Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Has Manchester University lost sense of values?

IT is many years since, browsing the public library to broaden my knowledge and political perspective, I chanced upon a book called Hidden from History, which looked at the way socialist and feminist ideas had interacted in the development of the women's and labour movements. It was a fascinating read, gave light on history from a new angle (to me, anyway), and written by someone who knew her subject from the inside-out rather than some dry 'detached' academic writing for specialists.

It did not just fill a gap in my knowledge, but gave me an appetite for more. I became interested in following up the story of Rose Witcop, an East End woman who fell foul of both bourgeois law and a conservative Labour movement for her efforts, together with anarchist partner Guy Aldred, to assist working-class women with birth control advice. This was under Ramsay Macdonald's first Labour government. One day I may write something on this, if nobody else does. (incidentally, Rose's sister Millie married the famous German anarchist Rudolf Rocker).

Some years after I'd read the book a friend persuaded me to go with her to a meeting about the Left-wing press, at Friends House, Euston. Afterwards a bunch of us went for a meal together at a nearby Asian restaurant, and among the group was a woman with red hair and a northern accent, whom the others introduced as "Sheila". It was not till later, after I'd been treated to my second bottle of Cobra and was listening to an interesting conversation from which I gathered that the person next to me wrote books, that I started to wonder if by any chance this was Sheila Rowbotham, author of Hidden from History. Indeed it was, but probably just as well for everybody that I had not known, otherwise they'd have had to listen to me going on and on about the book and what else it had led me to read.

Had I known then that Sheila Rowbotham like me had been in the Young Socialists thirty years before, it might have been worse, as I'd probably have wanted to compare notes, refight old battles and ask what happened to so-and-so, while the waiters were waiting to close.
Apart from a rather chaotic pre-Christmas quiz night held by Red Pepper in an overcrowded pub, when Sheila was at the next table marshalling her family amid the hubbub which made it difficult enough to say hello, let alone manage a conversation, that's the sum total of acquaintance I can claim with Sheila Rowbotham. But the students who have enjoyed her teaching at the University of Manchester value her highly, as do scholars and activists around the world who have read her books and articles, and placed some of her writings in the Marxist Internet Archive.

My acquaintance with the University of Manchester is just as slender, confined to a childhood visit to the Whitworth Museum, attendance at an evening meeting on the Middle East when I was about 15, and feeling proud whenever I passed Jodrell Bank radio telescope on the train going home to my folks. But in my innocence I'd have thought a university in the city of Peterloo, the Chartists, the first Trades Union Congress, and the Pankhurst family, would be proud to retain the services of a professor like Sheila Rowbotham.

Only, if you ask me, there's something funny going on at the University of Manchester. Here's part of an item published last month in what used to be (another source of pride) the Manchester Guardian:

'Terry Eagleton, Britain's leading Marxist literary critic, faces the axe at Manchester University, where he has been involved in one of the most ferocious literary spats of recent years with the novelist Martin Amis. Their verbal duel over Amis's comments about making the Muslim community suffer "until it gets its house in order" was given added piquancy by the fact that they were supposed to be colleagues.
Eagleton reaches retirement age in July and speculation is mounting about his future at Manchester, which is in the process of losing 650 jobs to clear a £30m debt. Professor Sheila Rowbotham, one of the most respected feminists in the country, has also been told she must retire from the school of social studies this year.
The institution reportedly also has to find the £80,000 annual salary it pays Amis for the 28 hours a year he is contracted to work as professor of creative writing.
Rowbotham said: "I turn 65 this year and requested to stay on. They said it would not be possible. Because Manchester has had difficulties they've said there wouldn't be enough money to keep me. Lots of people feel pretty fed-up here ... It's very difficult with more and more students and less administrative support. I felt sad when I first found out and then 60 people signed a letter to the university requesting they reconsider. They didn't, but I was very touched."
Marxist critic Eagleton faces axe at debt-hit university, * Guardian, Friday February 8 2008 * Liz Ford and Donald MacLeod

There are campaigns afoot for both Terry Eagleton and Sheila Rowbotham, and this is from the latter one on Facebook:
Professor Sheila Rowbotham has been told that her contract is not going to be renewed at the end of this year. The University is forcing her to retire on the grounds that they cannot afford to pay her salary (she only wants a third of her current salary to continue teaching). The University are currently paying Martin Amis £80,000 for 28 hours.....A YEAR. Sheila is an immense asset to our University and WE CANNOT AFFORD TO LOSE HER.
Sheila was an integral part of many of the movements she teaches about, proving that her age is not a hindrance but that her experience and extensive knowledge make her teaching come alive. To see for yourself, please visit

The campaign is asking supporters, particularly if they have been Sheila Rowbotham's students, to e-mail

Head of Social Sciences (professor)

Dean of Humanities (professor)

President and Vice Chancellor (professor)

It seems the committee which was to take a decision won't be meeting again till after Easter, so there's still time.

This is not about the right of two or more individuals to carry on working (a right I've been glad to give up!). It is about the right of students to be taught by them, but it is also something bigger that's going on. I won't pretend that Eagleton, Sheila Rowbotham, or I, would necessarily share the same ideas, but all of us on the Left have enough to declare a common interest. So do those who value universities as places of learning rather than trying to look flash by investing in a passing fad.

Manchester has changed a lot since I left home. The soot and grime which once caked the town hall and other buildings, as well the lungs of locals, has gone. So, less happily, has the industry which produced it. From 19th century weavers marching for their rights we have wound up with people whingeing on telly about not getting the super casino, and the prospect of washing-up jobs. But Mancunians still have much to be proud of, in more than field, and much that attracts students from many places.

Seeing Manchester University dispensing with Terry Eagleton and Sheila Rowbotham, as well as all the other staff that are going, while finding the money to pay Martin Amis so much for the occasional visit, I can't help wondering whether this is just quirky accounting, misguidedly trying to be trendy, or sending out some kind of message, to appease we wonder whom? Whatever it is, it does not sound like the University of which Manchester people used to be proud, or towards which they need feel any affection.

Nor is it any consolation that Jodrell Bank's future is also in doubt.

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