The VC who tried to ban elevenses

Which rules should govern students’ lives has often been a live issue. Student disciplinary codes are a balancing act between the rules necessary in a community living close by each other, especially to maintain academic integrity, and the rights of students as people, now mostly seen as adults.

When thinking about this, we often concentrate on the major changes that came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following a change in the age of majority, part of a major change in social attitudes, and after a period of intensive student political action. However, there was an earlier period of change, just after World War One. This is exemplified by the actions of Dr Lewis Farrar, Rector of Exeter College (1913-1928) and Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1920-1923).

Farrar was in many ways a bridge between the ancient university and the modern. Elected to a fellowship at Exeter, the only requirement of which was that he did not marry, he headed off to Germany to undertake study. When it was his turn, Farrar set out to be an activist Vice Chancellor, he saw his role as going further than just chairing meetings. That made him unpopular in a number of areas, but particularly in the area of regulating student lives where he became known as a ‘banner’ for all the things he tried to ban.

Farrar describes one such incident. After the First World war, Oxford accepted a cohort of male students whose entry had been postponed by service. These men had returned with the ‘habit of taking coffee or chocolate or other café stuff … about eleven in the morning’ (Farrar, p295). He was dismayed that this habit was taken up by ‘our lazy and self-indulgent boys and girls’ with the result that:

… cafés began to do a roaring trade between 11 and 12 in the morning, undergraduates of both sexes sitting there together indulging themselves with pleasant conversation and unnecessary and unmanly food. … This … which was a new disease, was rampant, and was exciting much public talk and censure, as another nail in the coffin of our industry.

Farrar p 295-6

The University was well used to exercising their powers to control bars, which students were strictly forbidden from entering. Farrar drew up a plan with the two Proctors (one more willing than the other) to ban students from cafés in the morning. But he reckoned without the women’s colleges, whose heads petitioned against this as ‘their poor girls … could not stand the strain of going from nine to one without sustenance’. He relented, students were not banned from elevenses, but he later regretted this:

… I missed a chance of abolishing a demoralising habit which I hear now on good authority is injuring Oxford. I wish I had been more ruthless and not so susceptible to the feminine appeal.

Farrar p 296

Farrar happily recounts some of the other issues he dealt with: limiting political meetings; refusing permission for a new Oxford Playhouse; worrying about Bolshevik publications; remonstrating with Indian students etc.

Although Farrar had been against the admission of women to degrees in 1896, after the war he agreed it ‘was right for the University to open its doors; which we did cordially and hospitably’ (p281). It was Farrar who presided over the first admission of women to degrees at Oxford.

Farrar was clearly unpopular. He received extensive critical press, was parodied in public and, in the most extraordinary event, he received poisoned chocolates. It turned out what had had been first thought to be powdered glass covering the chocolates was harmless tooth powder, but this all got into the press.

The upshot was, in what Farrar believed was an unprecedented step, he was summoned by Lord Curzon, the Chancellor. Curzon had received a petition asking that Farrar not be appointed to the usual third year of his term of office. This threat was not carried out, but Farrar saw this as a ‘deadly attack on the office of the Vice-Chancellor’ (p317) who might be unable to ‘follow any constructive policy at all’ if the Chancellor could dismiss him. The University would ‘become a mere chaos of colleges’.

It’s possible to see Farrar as a bridge between the ancient and modern University of Oxford, but it’s hard to read his autobiography as anything but extraordinary. It’s been used extensively as source in histories of the university, but it might be worth a proper appraisal of his term of office, as the VC who tried to ban elevenses but also who saw the need for leadership of the university, bringing together the various threads of administration.

Reference: Farrar, L R, 1934, An Oxonian Looks Back, London, Martin Hopkinson Ltd

The Snowflake Monster

The University is threatened by a monster, the snowflake monster. This is not a monster made of snowflakes – that derogatory term that is used for sensitive students who won’t tolerate debate and who need trigger warnings. It is the monster that uses the term ‘snowflake’ and it lurks in our media, all over the world.

There is a spectacular example of its work in a ludicrous story published by The Sun (I’d not normally refer to this media source, but it’s necessary to confront it). The Sun has discovered there is a ‘snowflake’ reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Except, as attested by the professors cited in the article, this isn’t news, this is what the novel is about. Surely the journalists must know this, have they read the introduction to the novel? The story seems to originate from this new introduction but anyone who has read the book would know where the terror lies.  So assuming that the journalists are not stupid, the first concern is that they think their readers are stupid.

This story presents universities as places where strange theories are hatched, where monsters are empathised with and accorded human rights. This is anathema to a part of the media whose stock trade is monsters. How dare universities teach such stuff.

This is the backlash that paints liberal arts courses as useless, that sees legislators try to de-fund humanities research and attempts to de-legitimise the university itself. The very business of contesting truth, the heart of the university’s business, is ridiculed. Common sense tells you that Frankenstein is about a monster killing people, not about what it means to be human. Universities must be ridiculous places if they hold such notions.

Each stupid piece, even if on the most stupid premise, chips away at universities. This nonsense in the Sun isn’t itself a big deal, it’s so obviously stupid. But it’s only one of today’s stories. That’s the bigger problem.