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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 3, No. 1. 1940

The University & the War

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The University & the War.

With the declaration of war it was obvious that the University would, by the shrinking of its rolls, the shortage of books and research materials, etc., feel the adverse effects of war at an early stage. Only with in the last few weeks, however, has it become manifest how some of the more delayed effects will impinge on Varsity life. In particular the issuing of the recent Public Safety Regulations made it possible that within a short time we may find our academic detachment upset. In other words, the application of these Regulations may at some stage lead to an infringement of our traditional academic freedom.

No doubt our greatest loss is likely to be caused by the absorption of our best intellects into the military forces, but, if we should have our freedom of speech or expression curtailed in any direction the loss will hardly be less serious. It is easily seen that accurate and unbiassed knowledge cannot be obtained if there is any restriction on the search for information, and that a student cannot acquire the desired rationality and objectivity of an educated person unless he is able to hear and discuss all shades of opinion. It is recognition of this fact that has caused University authorities always to resist strongly any interference from outside, and to maintain jealously the rights of free discussion.

Even Victoria College with its short history has its tradition in this connection. On two notable occasions - once during the last war, and again during the depression - has it been involved in disputes centring around academic freedom. The former action concerned the position of Professor von Zedlitz on the staff, and in the face of opposition throughout the country "the V.U.C, Council, in its own sanity and restraint, adopted the attitude which is the one thing in its history most worthy of a University institution". Briefly the position was that the dismissal of Professor von Zedlitz, as an "enemy alien" was clamoured for by hysterical patriots. The Council refused to dismiss him, and refused to accept his resignation, but finally were powerless in view of an Act passed for the express purpose of getting rid of Von. The action of the Council and the Professorial Board in 1933, when a public heresy hunt was directed against the activities and political beliefs of certain students, was not so praiseworthy. In the fact of Governmental pressure the Council fell down in the traditional fight for non-interference. The immediate results were the banning of the magazine called Student, the banning of Spike, and the banning of the debates on sex and religion, while the College's capitulation was a blow to the liberty of universities.

It can thus be seen how the present Regulations, with their object of suppressing "subversive activities", are a menace to that liberty, for in times of stress the word "subversive" acquires an elastic definition. The Regulations, are put forward as being necessary for the defence of freedom, and in broadcast speeches by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister reference was made to the paradox of limiting free speech when avowedly we are fighting for freedom.... In other words, consciousness of the dangers of the Regulations were expressed, but that is no guarantee that they will be used with restraint, for politicians are notoriously easy to stampede. In fact, the very issuing of the Regulations in New Zealand when in Great Britain the New Statesman and Nation on December 23 last was able to report that "it is open to Communists and Fascists to exercise page break in the press, and even at street corners an entire freedom of speech", is an indication of a desire to curb criticism, and consequently freedom. (Admittedly the British Government is not faced with the problem of recruiting, but the tendency to suppress in New Zealand has become very evident).

In the explanation of the Regulations the Ministers made great play about people guilty of subversion being "openly the agents of one foreign power", the foreign power being Russia. In other words, the Regulations are obviously aimed at Communists, and in view of the sharp political rivalry between the Labour and Communist parties the real object of those Regulations are open to some suspicion. The College holds no brief for Communism, but it was the invitation of a Communist to speak at the College's Free Discussions club that was the start of the row in 1933.

At the moment there, are all the signs of a recurrence of the old trouble. A loud-mouthed mayor in the name of recruiting, invites his citizens to a Donnybrook: ("if they (Pacifists) want a fight they will get it"), the leader of the Opposition congratulates the Government on taking his advice for the suppression of subversion; and Cabinet Ministers 'speak of "a foreign power" in voices charged with emotion. In short, a state of public hysteria seems imminent. It only remains for some untoward incident to occur, and the forces of repression will be unleashed. And in the uproar it is very probable that the College's position will again be assailed.

If such an event should happen, it is to be hoped that the College authorities will not be unmindful of their responsibilities, and that in any stand they may have to make, they will receive the support and encouragement of the students.