Source: Michael Marsland/Yale
Students who stole documents that revealed the University of Warwick had spied on staff and blacklisted left-wing students in the 1960s should be credited with much of the institution’s later success, former activists have claimed.
Commenting on the 1970 episode, which was unprecedented at the time, Ivor Gaber said the student movement had helped the university’s staff to reassert academic values above the need to serve local business interests.
Professor Gaber, now professor of political journalism at City University London, was one of about 200 students who broke into Warwick’s registry office in February 1970 in protest at the lack of a student union building.
When inside, the students discovered files that showed the university had employed a private detective to watch a visiting US academic, David Montgomery, as he attended a meeting of the Coventry Labour Party.
Further searches of registry filing cabinets revealed other controversial documents, including a letter from a headmaster warning Warwick that one of his students was politically active and intended to “embark on militant action” if he was accepted to the university. On the bottom of the letter to the department, vice-chancellor Jack Butterworth had written “reject this man”.
The cache of files eventually led to the publication of Warwick University Ltd, edited by historian E. P. Thompson, which has been reissued 44 years after its initial publication.
Speaking at the book relaunch at the London School of Economics on 1 April, Professor Gaber said the student uprising had prompted academics to question the influence of powerful Midlands industrialists who had helped to found Warwick five years earlier and controlled its governing council.
“We [the students] empowered the senate and academics and gave them the power to say ‘these are our values’,” Professor Gaber said. “I think we made a significant contribution to make Warwick the successful institution it is today.”
Without the student and staff intervention, Warwick would have become overly business-oriented, whereas today it had a “terrific spread of subjects, including science, humanities and social sciences”, he added.
The event was attended by former Warwick students involved in the protest movement, including the Conservative MP and one-time Tory leadership candidate David Davis.
Mr Davis said the investigation of Dr Montgomery had helped to spark his later interest in the issue of state surveillance. “We were not there to make a big deal out of surveillance and freedom of speech, but that is what happened,” he said.
Former BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas, who was news editor of student paper Campus at the time, recalled the events. “There were meetings attended by 1,000-1,500 people when there were only 1,800 students on campus,” he said.