From the Paddock to the Agora: Fifty Years of La Trobe University

  • Publisher: La Trobe University Press in association with Black Inc, 2017)
  • ISBN:  9781863959148
  • RRP: $49.99

 Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

La Trobe University, main campus at the Melbourne northern suburb of Bundoora, was launched on 8 March 1967.  It was Victoria’s third university – after the University of Melbourne (established 1853) and Monash University (established 1958). To celebrate La Trobe’s fiftieth anniversary, Vice-Chancellor Dr John Dewar commissioned six authors with close connections with the university to write a chapter. Namely, in the following order, Don Watson, Robert Manne, Dennis Altman, Marilyn Anderson, Clare Wright and Penny Davies.  Aunty Joy Murray wrote a piece titled “From the University Elder” and John Dewar contributed “From the Vice-Chancellor”.

In what, in effect, is an introduction – Professor Dewar had this to say:

When I first met with the contributors to discuss this book, I took what some might regard as a reckless step.  I made it clear that I wanted each writer to have the freedom to explore their personal connection with La Trobe, and to offer their own reflections, without any fear that their views would be mediated or censored by the university.  To have done otherwise would have been at odds with everything this volume, and the university, stands for.

Yes – it was a reckless step – especially for a vice-chancellor at a taxpayer supported tertiary institution.  This meant that neither La Trobe University nor Black Inc engaged a fact-checker.  Moreover, authors were given the right to make false claims about deceased colleagues concerning whom they bore grudges.  La Trobe University and Black Inc should able about to do better than this.

What a Fact-Checker or Two Would Have Found – Historical Howlers in La Trobe University’s History

▪ The problem with howlers commenced at Page 2 – where Aunty Joy Murphy writes that “on 26 May 1967, two and a half months after the opening of La Trobe, 90.77 per cent of the citizens of Australian voted for people of Aboriginal origin to be counted in the population and have the right to vote in a Commonwealth election”.

Hopelessly wrong.  The 1967 referendum certainly ensured that Aborigines were to be counted in the national census.  It also gave the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to Aborigines irrespective of where they lived in Australia.  In May 1967, Aborigines already voted in Commonwealth elections and the 1967 referendum had nothing to do with this issue.

▪ At Page 38, Robert Manne has this to say:

La Trobe University had the reputation of being a radical campus – a younger brother as it were, to Monash during the Albert Langer days. While still an undergraduate, I attended there, in 1968 or 1969, a Vietnam War “teach-in”. I have no memory of what the speakers on either side argued. I do, however, remember looking very closely at the ground as we approached the venue. It was evening. One false step and you were down a ditch….

There was no Vietnam teach-in at La Trobe University in the late 1960s or early 1970s – as the university’s own record would attest.  In Melbourne, the teach-ins were held at Monash University – where some footpaths were still undeveloped ten years after it commenced.  The teach-in concept was developed in the United States and followed in parts of Australia.  They were usually sponsored by a university or student union and presented views both for and against the Allied military commitment to South Vietnam.  This was the case, for example, at the first teach-in at Monash University on 29 July 1965 where speakers included Paul Hasluck (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) in the Coalition government and Dr Jim Cairns (the leader of the Labor Party’s left-wing). On this occasion four speakers opposed Australia’s Vietnam commitment – and four speakers supported it.

In correspondence between Gerard Henderson and La Trobe – the university authorities declined to present evidence to support Professor Manne’s claim that a teach-in was held at La Trobe in 1968 or 1969 – or at any other time.

Eventually Robert Manne provided what he claimed was “evidence” to support his case.  It was a report in the Rabelais on 8 August 1969 headed “Conscription teach-in July 25”.  Note the event was on conscription not on Vietnam.

In any event, the occasion was not a teach-in in the traditional sense of the term.  It was not organised by a university institution like a students’ union or a students’ representative council but rather by the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). And it featured only two speakers – Professor Charles Birch and Michael Jones, both of whom were left-wing.  This is the first paragraph of the Rabelais report:

It was a pity that the teach-in on conscription and conscientious objection, organized by the S.D.S. on Friday, July 25, was not more lively and controversial.  Speakers said some fine and noble things expressing support for those prepared to defy authority and the law, but the audience could not leave with any feeling of having heard some new ideas or stimulating discussion.  Like most La Trobe functions, the atmosphere was polite and submissive to the point of boredom.

This was not a teach-in on Vietnam which heard different views.  But rather a boring meeting of the SDS on conscription and conscientious objection which heard only one view.  Clearly, in this instance, Robert Manne has a clear recollection of an event that never happened. By the way, there was a traditional teach-in at Monash University on the same day: 25 July 1969 – which did hear different views.  For example, Dr Alan Roberts opposed Australia’s Vietnam commitment while Dr Frank Knopfelmacher supported it.  Perhaps Robert Manne confused the two events.

▪ In her chapter at Page 87, Marilyn Anderson, a scientist, writes how – when a student at Melbourne University – she and others “all celebrated when the newly elected Whitlam government brought the ‘nashos’ home from Vietnam and abolished conscription in 1972”. In fact, William McMahon’s Coalition government withdrew Australian combat forces from South Vietnam by March 1972, including all national servicemen (i.e. nashos). Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, following the Labor Party’s victory on 2 December 1972, withdrew the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam from South Vietnam.  All members of the AATTV were regular soldiers – none were national servicemen.

Marilyn Anderson and Don Watson Look Back in (Relative) Happiness on La Trobe

There are some fine pieces of writing in From the Paddock to the Agora – most notably the contributions by Clare Wright, Don Watson and Dennis Altman.  And much in the collection is interesting. For example, the chapter by Marilyn Anderson who studied science at Melbourne University, went to La Trobe in 1972 as a researcher and academic, left the campus for some two decades and then returned.

Anderson remembers that when she commenced at Melbourne University in 1968, people were wary of radical university students at Monash and La Trobe.  However, she writes that it was not long before her fellow students “got behind the activists of Monash and La Trobe”. When at La Trobe, she recalls that often “protests ended in an invasion of the administration offices” – “the students would storm the building and hold-sit-ins that could last for several hours”.  This is a considerable under-statement.  In fact, La Trobe in the late 1960s and particularly in the early 1970s was a violent place as radical left-wing students attempted to silence rivals and intimidate the administration.  An idea of how violent the campus is contained in the account by Barry York, a one-time La Trobe student activist, in his book Student Revolt! La Trobe University 1967 to 1973.

Don Watson commenced at La Trobe in 1967 and left in 1971.  Like Anderson and so many students at the time, Watson was left-wing in an intellectually fashionable kind of way. From the Paddock to the Agora is mostly in denial about the violence that afflicted the campus around half a century ago, but Watson does have this to say:

I left La Trobe in 1971. When the graduation ceremony was held early the following year in the dining hall of Glenn College, the doors were secured with heavy chains and padlocks.  We graduands filed up to receive our degrees from Sir Archibald Glenn, while our parents, down from the country in my case and many others, sat applauding politely at the back.  Outside, in the maturing grevilleas by the walls, other students, many of them wearing Mao badges, shouted at us through the windows.  Having somehow dodged security, others yelled abuse at Sir Archibald from the mezzanine above the hall.  He was a “war criminal” and a “fascist”. He “symbolized the university’s subservience to capitalism, imperialism and war”. It was confounding to our parents:  Only thirty years earlier many of them had been willing to lay down their lives to defeat fascism, imperialism and war.

Sir Archibald Glenn was born in May 1911 and was aged 28 when World War II commenced.  He was a chemical engineer and worked in explosives in Britain in 1945.  In short, Sir Archibald made his contribution to the defeat of Adolf Hitler and Nazism/fascism.  It’s just that the radical left was not interested.

Watson recalls his time at the residential Glenn College and how the master, Ben Meredith – a lieutenant-colonel who lost an arm on the Western Front –was mocked by the students. The author reflects that Meredith “could have been forgiven for wondering sometimes what he fought for”. By the end of 1968 Watson acknowledges that “many of us had come to believe that, on balance it was the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese who hold the moral high ground”.  In short, the La Trobe left was not anti-war.  Rather it supported one-side in a war (North Vietnam and the Viet Cong) against the other side (the Allies and South Vietnam).

The year 1971 was perhaps the most violent.  So much so that the traditionally appeasing administration felt the need to call in Victoria Police to restrain the sit-ins and blockades by left-wing activists.

Eight students were expelled and three students were sent to Pentridge Prison for contempt of court.  By then, as Watson writes, “not a few of their old comrades had ceased to believe in their cause”.  He adds that “some of us had drifted back to lectures a couple of years earlier, when at a Labor Club meeting, a leading left advised us to prepare for armed struggle, and if necessary to die”. Also some of the student comrades came to realise the reality of China’s Great Leap Forward (in which some 40 million died) and the Great Cultural Revolution (in which Mao Zedong’s Red Guards “were dragging scholars from their classrooms, humiliating them in the streets and burning their books.”)

Watson looks back in bemusement at some of the actions of the campus left and reflects: “I do not remember many hippies (or Maoists) in the science students”. Quite so.  He also reflects – in good humour – on his Honours History year which was taught by Greg Dening and Rhys Isaac – which “no one truly understood”.  The course was called Reflective History and Dr Dening’s reflections included such gems as “history is the theatre in which we experience truth” – whatever that might mean.

Moreover, Don Watson acknowledges that some academics and students stood up to the La Trobe left:

…The halls of Glenn College were regularly filled for meetings at which Maoists argued the point with New Leftists, Trotskyists and anarchists, and all of them argued with anti-communists of various kinds, from middle-of-the-road Labor people such as Paul Reid, the SRC president, to socialists and liberals of various stripes, including Hugo Wolfsohn-inspired Weberians, to members of the Democratic Club, who were in cahoots with B.A. Santamaria and the National Civic Council and, with Terry Monagle leading them, ran bravely against the left-wing tide.

Robert Manne Looks Back in Anger at La Trobe and Sneers at Deceased Colleagues

Robert Manne studied at Melbourne and commenced as an academic at La Trobe in early 1975.  He has been there ever since.  He had applied for a lectureship at Melbourne University but was rejected by Greg Dening (who later went to La Trobe). Dening advised Manne that he was better suited to a job in a teachers’ college. But Melbourne University academic and avowed anti-communist Dr Frank Knopfelmacher took up his cause and persuaded his friend Professor Hugo Wolfsohn – head of La Trobe politics department – to employ Manne.  At the time Manne, who did not have a doctorate, had published just one academic journal article. Just one.

Manne writes that, when a Melbourne University student, “as a left-wing undergraduate [he[ was initially hostile to Knopfelmacher”. But he changed after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  He writes that “on Knopfelmacher’s recommendation” Wolfsohn appointed him to a tenured job (meaning that he could not be sacked before retirement on the grounds of incompetence) in the Politics Department.   He adds that Knopfelmacher fell out in time with Wolfsohn – and claims that Knopfelmacher fell out terminally “with almost everyone”. Not much gratitude here.

This is an interesting reflection.   Since, in his chapter, Manne acknowledges he himself fell out with the likes of Claudio Veliz, John Carroll, Hugo Wolfsohn, Joan Rydon, Gerard Henderson and many more. And that’s only at La Trobe University.

Manne made use of a book, designed, as Vice-Chancellor Dewar describes it, to “celebrate” La Trobe to attack the character and reputation of deceased colleagues who, obviously, cannot defend themselves. Including the person who appointed him – Hugo Wolfsohn.  Not much gratitude here either.

Manne refers to Wolfsohn’s “strange personality” – as a result of which the La Trobe Politics Department “was unhappy”. Then the sneering commences:

Although he hardly published anything, Hugo was appointed the foundation Professor of Politics at La Trobe on the basis of glowing references from his colleagues at the University of Melbourne about his brilliant teaching. Once I got to know him, I wondered whether his colleagues had an additional, secret reason for their recommendation.   The prospect of departmental life without Hugo would undoubtedly have been alluring.

This overlooks the fact that when Manne was appointed to a life-long job at La Trobe Manne had hardly published anything.  Moreover, as someone who attended Wolfsohn’s lectures at Melbourne University in 1965 and at La Trobe from 1973-1975, I can attest that Wolfsohn was a brilliant teacher.  This view is shared by Professor Douglas Kirsner, who was one of Wolfsohn’s students at Melbourne University.  In this volume, both Don Watson and Dennis Altman write positively of Wolfsohn.

After he died, many academics, politicians and journalists supported the Wolfsohn Memorial Fund – including W. MacMahon Ball, Lord Belof, Neil Brown, Gordon Bryant, Creighton Burns, John Button, L.F. Crisp, Rufus Davis, David Kemp, Henry Mayer, Michael Oakeshott, Joan Rydon and Tony Stanley.  Quite a few had been students or colleagues of Wolfsohn at either Melbourne or La Trobe universities. Robert Manne made a financial contribution to the fund – this was told to Gerard Henderson by Professor Joan Rydon. This would suggest that Manne’s hostility to Wolfsohn commenced sometime after the latter died.  It is notable that, as Manne points out in his essay, he moved back to the left in the mid-1990s, about a decade after Professor Wolfsohn died.

Writing in the University of Melbourne Staff News in April/May 1982, K.G. (Greg) Armstrong, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Melbourne, referred to Wolfsohn as having, for 20 years, “taught brilliantly across a whole range of normally specialist fields including International Relations and the politics of Nazi Germany, the USSR, the USA and India.”

In From the Paddock to the Agora, Manne’s anti-Wolfsohn rant continues:

At La Trobe, Hugo regarded the Department of Politics as a small community – or a gemeinschaft, as he might have put it – over which he enjoyed the right to exercise unchallengeable authority. One of the peculiarities of Hugo’s department was the expectation that all members would take their lunch together. My first vision of the department was of a human caravan, made up of its members, on the walkway that led to the Staff Club. Unhappily for Hugo, he had recently appointed two quite conservative young English political theorists, Michael James and John Chiddick. Their presence seemed to have upset the departmental equilibrium; shortly after my arrival they led a rebellion. The issue was whether or not minutes would be taken at departmental meetings. For some months, over this grave matter, the department was in turmoil.

Hugo was supported by a reader in the department, Joan Rydon, a pedestrian accumulator of information about Commonwealth parliamentarians, and by Gerard Henderson, a tutor who was still working on his doctorate on B.A. Santamaria and the Australian Roman Catholic bishops. I sided with the rebels, drinking regularly with the departmental Englishmen – the two theorists and a Yorkshire-born Sovietologist, John Miller – at a pub in Fairfield re-christened The Whingeing Pom. John Chiddick was openly gay, and because of this Hugo conducted a merciless campaign of persecution. At one of our drinking sessions, John argued that Hugo was worse than Hitler. I told him I thought the claim somewhat excessive. The days of drinking at The Whingeing Pom were over. For many months, John Chiddick and I did not speak to each other. Later we again became friends.

Robert Manne either has a bad memory or he just makes things up.  Here’s why:

▪ There was never any expectation that all members of the La Trobe University Department would take their lunch together at the Staff Club. And they didn’t.  This is attested to by Dr Colin Rubenstein – in addition to myself. For one thing, younger members of the department with families – like Rubenstein and me – simply could not afford to buy lunch every day.  When Manne was asked to provide evidence in support of his assertion, he obtained a note from John Chiddick. But even this did not support Manne’s case – since Chiddick recalled that only the junior members of staff joined Wolfsohn for lunch – a long way south of “all”.  In fact, there were few junior members of staff.  Gerard Henderson was one – he recalls having lunch with Wolfsohn about four times a year. Colin Rubenstein has a similar recall.

▪  It’s true that Wolfsohn was opposed by some members of the department – including Manne, James, Chiddick and Miller. But he was supported by other members of the department – including Rydon, Rubenstein and Henderson. So what?  And – believe it or not – the campaign of James, Chiddick, Manne and Miller did turn initially on their demand that minutes be taken of (boring) departmental meetings.  It was as trivial as that.

▪  Manne’s description of Joan Rydon – the first female processor of politics in Australia – as merely “a pedestrian accumulator of information about Commonwealth parliamentarians” is unfair.  She did some important empirical work on Federal MPs – some of which was acquired, without acknowledgments, by the Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia.  But Professor Rydon also published on elections, parliaments and the political process and taught many classes and post-graduate students.

▪  Manne’s reference to Gerard Henderson “still working on his Ph.D. in 1975” overlooks the fact that Henderson commenced his thesis in 1972 while in full-time employment – he never had a scholarship, never took sabbatical leave and never received a grant.

▪ There is no evidence that Professor Wolfsohn persecuted Chiddick – or that he did so because Chiddick was gay.  Chiddick was a critic of Wolfsohn – as were James, Miller, Manne and others.  That’s all.  Manne provides no evidence in support of his serious allegation.

▪  The fact that Chiddick regarded Wolfsohn – many of whose family died in the Holocaust – as worse than Hitler tells something about the irrational opposition which confronted Wolfsohn from disaffected academics.

▪ The only source cited by Manne in his rant against Wolfsohn is taken from the La Trobe student newspaper RabelaisRabelais was controlled by the radical left – and implacably opposed Wolfsohn.

Believe it or not, Manne concludes his account of Wolfsohn by stating that “he was at his scintillating best only at the lectern (or so it was said, even by left-wing students) or in conversation”. This comment appears on Page 42. Apparently Manne forgot that on Page 41 he seems to contest the claim that Wolfsohn was a brilliant teacher – since, if he were, why would the University of Melbourne want him to go to La Trobe?  A good editor would have picked up – and eliminated – this contradiction.

Manne makes some interesting points about his work on the communist journalist Wilfred Burchett and the defection of Vladimir Petrov from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra in 1954.  However, his essay is replete with ridicule and sneering with respect to past and present enemies.  In their chapters in this volume, Marilyn Anderson, Clare Wright and Penny Davies (who writes on La Trobe’s Bendigo campus) make considered criticisms of the administration at certain times.  It’s just that their accounts are not driven by animosity.

Clare Wright – From Inner-City Sandalista Land to Life Among the Suburban Hill’s Hoists She Used to Despise

Perhaps the highlight of From the Paddock to the Agora is Clare Wright’s chapter.  Born in The United States to American parents, she studied at Melbourne University and later went to La Trobe as an Australian Research Council postdoctoral research fellow.  Writing about Australian cultural life circa 1990. Dr Wright has this to say about the university reforms introduced by Hawke government minister John Dawkins:

Some of Dawkins’ Discontents viewed the shift from superannuated security to institutional anxiety as one of baby boomer privilege.  Mark Davis scrutinised the 1990s in Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism, his era-defining book that, according to the publisher’s blurb, “names names, maps networks, shows who is who, and reveals who exactly is behind – and hogging – the cultural wheel”. Others pointed the finger not so much at the individuals (Phillip Adams, Gerard Henderson) and organisations (the ABC, the Australia Council) which controlled cultural production, but at a cohort who had not protected the industrial landscape of which they had been beneficiaries.  Why had professors not fought harder to protect the workplace rights of junior academics?

Gerard Henderson was surprised to learn that, along with the likes of Phillip Adams, he once “controlled cultural production in Australia”. But he was absolutely delighted to learn that the university at which he taught between 1973 and 1975 – in Clare Wright’s view – “has the capacity to be the first university in Victoria to offer a carbon-neutral degree”.  As in Clare Wright BA (Hons) Melb, MA (Melb), Ph D (La Trobe – Carbon Neutral).

Dr Wright looks back in her move from the inner city near Melbourne University to the suburban campus of La Trobe in Melbourne’s northern suburbs – where she and her partner bought a home:

As an undergrad and postgrad, I had lived in the inner city….  In share houses with other students, and later in rental houses with my partner, I enjoyed the bohemian solaces of cafes and pubs, gelatarias and pizzerias, independent bookstores and live music venues….I’d also lucked out on cheap real estate in the rapidly gentrifying inner-city.  By the time my husband and I could convince a bank to give two overqualified, underemployed new parents a mortgage, we were compelled to forsake manicured plane trees for the scraggly paperbark street plantings of the post-war suburbs.

The geographic break from bourgeois aspirations was at first confronting (What, no Victorian terraces? No wrought-iron lacework? All this ugly grey concrete!) but soon liberating…But I started to enjoy the rewards of community. My social and intellectual horizons felt stretched.  My neighbours were culturally diverse; my kids had room to play.  We had scoffed at the “Australian dream” of the quarter-acre block and Hill’s hoist in our undergrad Cultural Studies classes – my god, they were all so oppressed in the ‘50s! – but now I understood the value of laying down roots in an environment that was porous to change, not underpinned by solid bluestone foundations.

Alas, Dr Wright’s move to the suburbs has not prevented her from embracing the intellectually fashionable stance of spelling God in lower case. But at least she contests the view that Australia was “so oppressed” in the 1950s – in the years up to the foundation of La Trobe University on what was once a paddock at Bundoora.


A lot of Australians, who have made an important contribution to society, have passed through La Trobe University in the past five decades – as students, academics or administrators.

The list includes: Dennis Altman, Marilyn Anderson, Tony Blackshield, Judith Brett, Macfarlane Burnett, Bernard Callinan, John Carroll, Michael Chamberlain, Laurie Clancy, Adrienne Clarke, Inga Clendinnen, Greg Dening, Mike Delaney, Brian Ellis, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Israel Getzler, Archibald Glenn, Matthew Guy, John Hirst, Bill Kelty, Marilyn Lake, Philip Law, Robert Manne, Allan Martin, Jean Martin, David McCaughey, Terry Moran, David Morgan, Geoff Raby, Joan Rydon, Peter Singer, R. Selby Smith, Claudio Veliz, Hugo Wolfsohn and Clare Wright.

Unfortunately, From the Paddock to the Agora lacks an index – so there is no ready way to check names.  Also, for reasons unexplained, the extensive photographs have no captions – with one exception. This is an expensive publication to produce and sell – readers are entitled to a more accessible book.

Because of the quality of much of the writing, From the Paddock to the Agora is worth reading for those interested in Australian society.  But it speaks volumes for declining academic standards that the Vice-Chancellor was happy to “celebrate” La Trobe’s life in a book that was not fact-checked and includes character assassination of deceased academics.  It’s a strange way to salute a university.

Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute and the author of, among others, Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia (2nd edition, HarperCollins 1998); Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015). He was a senior tutor in the La Trobe University Politics Department between January 1973 and December 1975.