at the beginning.
Well, it could be, and I can’t recollect quite whether in exchanges with people like Noel Annan and Sloman, whether I had much part of it. All I can say is that it’s well-established that I would have taken those sort of views and certainly was opposed to too much scrutiny of student behaviour, and was very scornful of that. Which of course I’d experienced up to a point, though it was very hypocritical, at Cambridge University which I’d attended in the early fifties.
I think it might be useful if you said a bit more about Capon.
Kenneth Capon was a very interesting man. I went to dinner, with my wife, to his house in Highgate – no, Hampstead Garden Suburb was it? – on two or three occasions. I found him urbane, eager to do something different, but sometimes not very penetrating in his thinking about how a precinct like that precinct would be used by large numbers of students of different ages. And by that I mean that – I suppose not being an architect – I was certainly attracted by the ideas that he advanced for the structure of the University. But I think he was still conditioned by a perhaps outmoded view of household life and student management, which was very top-down, and I don’t remember him really dealing effectively with the problems of a university where the University Grants Committee was restricting the resources that he hoped he would have. This can often be important in discussing high architecture or the success or achievements of a particular architect, that he had to adjust his plans more than, I think, has been recognised.
If he’d had the space in the towers that he originally wanted, they would have worked a lot better. I won’t say worked entirely well, but they would have worked a lot better than they have done. I can’t remember the exact figures now, but I did become aware, and got very uneasy for this contributed to my opposition to building more towers. But they were cut down so much that the social facilities, the residential facilities on each floor were greatly restricted, which meant that people were forced to go further for shopping and meals and oh, exercise, than they might have done. And I think he didn’t really face up to the consequences, he just sort of cut down the shape of the ideas without reflecting that by reduced space in the towers, to save money, it became very marginal as to whether success could be achieved.
The design of Essex has come under great fire, with which I’ve associated myself in subsequent years, and I did look back some years ago, when I had to review the period at Essex, in a lecture I gave when I went back, after 25 years. I did reflect uneasily that maybe I hadn’t played a big enough part in talking through the physical design of the place, because I did realise then how important it was, in terms of establishing sociability and reducing some of the relationship and teaching problems that would arise in any institution of that kind. But I suppose you have to – the only excuse is that I was trying to do a hell of a lot of other things and the time available to give, as it were, responsible service on the Residential Committee, which I was on for a time, for the first two or three years, was not easy. But I do look back, and I think, “Oh God, I was a bit responsible, and it’s a pity I didn’t find more time to resist some of the ideas that were being advanced”. But it was very hard to do that when people [generally accepted it]… it’s like saying this of the Vice-Chancellor, of the early professors …
Perhaps I should say, at this point, that I was one of the first two professors appointed. I and Alan Gibson were the first two after Sloman and the Registrar to be appointed in the University, and certainly Alan Gibson, the Professor of Physics, and myself, were the first two academics actually on the job in October 1963, and we, the two of us, recruited all the students for the opening year of October 1964, and were involved in everything. I mean, I found myself serving on Committees of Appointment in Physics and Chemistry, which was a bit difficult, to put it mildly, during that particular period. But because we were all new and excited and adventurous, there was a tendency to feel, “Oh well, X had been appointed to this job or that job, and really had to be given his head”, because there was no committee structure of responsibility, or of accountability needed at that stage, or available at that stage, other than the rather loose structure of the Academic Advisory Board who were, generally, people who’d actually made the decisions to appoint only a few months earlier!
So it’s very easy to understand that some of the main ideas that were advanced from the key people tended not to be resisted or changed in those early stages. And Kenneth Capon was one of them where I would have wished now that we’d done a bit more. I’m glad that we managed to come to a realisation early enough not to spoil the entire University. But another aspect of this, which is very important to say in relation to Kenneth Capon, is that he had a conception of a functioning university with ten thousand students, and he had the physical plan which was very absorbing and appreciative, but the truth of the matter is that it wouldn’t be functioning like that for many years, even under his plan. And you had to reflect, “Oh my God! What would happen, not only if money dried up after a few years, as it did, but also, how would a university of this kind, built on stilts, as it was put, function if it was only half built, or quarter built?” And all of us remember those days of gales blowing between the two towers because the winds are enlarged by those structures, and some of the platforms, or squares around which all the buildings were due to be built, were erected before the buildings, and, therefore, gave the appearance of a half-built battleship! And that was a basic error from the word go, that none of us sufficiently developed and talked about, which makes one go back to the idea if you are building a university which is going to function in ten or twenty years time, wonderfully, then you have to work piecemeal, that each little bit that you build has to function on it’s own satisfactorily. And that idea is the basic, is to my mind, the worst fault of the entire design of the University, and it was Kenneth Capon’s responsibility more than anybody else’s.
And of those early personalities, what about Jean Blondel?
Oh, Jean Blondel was a very Gallic teacher, who was expansive, and could be humorous, but was inordinately vague at times, and he was sort of very different from the kind of United Kingdom empiricist in his approach to ideas. He was a philosopher without being a professional philosopher, let’s say, and had a very attractive manner which served the Politics Department quite well, in the sense of getting it an extremely good image, and being able to win a number of the arguments. I mean, I think one has to do him the honour of that particular ability. I suppose the thing which – I mean, there are a number of things on which we would obviously disagree, including his, small “c”, conservatism.
But one of the things was the Data Archive. The paradox is that I served on the initial Data Archive Committee for several years, and once it had been decided, tried to contribute to it working effectively. But from the beginning, I doubted whether this was the priority that it should be, from the University’s point of view, and I argued very strongly that a Survey Research Centre was really very much more important, would be used a lot more, and would actually be much more seminal in the University’s development. The interesting thing is that the Archive idea won through, very much at Jean Blondel’s insistence. I went along with it, but tried very hard, in that very same year, and I think there’s a paper in the Archive, my personal archive at the University, which will illustrate this. I actually wrote a piece and made an application to try to get established a Survey Archive. I went to some trouble outside to try and get research resources to enable that to happen, and the fascinating thing is, 20 years later it was being done! But a Panel Survey, etc., has developed and Essex is very much in the lead in doing that. I only wish it had been done a lot sooner, because I think that the importance of that particular work, and the way it would operate independently, because it’s independence is a very cardinal issue as far as I’m concerned, might have been secured more easily at the earlier stage. But that’s an interesting debate to have about the formation of a new university.
So we talked about the founding of the University, and your very first year or so there. Perhaps we could just shift now to the crisis at the University in ‘68-’73, in which you played a very important role. I wonder whether you’d like to say something about how, in retrospect, you now see that crisis. What was it really about?
Well, a crisis can be seen in large and small terms. I think, in large terms, there was a sort of revolutionary potential about some of the attitudes and values which we’ve been speaking about, which are a threat to established elites and classes. It’s almost like saying we were moving too fast into what collective gains and action would mean, and what democratic values, when properly spelt out, would lead to in terms of the organisation of society, including universities. There was that revolutionary potential, there’s no good getting away from it. And yet there were smaller issues to do with individual human rights and justice, not smaller in some important particulars of course, but where you can actually obtain restitution and acknowledgement of a dignified position more easily than you can obtain structural change, which is what I was implying a moment ago. So 1968 was extraordinary, because although, looking back, I’m sure we were, British students were influenced by what was going on on the Continent, it seemed to be something just being taken up in different universities, and certainly students in different universities became very quickly aware of what was going on among them.
It started with a protest about Porton Down, and students who attempted to prevent a particular lecture taking place, and the Vice-Chancellor feeling that an example ought to be set, and the student body believing that this was an issue of freedom to protest, and this was such a serious issue that it didn’t fit easily into the customary treatment of protests about other events. And one thing led to another. The students were sent down, sent away from the University. There were appeals, there were protests within the University which escalated to such a degree that a thousand and more people attended some of the assemblies. I mean, the entire University, including all its staff, attended a few of the meetings. And this was extraordinary by anyone’s standards, before or since in my career, because although it of course swallowed up time that might otherwise have been given to teaching and learning, and research, it was quite unprecedented to have one’s nose rubbed in the whole business of what kind of society were we living in and working in, and how should it be organised, and who should have a right to have a say, and be involved in a decision that was taken? And we went through one of these principles after another, and it was very exhilarating, one has to say, I have to say, because it was like going over all the taken-for-granted aspects of professional life, shaking them up, and inviting each of us to re-cast the result.
We found unexpected allies and unexpected opponents, and that could be very uncomfortable in the process. The University was very much influenced by outside pressure and opinion. It has to be noted that Albert Sloman, by 1973/4, came close to losing his job, and it was only the intervention of Noel Annan in a kind of politically-inspired cooling operation that allowed him to keep his job.
Can you explain that a little bit more? He came close to losing his job from internal or external pressures, are you saying?
Well, it’s not quite external, in the sense that it’s to do with those who appoint the Vice-Chancellor, that Noel Annan was brought in as a trouble-shooter in 1973 when we’d reached a point where it looked as if the only way in which the student problems of that time, and ordinary university administration [could] continue, was by Albert going, either by a forced resignation, or by being sacked. And Noel Annan was appointed, I can’t, I ought to remember the circumstances of who appointed him, but probably the University Grants Committee, or Committee of Vice-Chancellors, invited him to do a report, and to have consultations as to how the problem could be resolved. And I think Noel, in a fairly urbane but shrewd way, managed to pour oil on troubled waters.
The sociologists, almost to a person, were upset and vehement about the rights of that situation, and wanted to see more democracy in the operation of the University, which, I have to say, was still a bit more democratic than some other universities in the way it was managed, but had increasingly been run in an autocratic way in alliance with the police. What happened was that in the 1973/4 situation, students found that they could easily block the spine road under the University from delivery of important chemical products and machinery, and a relatively small number could do that, and the police were eventually called in to remove them, and although there were only a dozen students blocking the road on the first occasion, and they were easily removed by the police, as soon as they were removed, the word got round, and because the towers were so handy, and that’s where the students were sleeping and staying, that within minutes, 250 had taken their place! And then the police started removing some of the 250, and I believe, I think I’m correct in saying they got up to about a hundred and removed them, taking them to the police station, etc.. And, of course, the word spread round, and by then there was a thousand students blocking the way, and the police were trying to size up this situation, in considerable numbers, there were two or three hundred of them, at least, there, between them on the basis of the spine road and further up the road, where students were thronging in their numbers, and I remember going down to – well, the word used is “intervene”: I suppose I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but I was eager to try and I could see this was escalating, it was going to lead to violence, I could see that. It was plain as a pikestaff! And I was just eager to try and find who was responsible, on the police side, for this operation, to try and argue that there should be a stand-off to start with, and that the Vice-Chancellor ought to be consulted, because he’d obviously called in the police. And I went with the Deputy Chief Constable to see the Vice-Chancellor, who I found really incapable of offering a rational view. He just seemed kind of stunned by the whole thing, and kind of couldn’t give any reasons or discuss the matter, he kept saying, “No, no, no”, as it were, to ideas that the action should be called off. And then the police, instead of continuing with their instructions, the police decided that I and others – by then, of course, they’d talked to a few others too – when they found that quite, well, a substantial minority among the staff, as well as the students, were taking the view that this was wholly unnecessary to have called in the police, etc., they began to have doubts about the wisdom of acting on the Vice-Chancellor’s say so. And they first moved away, and allowed considerable time to elapse, and then moved off campus.
There was another occasion which is worth mentioning too, when, again, the police had been sought by the Vice-Chancellor. There was a meeting of Senate, and to avoid students clambering against the windows of Senate, they moved the meeting of Senate into an inside room. But it so happened, the corridor of access to the inside room was only about three feet wide, so six students could block it, and block all the members of Senate coming and going, which they proceeded to do for an entire night! And it became very amusing, because all of us were locked up in Senate, and there was the Vice-Chancellor trying to get through on the phone to the police, and the police didn’t want to know at this stage. They thought, “Well, the Vice-Chancellor had got his own problem to sort out, and leave him to it”, and they were dead right. And this dragged on till, well, the middle of the night. I remember that half a dozen of us among the members of Senate were listening to Stuart Woolf, the Professor of History, and one of the philosophers. We were listening, we were having a terrific discussion about philosophy, for a couple of hours, while the Vice-Chancellor and the Deputy, and the Registrar were pacing the room, and making phone calls and God knows what, and getting angrier and angrier, as some of them did. It was a very strange occasion!
I’ve only mentioned this to illustrate the fact that it was almost impossible to reconcile the libertarian collective, democratic principles that were being developed at the University at that time, with the elitist establishment view about university rule and administration that existed at the time. But between 1968 and 1973, it’s worth saying that the most awful year was 1969/70, can’t remember which one it was, I think it was ’70, in fact. 1968 was exhilarating because of the protests and the potentialities of the situation. When nothing happened, and everyone was frustrated and almost defeated in the following year, there was a mood of anarchy that set in, and the anarchy led to all kinds of graffiti in the University, and more than graffiti, burning of one or two vehicles that were driven on to the squares, and the anarchy was something which was disastrous, and entered students’ attitudes and polarised staff attitudes in terms of what should be done. And, indeed, it nurtured, I have to say, some attitudes among students which were not far removed from some of the terrorist tactics which were being adopted in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and certainly there were connections between a few of the extremists and some events going on outside the country and, indeed, in relation to drug addiction, I have to say, too, that I have to admit that there were instances where people, in terms of their anarchy and the way they wanted to live differently from, work differently from what they regarded as the Establishment, was to not merely join in the kind of libertarian, free love, drug addiction mood that was being established at the time, but had really taken it to extremes. So whether Essex students were in the van in leading that kind of development, how far they were influenced by it, is a very moot question.
One final illustration of my own role, because that’s what we’re talking about, and I keep being conscious that my role was minimal at times, was in 1973/4. It’s worth adding this small point. I was well-known for playing, well, I hoped it wasn’t an explosive role, I hope it was a correcting role in some ways, in terms of trying to bring – I knew it was unlikely, but trying to bring the two sides together – the protesting students and staff, who have to be included, and the Vice-Chancellor with his sort of shadowy and unseen mentors behind him in the rest of the country, including the media, and trying to find some modus vivendi. And I, therefore, in meetings at Senate and at the Assembly, did play a public role in getting up and trying to suggest modified strategies to lead to some acceptance. And as a result of that, for the first time, I think, in the entire history of the University, a candidate other than the Vice-Chancellor’s nominee was suggested for Pro-Vice Chancellor, namely myself. I don’t know the exact vote, to this day, among staff, but I do know that it was virtually unanimous, that Christopher Bliss, an economist, was the candidate of the Vice-Chancellor, but I was voted for, and this certainly upset Albert Sloman very much. I know that because he treated me in a very condescending way, and spoke to me in front of the other Pro-Vice Chancellors as if I was a kind of upstart who had to be taught the elementary lessons of how to behave as a Pro-Vice Chancellor, and what times I was expected to keep, and what meetings to attend and so on, as if I had no knowledge of university administration whatsoever.
And he also sustained this, I know, by talking with others, as if I did no teaching or research, and was always outside the University, dealing with the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disability Alliance, and the Labour Party, and Fabian society and so on. And Ian Proudman conveyed this to me, the former Professor of Mathematics, told me this once, frankly, told me all about it. And this opened my eyes, because I am, in a sense, an innocent and take people at face value, and hadn’t appreciated the extent to which Sloman had attempted to undermine me because he had to follow an establishment position about the behaviour of a Vice-Chancellor in these circumstances. And, you know, he was objecting to a threat to the very policy for which he would be most accountable. And I understand that now. I probably didn’t understand it well enough at the time, and was very hurt by these remarks about not doing some research and teaching, which don’t stand up [to the] knowledge of [my] activities at the time! The fact of the matter was that I was doing these [outside] things in [my] spare time. I mean, during this period, the Sociology Department, for instance, had weekly administrative meetings on Monday mornings, which was stupid, I now think! But that was at the behest of some other people who argued that events were so serious and important, that a week couldn’t go by without our needing to get together to talk through developments, and that applied as much to teaching and the growth of the Department as it did to the events of 1968 and the aftermath.
Would you say that earlier on you’d been quite close to Albert, or not?
Yes, I suppose yes is the honest answer. I thought I got on with him quite well, as my illustration of his dependence on my views about his Reith Lectures conveys. That illustration conveys that. And I thought, you know, he was my generation, after all, and he certainly had a deserved reputation as being a man who’d served his country famously in the War as a pilot. And I had then no particular reason to not get on with him, and indeed, I suppose the first thing that made me doubtful about him was that he seemed to just bask in the glory of having his own Vice-Chancellor’s house built, as almost the priority of building at the University. And I was very puzzled by that. And then very critical, because it did eat up resources in a way which I thought was, and still think, was wholly unnecessary. But really, a man in that position, with that salary, could afford a mortgage to buy a house outside Colchester, and probably be a damned sight better. Yes, there might have to be some kind of reception area for visitors in the University, but that’s another matter.
So would you say that his personality was one of the crucial factors in that whole ’68-’73 situation?
Oh, I think things like that would have happened anyway. You see, it has to be said that, generally speaking, people of that age, I mean, you have to look back at the context, the social context within which this operated, the whole cultural transformation of, well, the Beatles phenomenon, plus the young people’s search for liberty at the time, these things go together. After all, we had too a very progressive development in abortion and homosexuality, this was going on nationally. That struck a chord with the mood of the times, which was for expansive release and individual liberty par excellence. And this mood existed, this almost Evangelical mood among young people existed, and would have existed at Essex in whatever circumstances. Things might not have happened in the same way that they did. And I have to say that, of course, a lot of the more radical people, the more adventurous people, were coming to Essex, than would have been the case at, say, Bristol or Nottingham or Manchester or London. You know, they were tempted by newness, the excitement, rather like people are tempted by New Labour today! (LAUGHS) A good comment! And may not be entirely happy with what they find when they get there! (LAUGHS) There was this radical spirit. These were people who, by and large, were not conformists. They were nonconformists, generally speaking, and obviously that enlarged, together with the fact of the larger number of mature students who were coming in, and greater number of women who were free from some of the traditional repressive instincts of males (LAUGHS), you know, there were a number of factors which made it much more likely that there was going to be support for revolutionary attitudes and developments at Essex.
Well then you were at Essex till the early 1980s. Which year was it you left?
I actually started work at the University of Bristol in January 1982.
Is there anything important in that period, do you think, from ’73 to ’82 that you ought to highlight, in, as it were, the third phase at Essex? We’ve had the initial phase, the crisis, and then, I think it’s fair to say, to a considerable extent, through your own mediation, that the University did find a path forward. Can you say something about those years?
There’s a lot to be said, but let me just pick out two or three things quickly. One occurred to me as you asked. I was appointed as Pro-Vice Chancellor for the years from ’75 to ’78 – was it? or ’76 to ´78 – three years, anyway. And I value that experience because it was, in a sense, consolidation for me in respects other than the Department of Sociology. I had a function outside the Department. And I’m proud of holding rents down. I had a long induction to the problems of student rents and housing, and I think I contributed to some of the work that went on to both diversify accommodation and opportunities for accommodation, maintain lower rents for people who did have difficulties in affording them. But secondly, and probably more importantly, establishing the Day Nursery. I don’t think that would have happened without me hammering away at it. And I don’t think also would have happened the special unit of accommodation for very disabled people, which we erected. Potentially, Essex had – and this, I’m sure, I had something to do with from the beginning: I remember raising this at the first tiny meeting of Senate we had in the University in 1964, everywhere had to be accessible to wheelchairs, and it’s probably, even today, one of the rare places where people with disabilities can get around, and because of the juxtaposition of accommodation and teaching buildings, there are fewer difficulties to get around. The difficulties at Bristol, the antipathetic attitude of the Vice-Chancellor and others to disabled students, despite some of the changes at Bristol recently, in accepting a course for deaf students, etc., the difference between Bristol and Essex in relation to disability, is huge. And part of the success, I think, was by demonstrating that the most severely disabled students could still attend a university, meant that those with lesser disabilities were more acceptable too.
And so I steered those three things – housing and rents [the day nursery, and disability] – and that went along with relations with students generally. I mean, I think that that enabled me to have much more successful rapport with students than might otherwise have been the case for other people. The Day Nursery, which was extraordinarily important, especially when you think about mature students, and getting good post-graduates and young research staff, all of that was extraordinarily important. And the disability contribution. There are other things, but those are the things I took greatest pride in. And each case had to be fought long and hard, and I can remember the bitter debates at Council, not only in Senate. They weren’t so bitter in Senate, they were much more bitter in Council about student rents. I mean, it was only by just digging my toes in that the student rents one was won at Council.
And I learned a lot about University politics that way, and University administration, because the truth, the fact of the matter is, I was pitch-forked into a Head of Department role before I’d really had very much dealing with major University administration. You have to remember that when I taught at LSE it was only for a few years, and I was, even then, expected to perform a research role, and I did a role within a Department rather than a role in University administration, and didn’t really get involved in a great deal of that until I went to Essex. So the years from ’73 to ’81, are partly years to do with the service as a Pro-Vice Chancellor, but then subsequently in trying to, I suppose, enlarge our enabling role for mature students, and M.Sc. and M.A. programmes. But that came at a period when there was a kind of dampening down of resources for the University, so it wasn’t quite the same … … there was enormous expansion right up to ’73/4, let’s say, from ’73/4 onwards through the seventies, there was a kind of lull, and the University wasn’t doing quite so well, and the renewal of vigorous new ideas came much later on. Well, as far as I’m informed, towards the end of the eighties, rather than in the early eighties, when I left.
And now we’re going to talk about Bristol. First of all, why did you go?
Why did I go? (LAUGHS) I didn’t want to leave Essex. I left purely because I fell in love, to be absolutely honest. In 1980 I met my present wife, Jean, and it just took off like a rocket, and I have no hesitation in saying that. Our relationship – I had not experienced anything like that in my life. And at first I had the awkward fact of commuting between Taunton and Colchester, and I hope I did this as responsibly as I could, but the truth is I probably didn’t get to Colchester and the University as early in the mornings as I might have done, it was a five and a half hour journey.