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Leaving academia, going political

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” – Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach.

I remember courses at Universities in the 1970s cropping up talking about utilisation of space, how to make car parks more friendly, things like that. The multi-level carpark was in its infancy then. Now it abounds.

The Lizard, West End Brisbane

The University of Qld had its first landscape masterplan back in the early 1970s. As part of a course in Social Ethology, I did a project on how to make a university car park look less obtrusive. I was helped out by another student who later participated with me in many political struggles.

The Hartley Teakle building was built in the 1970s, of radical design then with all the services like plumbing, electricity etc showing on the outside of its walls on the inside corridors. The building was at the entrance to the University near a hitching rail, making it stand out even more. There was resistance to multi-story carparks in those days and with plenty of space the university simply made the land around the new building available for parking. There was minimal landscaping.

The building housed the Department of Agriculture and was named after its long serving professor, Laurence John Hartley Teakle who held the chair of Agriculture from 1947 until 1963. He was contentious because when Commissioner for Agriculture in Western Australia he said some marginal parts of the state should not be settled. Teakle worked for the National Capital Development Commission in Canberra in 1966 to determine whether forests could be harvested and still protect water quality. This was ground breaking work back then. When the Hartley Teakle building was being constructed I worked as a laboratory cadet in one of the buildings behind it in the Department of Parasitology. I earnt $32 a week.

Communal living

Austral Street – a 1970s communal house in St Lucia.
Image Ian Curr 2019.

This project on landscaping led me to another – what was the impact of our residential living arrangements on how people thought and behaved? So I undertook with some other students from UQ’s Department of Psychology to write a report on the design of university residential colleges. We were interested in communal living at a time when it was illegal for more than 4 unrelated people to live together in a house, i.e. the Landlord Tenancy Act 1973 prohibited communal living when this was an important way that students and unemployed obtained affordable housing. We socilised out poverty. Thankfully some landlords in West End and St Lucia would allow people to live together and pay their rent as a collective. I lived in a house recently demolished in Austral Street St Lucia. It had 7 bedrooms (including sleep-outs) and there were often up to 10 people living in the house.

Meanwhile the University of Queensland college system provided mostly for single rooms and no space for communal kitchens. Ten residential colleges provided 1765 single rooms. ‘Corridor’ students tended to avoid social interaction with strangers. Was military-style accomodation a way for adolescents to grow up, we asked?

I hitch hiked around Australia visiting the major colleges at Universities in Victoria, NSW, ACT and Qld. I talked with Accommodation officers at these Unis. We designed a questionnaire to which we obtained 140 responses from college residents and other students. The majority preferred apartment style colleges over the dormitory model. However this was age dependent with first years living in single rooms with ‘central’ dining and lounge facilities with very limited local food preparation. The college system lagged behind people’s preferences and need for low cost accomodation.

My final report was submitted for assessment in a course on Social Ethology in the Department of Psychology. The assessor made some encouraging remarks about it being an interesting study but failed my final report. I had put a lot of work into the study and visited many places on the eastern seaboard under my own steam using my very limited finances [I was receiving unemployment benefit and working on odd jobs at the time. My weekly income was about $30 and I lived in a shared house in St Lucia].

My supervisor’s assessment was very deflating. I felt it was becoming too hard to fit into the hypothesis and statistical paradigm required by my academic masters. However I should say that my study on residential colleges was incomplete, I just didn’t have the time and resources to finish it. I was a student in the Animal Behaviour Unit of the Department of Psychology and it probably didn’t have the resources either. Glen McBride had a grant from poultry farmers on how to reduce behavioural problems in caged birds. However I ended up doing my honours on shark organisation; this was in 1976. However my real interest was human behaviour.

In those days the Department of Psychology was very conservative and my Professor, Glenorchy McBride*, voted in 1985 along with other members of the University Senate to give our corrupt Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, an honorary doctorate of laws.

I felt I had banged my head up against the academic wall for long enough and went political. I set up an Education Resource Office at the UQ Students Union, helped out at Students Legal Aid with Bill Beattie and Noel Nunan, and began running political campaigns to challenge the University and the state government. By the end of the year, Bjelke-Petersen banned street marches to stop the anti-uranium movement and so a life in academia was no longer viable, at least, for an average student like me.

UQ Student union Complex
At that time radicals were making their own space at the University of Qld Students Union. The forum area had become a learning ground for new ways of living. We had our own radio station (4ZZ) and our own entertainment at Joint efforts organised to raise money for the radio station.

UQ Students Union Forum Area 1977

But by 2019, the Senate of the University had voted to pull down the UQ Student Union complex along with the iconic Schonell Theatre. Only Covid 19 has intervened. The corporate university has such an ambitious building program this project may get a reprieve.

Ian Curr
2 August 2020

*NB: In 1992, the University established the McBride Psychology Prize as a tribute to Professor Glenorchy McBride, former Professor of Psychology at the University and maintained by the income from a fund given by his colleagues, students and friends. It was for a student taking a fourth year program in Psychology and is awarded to the best thesis in ethology or social psychology.

Hartley Teakle Building and its ‘landscaped’ carpark from Sir Fred Schonell Drive at the entrance to the University of Queensland circa 1977. I think this upgrade was after the Landscape Master plan had been put into effect. Iamge – Fryer library.
Multi level car park in front of Hartley Teakle building 2009. Image – Google maps

Reference
A report on the Psychological Impact of Architectural Environment of University Residential Colleges on the Resident Community by Ian Curr. Shirley Larsen, Judith Minto, Leonie Parslow, Valerie Burns and Tom McHale (unpublished) May 1977.

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