Professor Raewyn Connell: unionist, academic & activist

Subeta Vimalarajah finds out what yesterday’s student activists think of today’s universities

Source: Raewyn Connell's personal archives Source: Raewyn Connell's personal archives

first encountered Raewyn CoScreen Shot 2016-02-29 at 6.29.47 pmnnell at the launch of Yemaya, the Sydney University Law Society gender and sexuality journal, where she was guest speaker in October last year.

A few things struck me about her address: she was reserved and honest in her praise, left many questions unanswered, and made several quips at the expense of the Law School.

Keen to pursue those answers, I ran after her as she left the event, and a few months later, we met for an interview at her distinctive, bright blue inner-city house.

As I walked through her front door, Connell drew my attention to a dilapidated stack of cardboard boxes by the door; her collection of artefacts from her involvement in the student movement.

Amongst the boxes were copies of Free U publications, excerpts from Honi Soit and open letters to the Vice-Chancellor of the day.

We’re chatting only a few days after the University of Sydney announced its approval of changes to its Senate restructure. Over the next few hours we discuss not only those changes, but the related, broader quandary of neo-liberalisation in the tertiary sector.

After a robust career in student activism, Connell went on to revolutionise sociological theory, becoming internationally renowned for her 1995 concept of “hegemonic masculinity”.

Now aged 72, Connell holds the prestigious title of Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney. She has been an advisor to United Nations initiatives on gender equality and peacemaking, and has had sociology awards created in her name.

The Corporate University

Connell is quick to make her views clear. A few minutes into the interview she explains the “growth of managerial prerogative” to me. She defines it as “the power and the assumed right [of management] to make decisions on behalf of the whole institution and to represent themselves as the whole institution”, often at the expense of academic staff.

It is a “decline in industrial democracy” Connell has witnessed since her time as a graduate student at the University.

Our conversation makes me realise that major changes I have witnessed as a student, are also reflected in subtler, more pernicious changes to the way the institution presents itself.

One such example Connell draws my attention to is the way senior management routinely and monolithically calls themselves “the University”, most often in University-wide e-mails. Connell explains that often the decisions claimed to be supported by “the University” only superficially include the voices of staff. She criticises the often lauded process of “consultation”, describing it as ultimately “in the hands of management, not placing the power in the hands of staff.”

Similarly, Connell deconstructs the insidiousness of university advertising, which I had always considered white noise to the student experience. It is the first subject to provoke her bitter laughter, frustrated and indignant, as she decries the millions poured into billboards displayed throughout the University and on its new website.

Labelling it “manipulative communication” focused on “selective representation and misrepresentation for making money”, she identifies the peculiarity of a university website that is impeccably branded but where “if you want to get in touch with a staff member…you can’t find them”.

As we move toward touchier subjects, like the newly approved university restructure, Connell is hesitant. Having not read the discussion paper, she doesn’t want to comment. What I notice is that although Connell speaks definitely and often times very critically, she also speaks precisely; she is unwilling to decry changes and hurl criticism unless fully informed.

Activism

Having discussed the neo-liberal University for over an hour, and depressed by the drastic shift in tertiary education she has painted, our discussion turns to potential solutions.

Although cheerful when she recounts the activist successes of her era, Connell is also cautious not to compare our predicaments.

“I keep veering away from your question of “what to do now” because I don’t know and I’m not in the situation where I could engage in a sensible debate”, she says.

While many activists look fondly on the tactics of the 60s and 70, she hazards, “you also have to recognise the differences”.

Of these, Connell notes during her time as a graduate student, the University was a third of the size it currently is, and the student movement had a unique “cultural flavour” to it. She reminisces there was “a very real sense of breaking boundaries and being able to do things people hadn’t imagined doing”.

Many of the tactics that were entirely innovative in her time – a mass sit-in in Fisher library over library fines, starting one’s own University and occupying Liberal Party headquarters – are now age-old components of the activist repertoire, without the “shock effect” they once provoked.

Uncomfortably, we talk about how the state’s response to protests has also changed. She recalls an anti-war rally when a police car arrived.

“The crowd identified it and laid siege to it. They wouldn’t do that now, they’d come on with the riot squad [as] the police have developed better techniques for controlling, more effective repression.”

It strikes me that Connell had studied and worked through a period of such tremendous change at Sydney University, although she says she could never had predicted our current state of affairs. The activists of her time had optimistically foreseen a more democratic, more socially inclusive future for universities.

I sense Connell empathises with the struggle of today’s students. She is careful not to dismiss us, and refuses to agree that our generation are less politicised than those of the past.

After taking time to consider the question, she says what she has seen of student radicalism is “as inventive and intelligent now as it was in the 60s”. She despairs for our era of activists, noting that we are facing “a different, in some ways a more complex and difficult set of issues”.

She shared my disdain for certain strains of contemporary identity politics, asking “how are you going to learn from each other if you’re living in separate silence?”

Connell’s approach to political thought is rigorous in a way that is unprecedented in my, albeit somewhat limited, experience.

I left more confused, distressed and committed to fight than when I arrived.