A tenure battle

Chapter 1 of Suppression Stories by Brian Martin (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 1997), pages 3-16.

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In 1976 I moved to Canberra to take up a job at the Australian National University. One of the people I met there was Jeremy Evans. Little did I imagine that I would be helping to campaign for his tenure only a few years later. This campaign was my first real introduction to suppression issues.

After completing my PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Sydney and spending a year mostly unemployed, I was lucky to obtain a job as a research assistant in the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. I had developed a strong interest in environmental issues and also in social alternatives, so on arriving in Canberra I immediately began asking around to find interesting people to meet.

The ANU, though a relatively new university at the time, was dominated by orthodox perspectives. There were only a few pockets of exciting innovation. One of them was the Human Sciences Program. It was not long before I became a regular visitor to the members of the Program.

The Human Sciences Program was an undergraduate teaching programme. It might simplistically be called environmental studies, but there was a strong emphasis on the human side of the picture, both the dynamics of society and the dynamics of the psyche. Students in the Program took one or both of a sequence of two full-year courses, both taught by the small staff: a second-year course called Human Ecology and a third-year course called Human Adaptability. Students took Human Sciences as a small component of an otherwise orthodox science or arts degree with a major in a conventional discipline.

The Human Sciences staff was indeed small. There was Jeremy Evans, senior lecturer and head of the Program; Ian Hughes, lecturer; Val Brown, tutor; and Rosemary Brissenden, tutor. This tiny unit was able, though, to upset a lot of powerful people on campus.

The Program dealt with current social issues, such as environmental degradation and ways to respond to it, including social and personal change. This may not sound like anything special from the perspective of the 1990s, when environmental issues are everyday stories and even conservative politicians voice their concerns. But in the 1970s, the environment was still a relatively new and radical issue.

However, what made the Human Sciences Program really stand out from the crowd was its commitment to interdisciplinary study. It attempted to bring together approaches from a range of fields, including sciences such as zoology and geography and social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and psychology. Whether you call this interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity or something else doesn't really matter. The Human Sciences Program was a threat to some traditional academics not so much for what it taught but because of what it was in organisational terms.

To understand why the Program came under attack, I need to discuss how universities are organised. The ANU was set up like most universities, as a series of departments such as philosophy, physics and psychology. The model department could call itself a discipline or at least part of a discipline. Members of a discipline make the intellectual claim of being the only ones with the specialised knowledge to make judgements about scholarship in the field. If disciplinary barriers are high, universities become fragmented, with each department/discipline zealously guarding its boundaries, keeping out interlopers and maintaining the purity of the canon.

There are actually numerous exceptions to the discipline model of universities, such as law and medicine. These are areas of application and necessarily draw on a number of disciplines. But because they are allied to powerful professions, their organisational and intellectual status is seldom questioned.

However, when there is no powerful outside group to support a field, it has a more difficult time. Women's studies and peace studies are two good examples. Human Sciences had the same problem. The main outside group to which it might appeal was the environmental movement. Given the reputation of environmentalism in the 1970s as a radical fringe, this was hardly the basis for gaining intellectual respect in a hide-bound university.

My discussions with staff in Human Sciences helped me gain an understanding of why they encountered hostility from some powerful members of the ANU. Val Brown and I had many stimulating conversations. I had my own radical and largely untested ideas about education. For her PhD, Val was doing something more practical, namely studying the Human Sciences Program itself as a form of interdisciplinary education.

In retrospect, it is amazing that the Program was set up at all. The key driving force behind it was Stephen Boyden, a researcher working in the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU. I knew Stephen because he had moved to the new Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies to head up the Human Ecology group. His efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with support from many others, led to establishment of the Human Sciences Program. But there was serious opposition from some figures in traditional departments, or so I was told. There wasn't much written evidence, since the hostility came out in committees and discussions in the years it took to establish the Program. Finances were tight in the university. The Program was a juicy morsel. It attracted many students who might otherwise study in some traditional department.


Jeremy's tenure is denied

In 1979 Jeremy Evans, senior lecturer in the Human Sciences Program, came up for tenure. At that stage all of the academic staff in the Program were untenured. The reappointments committee recommended against Jeremy's tenure. As word of the decision spread, students and friends of the Program were shocked and outraged. It was not just a personal setback for Jeremy; it was an attack on the Program.

In Australian universities at that time, just about everyone who held a potentially tenurable post and applied for tenure was successful. The more difficult part was getting a tenurable post. Jeremy had been appointed to a tenurable senior lectureship. After the usual three years of probation, he put in an application for tenure.

If he had published nothing at all and been a terrible teacher and been an unpleasant colleague, then it was just possible that tenure would have been denied. But Jeremy had a modest though not meagre publication record, got on reasonably well with his colleagues, and was highly acclaimed as a teacher. The teaching was the key in this case, since Human Sciences was a new teaching operation and involved a very heavy load of both educational innovation and face-to-face teaching.

Jeremy and others believe that an important factor in the decision to deny him tenure was his introduction of "experiential" sessions in his course Human Adaptability in 1976, including the occasional guest lecturer who advocated revelation as a means for seeking the truth. Several members of the Program's supervisory committee, including Frank Fenner and Stephen Boyden, advised against this, but Jeremy went ahead in the face of their disapproval. His "disobedience" in this regard was never mentioned in any official context but in Jeremy's view it aroused considerable fury among committee members and almost certainly triggered the decision to deny tenure.

In official terms, denying Jeremy's tenure was not a threat to the Program. He would lose his job, to be sure, but it could then be advertised and offered to someone else. In practical terms, though, students and supporters of the Program came to see the tenure denial as a direct attack. Jeremy was one of the founders of the Program: to deny him tenure was to deny his contribution. In addition, denying Jeremy tenure was in effect to say that his research and teaching in an interdisciplinary area were not sufficiently "scholarly" to merit inclusion in the ANU. This was in effect a comment on everything the Program was attempting to do.

Jeremy Evans was born in 1937 in Hobart. He attended the University of Sydney - one of Australia's most prestigious universities - where he obtained first class honours in zoology. He went on to get a PhD in biology from Harvard University. He joined the Zoology Department at the University of Melbourne as a lecturer. Then, in 1969, he voluntarily took a step down in rank and pay to work as a research assistant with Stephen Boyden in the Urban Biology Group in the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU. When the Human Sciences Program got under way in 1973, he became a lecturing fellow, and then in 1976 a senior lecturer and head of the Program.

Jeremy thus broke out of his traditional disciplinary background and championed interdisciplinary studies - environmental studies, very broadly interpreted - when universities were only just coming to terms with these issues. Jeremy was primarily oriented to the intellectual endeavour of interdisciplinary exploration. Although he actively supported a number of community initiatives such as foundation of a local Society for Social Responsibility in Science, Jeremy was not prominent as a social activist or public commentator. Thus, he was not denied tenure because of his radical politics or activism.

It's taken me quite a bit of explanation here to tell why people were upset about the denial of Jeremy's tenure. The tenure decision was justified by the committee on traditional grounds of lack of sufficient academic merit. To oppose this assessment meant having a critical understanding of the dynamics of the university. As in most cases, the issues were complex. Indeed, what I've described here gives only a hint of the complexities of the case. I haven't gone into personalities, power plays or the wider dynamics of environmental politics.


The campaign

Following the reappointment committee's rejection of tenure for Jeremy, there was a big campaign to push for his tenure and to defend the Human Sciences Program. The campaign was very effective. Here I tell about some aspects of the campaign without pretending to give a full history.

The first and essential requirement for this campaign was that Jeremy be willing to fight the decision. He was. It sounds easy to say, "I'll fight it," but actually it's not all that common. The first response most people have when they come under attack in this way is to blame themselves and to hide their shame.

Tenure committees meet at universities regularly and deal with case after case. Usually there is no controversy. In the Australian system, if someone is likely to be denied tenure, often they will be told quietly before they apply, so that they can seek another job and not be embarrassed by rejection. When there is a formal rejection of tenure, it is presented as entirely a question of academic merit. Challenging these decisions is not easy. When a panel of experienced academics pronounces that someone is not worthy of tenure, it is difficult indeed for the rejected applicant to turn around and contest the decision.

One reason Jeremy was willing to fight was because there had been continual discussions in the Program about the forces for and against it. Jeremy and his supporters had a framework for explaining the rejection in terms of the politics of the university. In this framework, academic "merit" was not an objective criterion. Rather, it was influenced, indeed constructed by the reappointments committee and, in this case, used to devalue the sort of teaching and research being undertaken in Human Sciences.

University regulations allowed Jeremy to request his tenure rejection to be reassessed by a review committee. So he prepared a comprehensive application to the committee. The review committee reaffirmed the rejection of tenure. Jeremy persisted by going to an appeal committee, which could look only at procedural anomalies in the review committee's deliberations. Jeremy prepared an even more impressive submission. It included a critique of the review committee's procedures, an account of the special difficulties of programmes such as Human Sciences, an account of the performance of his administrative duties, his teaching and research, and a series of appendices, including letters of support from students and academics.

One of the grounds Jeremy used for appeal was that the chair of the review committee, Ted Chapman from the Geography Department, added his signature to a letter to the Vice-Chancellor from members of the Geography Department suggesting that the Human Sciences Program be amalgamated with Geography. Chapman was also alleged to have said in conversation with undergraduate students that this amalgamation would lead to termination of all but one of the positions in Human Sciences and termination of the course Human Adaptability, taught by Jeremy. If evidence was needed of a link between Jeremy's tenure and the survival of Human Sciences, this was it.

Pursuing justice through formal university channels is a risky business at the best of times. Why would a panel of academics overturn a decision made by their esteemed colleagues? This is where the campaign came in. It was an attempt to demonstrate the value of Human Sciences and to challenge attacks on it through denial of tenure. Public campaigns are uncommon in cases like this.

Some time after the campaign got under way, Jeremy was contacted by John Hookey, who had previously worked at the ANU, in the Law Faculty. In the early 1970s, Hookey had quickly made his mark. He introduced the first course in environmental and resource law at any Australian university. He developed a high profile in supporting land rights for native peoples, including writing a critique of a prominent judge's decision in relation to Aboriginal land rights and appearing in the High Court as junior counsel in a Papuan land rights case. He thought that everything was going fine.

Then one day Hookey found a note on his desk from the dean of the Law Faculty, telling him that he was unlikely to be recommended for tenure. He was stunned. He quickly took steps to challenge this decision, using internal university procedures. The bitter struggle over his case divided the Law Faculty. Before the issue was formally resolved, he was offered and accepted a high-paying and prestigious job as an environmental hearings commissioner in the Australian public service.

There were a number of similarities between Hookey and Evans. Each of them had undertaken innovative teaching in the environmental area. Each of them had a respectable research and teaching record. And each of them was threatened with denial of tenure. Their cases differed in the public visibility and duration of their struggles against denial of tenure. Hookey and his supporters did not seek media coverage or support from students. Also, the matter was defused when he took another job. By contrast, the campaign for Jeremy's tenure became a public issue.

I use the word "campaign" but don't get the wrong impression. There was no secretariat running a well-funded and well-organised operation. There were meetings of concerned individuals and some degree of organisation among three separate groups: the members of Human Sciences, academic supporters, and student supporters (including former students).

The first and most vital part of the operation was getting accurate information out to key people. Packets of documents were given to quite a number of people. I did my bit by sending information about Jeremy's case to various people. Some supporters took action by quiet lobbying, either talking to others or writing letters to university officials. Others made the issue public, especially by writing letters to the Canberra Times, the only daily newspaper in the city and fortunately one recognised at the time for its high quality. The first publication occurred on 5 August 1979. A letter to the editor from R. M. Aitken was published, expressing concern about the possible termination of the Human Sciences Program due to budget cuts. Also in the same issue was a prominent article entitled "'ANU irrelevant' if innovative courses cut." In the opening paragraph, it quoted Fred Emery, a high-profile ANU academic from the Centre for Continuing Education, saying that "The ANU would become irrelevant to the requirements of society if it continued its 'gut reaction' to expenditure by axing innovative courses." Two ANU administrators replied in the Canberra Times a few days later, and this led to further letters and comment in the newspaper.

A few letters to the newspaper may not sound like much, but it is a major operation. Most academics are reluctant to become involved in public controversy. Even more than this, they are reluctant to openly question their own university administration, out of both loyalty and self-protection. Students and outsiders have less to lose by joining the debate, but they are also likely to feel insecure when it comes to challenging academic "experts." For anyone at all to speak out or write a letter to the Canberra Times was quite something. Jeremy's organised supporters cultivated every possible letter writer.

Even a few letters to the newspaper can have a considerable impact on a university administration. Like most bureaucracies, university administrations loathe bad publicity. They were caught in a dilemma. Should they ignore the complaints and leave them unanswered, or respond and prolong the debate?

I became heavily involved in another initiative, a petition. A group of us got together and drafted a mild statement, something that would not be all that difficult for academics to sign. Here is the statement:

We the undersigned urge the Australian National University to reconsider the issue of Dr Jeremy Evans' tenured appointment, taking into account the special requirements of problem oriented teaching and research and the uncertainties surrounding the future of the Human Sciences Program.

We had spaces for people to print their names, list their positions and institutions, and sign. Richard Barz of South Asian and Buddhist Studies agreed to be the return point for petitions.

Most people on campus didn't know much about the issues behind Jeremy's tenure. Therefore, we produced a background statement with the "facts" about the case. Drafting this document was a challenge. We had to be absolutely accurate, since even the slightest mistake could be used to discredit the case being made. The document had to be clear and persuasive for academics who knew nothing about Human Sciences or Jeremy.

In order to give the document added credibility, we sought a list of signatories who would show the breadth of support for Jeremy's case. Various names were canvassed and various people were approached. Each person listed had to agree to the final text. I spent a lot of time making minor revisions and then checking these with all the signatories. We decided that it would be better for me not to be one of the signatories, since I had a relatively junior position (and therefore less credibility among academics) and also was known for my radical views, especially through my letters against uranium mining in the Canberra Times.

The background document is reproduced below. It is worth studying because I believe it is a good model for others to follow.


Background to the Issue of Dr Jeremy Evans' Tenure

Dr Jeremy Evans, Senior Lecturer in the Human Sciences Program at the Australian National University, is the first person to be denied tenure under the full review procedures approved by University Council in 1974.

The Human Sciences Program comprises a group of four academics who are responsible for two innovative, problem oriented courses in the School of General Studies, based on the multidisciplinary study of human interactions with the environment. It has also graduated four Honours and two Ph.D. students. The Program has attracted both praise and controversy within the University since its inception in 1973. Its place in the University curriculum has been vindicated in terms of both content and standards by several evaluations1, 2, 3, 4and it enjoys strong student support.3

The ostensible primary reason for denying Dr Evans' tenure is inadequate research output. As a Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Melbourne in 1966-68 Dr Evans published seven research papers. During 1969-72 he worked as a Research Assistant in the Urban Biology Group, John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU, took courses in sociology and psychology and co-edited a book. Since joining the Human Sciences Program in 1973 he has devoted the major part of his time to administration, teaching and course design, as would be expected in establishing and developing new multidisciplinary courses. He has nevertheless since then produced nine publications and written a substantial portion of a book. The result of Dr Evans' unusual devotion to teaching is increasing enrolments of enthusiastic students who, along with many of Dr Evans' colleagues, recognise him as a gifted scholar and teacher.

Even if Dr Evans' research performance falls below the norm for the Faculty of Arts in which the Program is located, which seems most unlikely, the decision to deny him tenure appears questionable in view of the special circumstances surrounding it. Indeed, a U.S. Report5 concludes that problem oriented environmental programmes in universities cannot be expected to succeed if they are subjected to the prevailing form of tenure review. In the light of Dr Evans' experience in Human Sciences and of this Report's conclusions, it seems that the traditional criteria for tenure may be inappropriate to his case.

In addition, the blocking of Dr Evans' tenure has been closely followed by a move by another department to incorporate the Human Sciences Program. This raises questions about the relation of the issue of Dr Evans' tenure to the survival of the Human Sciences Program as a viable operation, since Dr Evans' post is the only tenurable position in the Program.

On the basis of this and other information, we recommend that university staff and others involved in tertiary level teaching and research add their signatures to the attached statement.

1. Ward, R. Gerard, Report on the HSP (2977/1974 3.9.74).

2. Brown, V. A., 1978, Holism and the University Curriculum: Promise or Performance, Vols. 1 & 2, Ph.D. Thesis, ANU.

3. Questionnaire responses in Human Ecology and Human Adaptability, 1976-78.

4. Miller, Allen H. and Ann Porteus, Student Involvement in Learning, in preparation.

5. Steinhart, John S. and Stacie Cherniak, 1969, The universities and environmental quality, A Report to the President's Environmental Quality Council. Washington DC, Office of Science and Technology, Executive Office of the President.

* Dr Richard Barz, Senior Lecturer, South Asian and Buddhist Studies, SGS, ANU

Mrs Rosemary Brissenden, Senior Tutor, Human Sciences Program, SGS, ANU

Dr R.K. Darroch, Lecturer, Psychology, SGS, ANU

Dr Ken Gardiner, Senior Lecturer, Asian Civilizations, SGS, ANU

Dr Ian M. Hughes, Lecturing Fellow, Human Sciences Program, SGS, ANU

* Dr Hugh Saddler, Research Fellow, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, ANU

Mr F.W. Shawcross, Senior Lecturer, Prehistory and Anthropology, SGS, ANU

Dr M.J. Weidemann, Senior Lecturer, Biochemistry, SGS, ANU

* Contact for further information.

Drafting and printing the petition and the background statement was only the first step. Next it was necessary to get people to sign! I knew a few people who were sympathetic to Jeremy. It was easy to get their signatures. I then got up my courage and took the petition around to my colleagues in the Departments of Pure and Applied Mathematics, where I had been working since 1977.

I think there are two main reasons why doing this was hard. First, having been in the Department of Applied Mathematics for a few years, my relationships with other staff had settled into a standard pattern. To ask someone to sign a petition was to go outside the usual expectations. Would I offend them by asking them to consider the petition? This worry sounds almost silly, but it can be a strong inhibiting force against any behaviour out of the ordinary.

Second, most of the academics in mathematics were not very outgoing or friendly. Perhaps that's why they were attracted to mathematics.

In any case, I shouldn't have worried. Nearly every mathematician I approached signed the statement. Only two declined. One of the two was known as an eccentric, so his choice on this could not be predicted. The other said he had no respect for Jeremy.

I started by approaching colleagues I knew well and who were more likely to sign. Then when I approached others, there were already several signatures on the petition. This created a sort of bandwagon effect. After getting a good response with mathematicians, I felt able to approach people I didn't know. I went to the nearby Philosophy Department and obtained quite a few signatures. Then I tackled the Geography Department. Since many geographers had signed a letter to the Vice-Chancellor suggesting that the Human Sciences Program be taken over by Geography, I didn't expect to get many signatures but thought it would be good to confront the people concerned. As it turned out, only the department's three cartographers signed.

With this sort of response, we could have obtained support from nearly every academic on campus. The difficulty was finding people to collect the signatures. A number of others, like me, had success by approaching colleagues. But we didn't have all that many supporters willing to do this. After all, I had been heavily involved in getting the petition going and still had to get up my courage to approach people.

Nevertheless, we obtained over 200 signatures, with about 160 of these from ANU. There were some 1000 academics at the ANU, not to mention other staff such as research assistants. Nevertheless, the number of signatures was impressive. It's generally very difficult to obtain support from academics on anything except their salaries and parking places.

The petition was presented to the Vice-Chancellor in November 1979, and there was some accompanying publicity in the media. But the value of the petition was far greater than its impact on university officials or the public. Over 200 people signed the statement and even more read the background document. The petition solidified the commitment of the key people involved, especially some of those whose names were at the bottom of the background document and those who had collected signatures. Finally, the petition project provided a valuable focus for organising support.

Meanwhile, students supporting Human Sciences organised their own petition. They had less trouble gaining support. The main problem was tracking down former students.

During all this activity, Jeremy took a wholly appropriate role. He realised that it would not be for the best if he were an active partisan in organising activities, since he might be perceived only as serving his own career interests. So he clearly stated at an early meeting that he would not be an active participant in initiatives such as the petition but would be available to offer suggestions. That is precisely what happened. Those of us who prepared the petition sought Jeremy's advice concerning details in the background document, but we organised everything independently of him.

Jeremy's role was possible because there was such a depth of support for both him and Human Sciences. Others do not have this luxury and must play a more direct role in any campaign.

The public side of the campaign for Jeremy's tenure and the defence of Human Sciences was straightforward: lobbying, letters, petitions. Behind this was lots and lots of discussion and networking. The real complexity of the case arose with the university's official procedures at the time, which were slow and tortuous. While the public campaign boiled during 1979, decisions by university committees about tenure and budgets proceeded at the usual snail's pace.

To cut a long story short, the four members of the appeal committee disagreed about Jeremy's case. After long negotiations, Jeremy accepted the administration's offer of a two-year extension of his appointment, after which he would go for tenure in the usual way. This compromise effectively dampened down public activity on the case. Jeremy buckled down to do more research and obtained tenure when the time came. No one in the administration ever admitted publicly that the campaign had made any difference, but of course it was the crucial factor.

The problems facing Human Sciences did not end with Jeremy's tenure. There were further threats to the survival of the Program - indeed, this was almost an annual event. Even more seriously, there were increasing tensions among the staff, a common occurrence in any academic unit and especially in interdisciplinary units that are critical of the status quo. Jeremy eventually moved to the Psychology Department and then to Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, where he continues to teach in the Human Sciences tradition. The rest of the Program was eventually incorporated into the Geography Department, where its survival as a source of critical, innovative approaches to problems of society and the environment remains precarious. Along the way there have been continued budgetary problems, student agitation, attacks on and defences of the Program.

The renamed Human Ecology Program in Geography as well as Jeremy's courses now attract more students than ever. Their greatest protection against cutbacks comes from high enrolments and the willingness of students to vocally support them.



In spite of all the difficulties and eventual division of the Human Sciences Program, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the campaign, which was one of the most effective I've seen.

The foundation for the campaign was a sound social analysis of the situation, in this case of the dynamics of the university and especially the forces both supporting and opposing Human Sciences. This analysis was developed over the years spent in setting up and running Human Sciences. When Jeremy's tenure was denied, lots of people believed they knew what was behind the decision.

Human Sciences had a great number of supporters: students, former students, academics from different parts of the university, and outsiders. They were a crucial resource. The support had been built up over the years through good teaching and outreach.

The campaign was built on a core of people who were willing to take action. This included, most of all, the Human Sciences academics, and also groups of students and other academics.

The campaign was very careful in its claims. Every fact was checked, as in the case of the background document for the staff petition.

The campaign took the case to wider audiences rather than just going through official channels. Letters to the newspaper and the petitions brought the issue to a wider public.

Throughout all of this, there was a clear set of aims and demands: grant Jeremy tenure and ensure the funding and survival of the Human Sciences Program.

The campaign was not perfect, but it was pretty good. It certainly taught me a lot. It also primed me for the investigation of intellectual suppression.