As universities across the United Kingdom scramble to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to sack unwanted lecturers and professors, it becomes increasingly urgent to remember the history of labor organizing in higher education. What has and hasn’t worked in the past?
The University and College Union is currently fighting job cuts and the closure of courses, departments and even entire campuses at 16 universities across the country, including the universities of Chester, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Portsmouth and Sheffield. Teaching has finished for the year in most places, so the strikes, boycotts and protests are relying primarily on the assumption that it is possible to shame university managers into upholding long-cherished norms about the intrinsic value of education. In several cases, the cuts are a response to the UK government’s decision to reduce funding to the Performing and Creative Arts, Media Studies and Archaeology by half. The wave of redundancies is seen as evidence that many university leaders value profit and political expediency more than research and education.
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Whether a strategy of petitions and public shaming will work remains to be seen, but the way that universities responded to political and economic pressure during the crisis of postwar reconstruction does not bode well for the unions. In 1920s Austria, university leaders proved willing to sacrifice academic standards and the jobs and physical safety of their staff in order to placate violent bullies on the radical right.
Austria in the 1920s
Austrian universities struggled to stay open during World War I, welcoming women and refugees as students and offering “war degrees” for soldiers who could take crash courses and simplified exams while on leave from the front. Once the war was over, students flooded back to campuses, many of them veterans who had been forced to postpone their studies during the war. Whereas before the war students had come from across the Habsburg Empire, now that the empire had collapsed, university admissions officers privileged students who were citizens of the new Austrian Republic.
A reforming, left-wing government in Vienna tried to reorganize the education system and bring institutions of higher education under the control of the Ministry of Education. Outside of Vienna, in particular, many university leaders resisted centralizing efforts in the hope that the republic would collapse and be absorbed into a greater German nation-state. As old power structures crumbled and new, ethnically-based democracies were established across the region, right-wing students attempted to take advantage of the upheaval to impose their agendas on universities.
Antisemitic riots and violence against Jewish students plagued universities in at least 11 European countries during the early 1920s, as students demanded that Jews be banned from attending universities and that Jewish or left-wing professors be expelled. Students targeted individual professors, including celebrated scientists such as Albert Einstein and Julius Tandler, disturbing their lectures and vandalizing laboratories. Despite condemning the violence, in the vast majority of cases, university leaders made concessions to the students by preventing Jews from sitting their exams and, in some cases, even introducing strict quotas on the number of Jews allowed to enroll.
The case of Professor Alfons Leon at the Technical University in Graz is particularly instructive. An acclaimed researcher in technical mechanics with a host of accolades to his name, Leon was dean of the School of Civil Engineering for three years. His state-of-the-art laboratory was the envy of his colleagues.
But, in 1922, he insisted that students who were war veterans sit rigorous exams when some of the other professors had been willing to let them pass without having studied the material. Leon was a known socialist and the disgruntled students began sending him threats and complaining about him to the university. The students were members of the same right-wing fraternities that were responsible for the antisemitic riots. That November, they challenged one of Leon’s teaching assistants to a duel. As the duel was clearly directed at Leon himself, he refused to allow his assistant to fight, which the students took as an insult to the honor system that fraternity life was based on.
Rather than support their professor, the university leadership launched an inquiry into Leon’s alleged misconduct and forced him to take a leave of absence. The investigation lasted 10 years, with Leon making skillful use of the university’s established rules and procedures to keep his job and insist that he had done nothing wrong.
In the process, it became apparent that several of his senior colleagues supported the students because they were alumni of the same fraternities that were persecuting Leon. Professor Fritz Postuvanschitz, in particular, led the attack on Leon because he had refused to fabricate evidence that would have helped Postuvanschitz’s son escape being convicted of fraud. Other senior figures in the university sided with the students because they sympathized with their right-wing politics and disliked Leon as a graduate of Viennese universities they saw as their rivals. Eventually, Leon was forced into early retirement, but only after the collapse of democracy in Austria and the rise of an Austrofascist government.
Lessons for Today
Leon’s story teaches several lessons that are still relevant today. First, it reminds us that universities are eminently political places, where personal ambitions, petty jealousies and party politics frequently matter more than credentials or upholding academic standards. Second, it reveals how easily university managers are manipulated by student violence, especially when those students are supported by influential voices in the community. Third, it shows that it is indeed possible to resist managerial bullying by appealing to labor laws and following established procedures, even though doing so might be exhausting, detrimental to one’s health and, ultimately, futile. But fourth, and most importantly, it shows that even when one occupies the high moral ground, it is often impossible to shame university administrators when they cherish political power and entrenched interests over what they claim to be the values of their institutions.
For those lecturers fighting for their jobs today, Leon offers hope that resistance is possible, but also a warning that exposing management’s cupidity and disrespect for academic values might not be enough.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.