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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 9. 1966.

Depression in Auckland — a famous lacturer is 'retrenched'

Depression in Auckland — a famous lacturer is 'retrenched'

Attention has lately been focused on academic freedom. The exclusion of a security agent from lectures at Auckland University has by all accounts upheld that freedom. During the Depression at the same university, the verdict turned the other way.

Dr. J. C. Beaglehole, C.M.G., M.A., (N.Z.), PL. D. (Lond.), Hon D. L.I.H. (Oxford) is one of New Zealand's foremost historians and is Professor of British Commonwealth History at this university.

Yet in 1932 he was "retrenched" from Auckland University.

Was he a scapegoat for a depression-bitter public? Patricia Caughley takes a look at this little-known incident. . .

One of the vital questions at that time concerned university staff — whether they were entitled to the privileges enjoyed by other citizens in making their views public. What brought this query to the fore was the retrenchment of a lecturer at Auckland University by the College Council.

In April, 1932, serious rioting occurred in Auckland, an incident that was not uncommon during the Depression. Shortly afterwards but in no way related to the riot, two men were sentenced to six months' jail for causing some literature alleged to advise lawlessness to be brought into the country. The magistrate said in all solemnity "The distribution of this sort of literature leads to disturbances such as we have had in our streets."

It would seem from this statement that the verdict the magistrate arrived at was based not only on the seditious literature charge, but also on the judgment that these men could in a sense be held responsible for the riot. Speculation was the only basis for his remarks.


Dr. J. C. Beaglehole, a temporary history lecturer (now Professor of History at VUW) and Mr. N. M. Richmond, director of WEA, took exception to such woolly reasoning. They decided a public protest endorsed by Auckland staff members, would perhaps quieten an hysterical public and allow them to judge such incidents with something like fairness.

Upon drafting a letter to the press, Dr. Beaglehole forwarded it to the president of the college, Sir George Fowlds, for his signature.

The letter discussed freedom of the individual and the need for restraint to ensure this freedom. It suggested there was no evidence to indicate that the court case and rioting were inter-connected.

The letter

". . . At a time when we have 50,000 registered unemployed whose helpless resentment at their position is sharpened by the feeling that the world's potential wealth makes poverty inexcusable, together with a permanent percentage of simple hooligans ... it is unnecessary to blame the activities of Communists for any violence which may occur."

The letter went on: "We would suggest in fact that the penalisation of the two men in the case is merely an example of what can be described as the hysteria which is rapidly growing up in our country around the words 'Communism' and 'Communists,' words much used in this case, and apparently unavoidably so, since both men 'admitted' they were members of the Communist party.

"It may be argued that they (convictions and sentences) merely present the social rebel with his case against a capitalist society." Provocative words these, when it is remembered that the Communist regime of the Soviet Union was passing through a period of unprecedented growth. Being isolated from the capitalist network it was not affected by the Depression."

No mistake

The letter concluded: "Finally, in order that there should be no mistake, we should state that we are in no sense attempting to justify violence or lawlessness. What we do suggest is that we should be less hysterical in our search for the causes of such violence. For it would seem to us that the attempt to forcibly suppress opinions (however wrong they may be) which have no proved connection with immediate acts of violence or lawlessness is as inexpedient from the point of view of social peace as it is unjust to the individuals who are made to suffer the penalty."

It seems plain that Beaglehole and Richmond were not heretics advocating crime and Communism. They merely wished to do away with the arbitrary fixing of the troubles of the day on to a scapegoat of dubious validity. Their protest had to do with rationality and freedom—politics was not their object of evaluation.


Sir George Fowlds, on receipt of the letter, immediately sent round a memorandum to staff members. In essence, it required all public statements by staff members to analyse and give both sides of the question. "The true humility of mind brought about by real learning is a definite check upon the intellectual arrogance engendered by a little knowledge," it read.

Sir George pointed out that while staff members have a right to the protection of college authorities, the authorities are entitled to demand that utterances by staff do not put them in an untenable position.

The last paragraph made the purpose of the memo explicitly clear. "I regard recognition by members of the staff of the responsibilities referred to in this memo . . . as being intimately related to the question of fitness for tenure of a university post."

The letter had by this time been forwarded to the New Zealand Herald and the Star. Both papers refused publication. It was then dispatched to the New Zealand Worker, which was anything but reticent, the letter being printed in May of 1932.

Meanwhile both Beaglehole and Richmond sent a critique of the memorandum to Sir George, as a "minority report" of the College Council which had approved and endorsed the document.


By August, 1932, the termination of Dr. Beaglehole's appointment was being considered. Under the original terms he was appointed a temporary lecturer on the understanding that there was no obligation to employ him beyond 1932. At the time it was conceded that an appointee who gave satisfaction would be retained until the History Chair was filled.

The Registrar had calculated that £360 could be saved in 1933 if Dr. Beaglehole was no longer on the payroll. His work could then be taken over by an economics lecturer who could give half his time to each department.

That this scheme was formulated by the college administration was a serious breach of its powers. The priorities of academic subjects and staff members is a matter for the Professorial Board and College Council.

The plan was objected both by the Professor Economics and the [unclear: actin] head of the History [unclear: Depar]ment. President Fowlds [unclear: w] informed of their views [unclear: b] he did not pass these on the appropriate policy [unclear: co]mittee until after its [unclear: f] meeting.


In September the [unclear: Univ]sity Council met. The [unclear: Edu]tion sub-committee [unclear: rec]mended the plan be [unclear: procee] with. Two hours' [unclear: discuss] led up to the retrenchment Dr. Beaglehole.

To the end, Sir [unclear: Geo] insisted that [unclear: Beagleho] political views had [unclear: noth] whatever to do with retrenchment. ". . . The [unclear: wh] assumption of political [unclear: op]ions being responsible for the proposed arrangements garding the History [unclear: Depa]ment next year, are who page 7[unclear: out] foundation in fact," said in November, 1932.

[unclear: o] a certain extent he was [unclear: t]. At no time had Dr. [unclear: glehole] stated any political [unclear: s]. But he had challenged president's views on public statements by staff members. Also challenged was magistrate's unconsidered union and in association, of the "semi-sacred" [unclear: ets] of our society—the rule law. The crowning aberralay in soliciting the [unclear: port] of the New Zealand [unclear: rker] whose political views [unclear: e] quite clear even if Dr. [unclear: glehole's] were not.

[unclear: etting] aside political views the retrenchment, the [unclear: nomies] motive does not are with the circumstances [unclear: er].

[unclear: he] Department of History [unclear: h] 202 students was the second largest school on the [unclear: lege]. Students per lecturer [unclear: ounted] to 101 compared [unclear: h] 85 for English, the next [unclear: gest]. Moreover, the history school was carrying on without a professor.

In 1933 there was to be one and a half lecturers for 202 students.

Students of the History School unanimously filed resolutions of protest at the harsh treatment of a lecturer and of themselves. In doing so they paid tribute to the fine qualities of Dr. Beaglehole both as an academic and a lecturer.

The irony of making economics the justification for doing away with Dr. Beaglehole was revealed at the end of the year.

Despite the conscientious effort to save £360 it was possible to make an ex gratia payment of £200 to Beaglehole's executioner, the Registrar. He was leaving for America with a valuable fellowship and the extra finance was to allow him to extend his trip to England.

* *

The Facts of this article have been taken from "Academic Freedom In New Zealand, 1932-1934," by F. A. de la Mare.