A hairy tale of how plum jobs can go sour

August 15, 2003

Producing an official history of a university can be tough. Michael North reports on how a clash of cultures can leave historians and PR departments trading accusations of spin and irrelevance

Given the stereotype of academics as a somewhat eccentric bunch, most people would expect a university to have had at least a few distinctly bizarre characters in its past. The University of Southampton is no exception. It had a postwar dean of chemistry, a Professor Adam, who kept a tame duck and was a keen dancer. The wife of a colleague recalled that he tangoed endlessly with her and quacked with each step. The university also had an early benefactor, William Darwin, a brother of Charles, who was described by another brother as "so clean and wholesome that you could eat a mutton chop off his face".

These anecdotes were unearthed by historian Thomas Hinde, one of the writers of The University of Southampton: An Illustrated History . But they do not appear in the book. They were cut from the final draft in the course of an acrimonious row over content. Ultimately, Hinde removed his name from the publication and complained that the university's external relations department had "spun" his history so that "it resembles a limited company's annual report". In reply, Southampton says Hinde "failed to understand the complexity of the university and the complexity of the project", and that "his work just wasn't of a high enough quality".

Writing a university's history may seem like a pleasant job for a retired academic, but disputes such as Southampton's show how difficult the task can be. Sylvia Harrop, author of A Decade of Change: A History of Liverpool University from 1981-1991 , knows this well. "Writing an institutional history, and especially a university history, opens a Pandora's box," she says. "There are so many vested interests, many egos, many feathers to ruffle - especially with the more recent material."

Hinde has a pedigree of writing the histories of educational establishments, including numerous private schools and the University of Greenwich. He was paid £7,000 for more than two years' research on the Southampton project. A similar sum was used to employ two other writers to finish the book. Hinde, who says he has been "too angry" to read the published volume, was furious at deletions that he felt were key to a true account of the university's history.

These included mention of a computer system bought by the university in the 1970s, the ICL 2970, that was considered "a million-pound mistake" by staff who suggested that it should be "transported to the end of the Royal Pier and there given a sharp push". Also edited out was an account of how cuts in government funding in 1981 led vice-chancellor John Roberts to propose radical surgery in the arts faculties.

Hinde was particularly surprised that much of his historical colour was excised. "They (the university) crossed out every reference I made to members of staff having any sort of facial hair. It was incredible." He adds: "The university wanted something dull and inoffensive that the vice-chancellor would give away to distinguished visitors. They wanted something to sell."

Joyce Lewis, a Southampton external relations officer and a key member of the project's advisory committee, disputes Hinde's claims. She says the historian focused far too much on the early history when the brief was to mainly write about the university's 50 years up to the Queen's golden jubilee. Hinde insists that he wrote "exactly what was required". Lewis says she cut out "long-winded accounts of historical debates that were not relevant to the history and subsequent development of the institution, and many descriptions of eccentric behaviour attributed to obscure characters from the history of Southampton's predecessor institutions. While amusing, they didn't really add anything to the overall story of the university's development."

On the point of facial hair, Lewis comments: "Even the women had moustaches. It got a bit strange." She adds: "The revisions and rewriting had nothing to do with propaganda, selling the university or anything as outlandish as that."

The publisher of Southampton's history, Hamish McGibbon, managing director of publishers James and James, does not, however, find the idea of a book that promotes the university "outlandish". He says such histories are commissioned because the institutions want the books "to do something for them: to encourage past pupils to come to the schools; to give to foreign ministers. That's their function." McGibbon is saddened by the episode, particularly as Hinde is a family friend who had written for him before. He says, diplomatically, that there was "a certain lack of rapport between Hinde and Lewis" that led to the historians exclusion from the book's rewrite.

He also says there was "a clash of generations and cultures" between an elderly author and a modern university. "The problem with this book was that for the first time he (Hinde) encountered a client who wanted a lot of input. Writing about distinguished public schools is not a problem. You write the story and get on (with the institution) like a house on fire."

Harrop agrees that the retired academic historians likely to be writing university histories will often be "old school" and have "a wholly different way of approaching the task from that of a public relations department. Historians are trained to pull together all the evidence they can find and make judgements on that basis. PR people pick plums out."

Harrop, former dean of Liverpool's faculty of education, explains that when she started writing her history, the university did not have a "slick PR department". But there was a change of vice-chancellor that prompted her to amend her book's conclusion. "I finished with violins swelling and a conclusion that looked to a splendid future for the university. I would have liked it to be a critical conclusion looking back at fair and critical assessments of the past ten yearsI but my own intuition was telling me it would not have been politic and acceptable."

A change of vice-chancellor at Keele University put a stop to John Kolbert's official university history. When Kolbert, a published historian, retired in 1990 from his post as a senior assistant registrar, vice-chancellor Brian Fender asked him to write Keele's history for its 50th anniversary in 1999. But when Fender retired in 1995, he was succeeded by Janet Finch. She was not enamoured with Kolbert's work. Finch wrote to him in August 1998: "The way in which you write about this period (1979 onwards) takes on an overtly political toneI a book with these political overtones would be a sad and inaccurate statement of Keele's image of itself."

The university subsequently assigned the copyright to Kolbert so that he could publish his work elsewhere. But he had to sign a contract stating that no publicity or material in the book would assert that Keele had commissioned it, endorsed it, collaborated on it or attempted to suppress it.

Kolbert published at a personal cost of £8,000. He still feels aggrieved by the university's actions. "I had been at Keele for 25 years. I had direct first or secondhand knowledge of the whole period. I wanted the facts to speak for themselves. I was drawing on comment that was in the public domain at the time - for example when Keele's budget was cut by 34 per cent in 1981, and the sale of the Turner collection in 1998. What am I meant to do, pretend it didn't happen?"

Kolbert's colleagues are puzzled by the university's actions. Arthur Tough, former deputy registrar at Keele, says: "It seemed to me that his book was an interesting story told very well, and it was generally liked by a lot of people at the university. If you ask someone to write a history, you expect them to take some sort of view."

A Keele University spokesperson says Finch had been particularly concerned with the handling of the post-1970 era. "Mr Kolbert's account went beyond the factual and sought to provide a particular and more personal interpretation of events," he says. He adds that two specialist publishers declined to publish the manuscript, one being very critical of its content.

Nevertheless, the university honoured its contractual payments to Kolbert and assigned him the copyright.

Hugh Torrens, emeritus professor of geology and technology at Keele, calls the disclaimer in the inside cover of Kolbert's book (in line with his contract with Keele) "childish and tiresome". "The university was trying to spin things, just like the present government. It is a nonsense for a university to feel proud of its 50 years then disagree (with its history) because of some comments."

Facts, however, can get sidelined when the institution commissioning the history is paying. Harrop says: "Historians gather evidence and make judgements based on it. But in this case, you are subject to judgements of management. If research turns out not as they want it, it is buried."

Harrop says there are probably piles of her history gathering dust at Liverpool, neglected by one target audience. "I don't think university staff read these books. It's difficult to put any juicy gossip in."

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