An Island of Democracy in a Sea of Hierarchy: Participatory Democracy at the University of Sydney, 1973-1979

Lewis d’Avigdor

Abstract


“There is a very unpleasant fate which is reserved for those in the university who spend most of their time engaging in radical politics. The very simple punishment, that fits this crime, is they have to go on engaging in radical politics” Professor David Armstrong.

Participatory democracy lay at the heart of the student movements that erupted around the world in the 1960s. It was both the movement’s mode of organisation, as well as being the principal demand that the movement placed on the university to open up its hierarchical system of governance. In essence, students were demanding the right to participate in the making of decisions affecting their education.

Sydney University was a site of both theoretical and actual challenge to the existing hierarchies of power. In an unprecedented step, the philosophy department ‘democratised’ in November 1972 as students were granted equal voting rights with professors in running the department. Yet tensions mounted, culminating in the philosophy strike of 1973. A minority of senior staff believed that participatory democracy was untenable and petitioned the Vice-Chancellor Bruce Williams to divide the department into the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy and the Department of General Philosophy. The Department of General Philosophy operated according to a democratic constitution until it collapsed in 1979.

What can be learnt from this radical experiment in participatory democracy? Why did it fail? More importantly, why did it succeed at all?

This paper comes from Lewis’s History Honours thesis (2010) entitled, “Let the Lunatics Run their Own Asylum Participatory Democracy at the University of Sydney, 1960–1979”.