From imperialism to managerialism, Michael Peters

Victoria University of Wellington, 1899-1999: A History
Rachel Barrowman
Victoria University Press, $69.95,
ISBN 0 86473 369 0

The press release billed Rachel Barrowman’s book “not a conventional institutional history” – a fact for which readers have much to be thankful, given the tedium and self-congratulatory spirit that usually characterises this circumspect genre. One imagines a Lodgean institutional counter-history: an irreverent narrative full of gossip and hearsay, brimming over with opinions of all sorts; ideological conflicts and power-plays; psychopathic personalities and standing departmental hatreds; closet events and staff affairs – that together reflect the unrecorded yet subterranean reality of most universities.

What could be the organising principle for such a work apart from relentless chronology? University policies, building plans, scholarly achievements, and “progress” event-by-event, reported year-after-year? It’s a difficult task, yet Barrowman’s history, written under the influence of J C Beaglehole’s “Essay towards a history” (as she mentions in the Preface), concentrates on the last fifty years and while “centennial in scope”, the work, like Beaglehole’s, is intended to be different. This commissioned history from Victoria by one of its own ablest younger historians is more or less thematic, as Barrowman herself explains:

The first four chapters recount Victoria’s foundation and its story until 1949. From there a thematic approach is taken up to the late 1980s. Chapters deal in turn with administration and general themes of growth and change, buildings and site, the academic departments – in no significant order: science, commerce, law, social sciences and the arts, and various bits in between – and the students.

The departure from the standard chronicle and its implicit historical methodology deserves some larger comment and defence, in my opinion. Certainly, something more than Barrowman offers.

The disciplinary histories (the restructured super-faculties?) end up being conventional histories of established chairs, of departments, of professors mainly and their policies and innovations (students are largely forgotten). Given the time period at stake and the demands of the commission (not only the 100-years history but also the contribution to the intellectual life of the nation), it is not surprising that these chapters are a little “thin” and become somewhat formulaic.

After “three decades of debate and two bills” and the best efforts of Robert Stout (who later served as Vice-Chancellor for two separate terms), Victoria was established – in honour of the monarch’s 60th jubilee year – under an Act passed on 22 December, 1897, with the four founding professors of Rankin Brown (classics), Hugh Mackenzie (English language and literature), Thomas Easterfield (chemistry), and Richard Maclaurin (mathematics). Ninety-five years later when Hugo Manson (a Council member) suggested that the name “Victoria” should be dropped “because it signified an age of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, paternalism and élitism”, to his surprise he received no support from Council or Board members.

We are shown through the theme of “town and gown” how “Vic” developed a certain academic regional specialisation, at least in terms of its daily access to and relationship with Government and the national institutions located in Wellington as the capital city: this has expressed itself in the eminence of policy studies, the arts and cultural pursuits. I’m thinking not only of the instrumental importance of Gary Hawke’s Policy Studies Institute and his report, in an era of neo-liberal restructuring (my words), and the early prominence of the School of Political Science and Public Administration and the History department under Professors J C Beaglehole and Peter Munz, but also of Don McKenzie’s role in the foundation of Downstage, the status of Victoria University Press and its successes, Bill Manhire’s writing courses, the recent art gallery, and the notorious selling off of McCahon – to name only a few achievements and controversies, all mentioned by Barrowman, among many others. This theme also throws up the difficulties of site development, of the design of named buildings, and the latest round of options, including multi-campuses, strategic mergers and relationships, the purchase of city buildings, all designed to enhance existing assets and overcome physical limitations of space.

There are also plenty of colourful events: the shameful von Zedlitz affair; “procesh”; the official denial of a prayer at the opening of the university marae; and my personal favourite – “the swine flu warning of 1976”, a capping stunt which notified local residents in Kelburn that they should take a urine sample to the nearest post office (a number of residents complied!).

Barrowman’s centennial history, launched in late September last year, concludes with the retirement of one vice-chancellor – Les Holborow – and the hiring (through an executive recruitment agency) of another – Michael Irving – and yet, because of the commissioned timespan, Barrowman is unable to report fully on his stewardship or the problems that accompanied his management style and the furore over his early retirement. This is a great pity but rarely do events contain themselves neatly into decades or multiples thereof. Yet the illuminated superscript of Victoria’s recent management is a history – like that of other New Zealand universities – of almost continual restructuring, of declining state funding and provision of tertiary education, of the introduction of users-pay and student loans, and of staff dissatisfaction, protest and individual acts of resistance against the new managerialism.

Victoria’s recent legacy of managerialism reads like a history of errors from The Strategic Planner’s Handbook – of failed goals, quick ideological solutions, less than ideal staff-management relations, and attempts at expansion and competition, rather than consolidation, in an age of state withdrawal and rising compliance costs. Barrowman documents the poor performance on achieving strategic plan objectives in “internationalisation” and the modest gains in equity targets. She also discusses, with more than a slight sense of irony, the plans for more responsive management through devolution, McKinnon Walker’s plans for “Refocusing Victoria”, and the appointment of an official “change manager” to oversee the new organisation based on devolution to managers of super-faculties. Under a new Vice-Chancellor and the more sympathetic administration of Helen Clark’s Labour-led coalition, it is sincerely to be hoped that “Vic” can overcome past management failures and the problems it faces.

Barrowman’s history is innovative and interesting, although it is a little hesitant in places (betrayed by the use of too many “perhaps”) and sometimes the relationship between text and photo breaks down (as it does on p378). But it is beautifully produced by Victoria University Press and well designed. I was taken particularly by the historically complementary inside covers, the design of the dust jacket, and the many photos. I think it is a history of Victoria University that its staff and students will read and use, and that will also appeal to the general reader. I have fond memories of “Vic”, where I was a student in the late 1960s: Barrowman’s history largely satisfied both my professional and personal interests.

Michael Peters teaches in the School of Education at the University of Auckland. His recent book, University Futures and the Politics of Reform in New Zealand, which he co-wrote with
Peter Roberts, is reviewed on p9.

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Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Review
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