The University of Western Australia

Senior Lecturer
Department of History
Nedlands, Perth, Western Australia

3 March 1994


This is one individual's account of the attempt that was made early in 1992 to merge the Department of Archaeology with the History Department of the University of Western Australia, in which I have taught since 1973. It is necessarily subjective and others would no doubt present varying reactions to the main trends and events that I am going to describe. But I am trying very hard to exclude from my account information and attitudes gleaned from the numerous private discussions that accompanied and followed the processes of attempted merger. With two exceptions, everything I am going to say was in the public domain of the history department and numerous colleagues could confirm the main outlines. The exceptions are two conversations I had, one with the Head of the Division of Arts and Architecture, Professor John Jory, the other with Professor Norman Etherington, who was then head of my department. These exceptions are unavoidable if I am going to convey in any way the dismay I felt at the way events unfolded.

I have no recollection of precise dates but it must have been early in 1992 that Professor Jory asked me when Professor Etherington would be returning from either holiday or some other form of absence. He needed to know, he said, because there was an issue of major importance that would have to be discussed by the History Department at the first opportunity. Professor Jory probably wouldn't have approached me, even in this quite discreet way, if he hadn't been under the mistaken impression that I was acting head of department (as I had been on two occasions the previous year). I am fairly sure that, even if I had been acting head, he would have told me no more at that point because he emphasised that the issue was sensitive as well as important. It would have to be kept as confidential as possible, he said, but he could see no alternative to a meeting of the department to discuss it.

I mention that conversation with some emphasis because my uneasiness with events began when Professor Etherington returned and began a process of individual consultation with members of the department, saying that he had been told that the whole matter was so confidential that it would be unwise to have a department meeting. I can't remember whether it was before or after Etherington began those individual conversations that I learned that the major, sensitive issue was the proposal that History in effect take over the Archaeology department. Certainly the nature of the issue was not mentioned to me by Jory in that early brief conversation. In any case, long before it was my turn for individual conversation with Etherington the nature of the issue was common knowledge through the department.

At that stage, I recall now with some embarrassment, I was much less outspokenly opposed to the whole idea of the takeover than my friend, Associate Professor Frank Broeze, and one or two other colleagues, who were appalled by the idea that historians should in effect be given power over academics in another discipline. On the other hand, it is also fair to say that at that stage there were some colleagues who could see the relevance of archaeological techniques to some of their own research or teaching and who were therefore openly interested in the proposal.

Etherington's discussion with me - and presumably everybody else - began with his statement about the sensitivity of the issue. He had been told not to hold a meeting, he said, and would call one only if, after his round of individual interviews, there was a majority of the department interested in pursuing the discussion further. My reaction to that was that I had an open mind about the academic aspects of the proposal that were producing such varied reactions from colleagues but that I very much wanted there to be a meeting. Not only does the history department have a tradition of open discussion of important issues but I personally am very often influenced by the arguments I hear from colleagues: I wanted them to help me make up my mind. I was more disturbed than ever at this stage by the failure to call a meeting because, since our original conversation, Professor Jory had twice asked me whether the meeting had been called yet. I should mention here that my office is next door to Jory's, so reasonably casual conversations between us are common - I wouldn't like to suggest that he was so disturbed by trends and events that he took trouble to seek me out. It is also fair to say that I really cannot recollect whether I mentioned to Etherington at this stage the contradictory messages I was getting from him and Jory about the imperatives of confidentiality. I think I probably didn't mention it.

It was not only this reluctance to call a meeting that disturbed me at this stage but the substance of Etherington's comments about the advantages for the history department should the merger take place. (In fairness I should say that he was not trying to insist that there should be a merger). Archaeology, he said, had only one tenured member of staff and therefore if the department were absorbed by us we would have the freedom to fill the untenured positions in any way we saw fit, as they became vacant. At this point I began to see more clearly the force of the arguments against the takeover that some others were emphasizing. Even so, because I so much wanted an open discussion involving all my colleagues, I asked him not to record me as opposed to the merger/takeover, so that a meeting would ensue.

When Etherington eventually reported that his individual discussions had revealed enough people interested to pursue the matter he announced that he was calling a meeting, which would be addressed by the Vice-Chancellor. Again, it was not myself but a number of colleagues who complained about this proposal sufficiently strongly for Etherington to agree that the department would meet first in the morning to discuss the matter fully, and that we would then meet the Vice-Chancellor in the afternoon (I have no idea what the date was).

I have two strong recollections of the morning department meeting. The first is that, if there had been a majority interested in the merger when the individual interviews were conducted, some had already changed their minds and others did so as the arguments against were put forward. In addition to the academic issues mentioned earlier there was some discussion about the uncertain circumstances that had led to the proposal in the first place. We knew that there had been an unfavourable review of Archaeology but we knew no details. Could we take on responsibility for a department without knowing why there had been a recommendation that it could not continue independently? Secondly, I remember being singled out by Etherington as a person who had changed his mind after being in favour of the merger. I explained why this was a travesty of the fence-sitting 'let-me-have-a-meeting-to make-up-my-mind' position I had taken in our conversation. As the meeting was ending, I also publicly took issue with Etherington's reiterated claim that he had been under orders from Jory in delaying a meeting until he had seen everybody in the department individually.

I have several equally strong recollections of the afternoon meeting with the Vice-Chancellor. She said she had a problem that she felt could be solved best with help from the department she trusted and respected more than any other - History. I have no idea whether I was the only person to find this an offensively patronizing approach. What is certain is that there emerged very quickly evidence of widespread opposition to the proposed merger. Some were hostile on the academic grounds mentioned above. Others, who may or may not have shared those academic reservations, were unhappy with the vagueness of the Vice-Chancellor's 'problem'. A review had recommended a merger of archaeology with some other department; there were hints of serious disputes among the archaeology staff but no details could be revealed: we were being asked to help the Vice-Chancellor by taking into our midst serious problems that could not be specified. By this stage I can recall only two members of the department speaking in favour of the proposal. My memory could be at fault and there may have been one or two others but it was clear that there was by now widespread hostility both to the proposal itself and the way it had been pursued.

I remember very clearly the abruptness with which the Head of Department and Vice-Chancellor looked at each other and said that there was time for no more discussion. And I remember the way Frank Broeze insisted on one last comment, as the meeting was breaking up and the Vice-Chancellor was already on the move. He hoped that she was not going to go away with any sense that there was significant support for the merger in the history department. She replied that of course she could have no such impression. This was an important moment, however, because no vote had been taken in the meeting and the Vice-Chancellor was due to report the History Department's response to the proposed merger to the university's Planning and Resources Committee (I am not absolutely sure of the exact title of the body concerned). Without that intervention the meeting would have ended without the Vice-Chancellor giving us any idea of what message she was taking away from the discussion she had heard.

Although many of us afterwards were very disturbed by what had happened and left with very little confidence that there might not be some further attempt to arrange a merger, this did prove to be the end of that particular matter, as far as I know. It was, however, very far from the end of the disillusionment that I felt with the whole process. In the coming weeks and months the extent of the upheavals in the archaeology department, and the unsavoury nature of the allegations that were being bandied about, became much better known, not least through stories in the press which were never denied. I am sure I am not the only person in this department to feel outraged that these were the kind of problems that we were expected to take over without any advance explanation.