Luke's Notes

Sussex Stories 4: The Smith Years 1998-2007 Part 2

Continued from Sussex Stories 3

New appointments and equal opportunities: this is the real world

I said the university I arrived at was 'beautiful' in the early years. But it was not beautiful for everyone. The student body was disproportionately white and middle-class. In the workforce, women were crammed at the bottom of the scale, in precarious jobs, with few in senior positions. There were few People of Colour on the staff and I think barely any in any kind of senior positions. One exception was a fantastic colleague in International Relations, Marc Williams, who I liked a lot. He was a school sub-dean. He left to go to Australia. It was a big loss.

Some time after I had finished as head we were granted funds for a new post. One of the sociology staff mentioned this to a professor at another university who said he would be interested in applying. When the senior management heard about this they decided to headhunt this professor without advertising the post in an open competition. Apparently, this was perfectly legal. On the appointing committee, I said this undermined equal opportunities, that we were just appointing a middle-aged white man without anyone else having the chance to be considered. The very senior manager chairing the committee replied: 'This is the real world, Luke'. Our department had a number of people working on inequality at work but none, as far as I am aware, publicly raised objections. Inconsistency between positions taken in academic work and in practice at the university was a common theme of my time at Sussex.

To entice the professor the university said they would meet his request to fund an additional junior lecturer in his area with his appointment. After the man accepted the job it became clear this promise of a post was not going to be fulfilled. I was given the job of liaising with him while the head of department was away and when he asked about the junior post I said I did not think this was going to happen. He raised his disquiet at higher levels. I was taken to task for revealing the deception to him before he had signed on the dotted line. Truth and transparency were censured; deceit and dishonesty endorsed. Later on, the head of department at the time said that the process of this appointment had not been their most glorious moment.

In this period we had applications for Sociology posts at Sussex from all over the world. We were very popular. I made an effort to link up with contacts in India to spread the news of our posts there when jobs came up. But the higher-up manager who chaired the appointing committees at the time decided we should not consider applicants from places like India (and other Global South places) if they had not published in recognised Global North journals, and top ones at that. I said we should ask to see the applicants' work if they seemed promising and judge the work on its merits, disregarding place of publication. I was willing to put in the work to make this happen. The manager was against. I don't think I got backed on the relevant appointing committees and such applicants effectively got their applications binned without their work being considered on its own merits. It was yet another case of academics committed to egalitarian principles in theory, including anti-colonial ones, not putting them into practice. I don't know what my Indian contacts thought when in the cases of job after job I had encouraged applications for, no-one got even long-listed. I was too ashamed to ask.

Sussex summer school and Laci Löb

For several years I gave a lecture at the English in the Vacation Sussex summer school. This was a residential course for a couple of weeks or so for overseas visitors, mostly but not all European, of all ages, who could brush up their English, attend lectures and seminars on Britain and do a bit of educational sightseeing in the UK. I gave lectures on themes such as New Labour and Britain and Globalisation. The course was run by Laci (Ladislaus) Löb and he carried on doing it after retirement. Laci was a professor in the German group at Sussex.

One year I read a letter by Laci in The Guardian. It was defending Rezsö Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who had negotiated with Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the holocaust, to buy the freedom of 1700 other Hungarian Jews. Along the way, they ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp but were eventually released from there and travelled to safety in Switzerland. Kasztner was controversial and seen by some as a collaborator with the Nazis, despite having saved these lives. He was later assassinated by an Israeli extremist. I was curious and did a bit more research and discovered that Laci had been one of those rescued.

After our lectures for the summer school we had to fill in a form to get paid and one part required us to complete an equal opportunities section giving our nationality and ethnic group etc. Laci said he hated this part. As someone who had had to wear a yellow star, he said it made him very uncomfortable. I told him then that I knew about his past and he seemed startled and shaken. Laci wrote a book called Dealing with Satan (a later edition was renamed Rezsö Kasztner) which was about Kasztner but also about Laci's past in Hungary, including during the holocaust, his time in Belsen with his father from age 11, their escape and what happened to Kasztner. I read the book, which must have been very traumatic to write, and which I recommend highly. I told Laci how good it was. He said he had felt it was his duty to make the case for this man, however controversial he was, without whom he would not be alive, and was obviously very appreciative that I had read the book and been positive about it. Laci lost most of his family in the holocaust. He described himself as, relatively speaking, 'lucky'. At the Jewish museum in Berlin one year I looked at the book that lists victims of the holocaust to search for the name Löb. There was page after page after page after page of Löbs. I had to stop looking and walk away.

Laci lived and studied in Switzerland before taking a job at Sussex towards the start in 1963. I remember that he was very sceptical about a German-Jewish Centre that was set up at Sussex, feeling, I think, that it was trying to make some kind of academic (and maybe financial) capital out of the issue. I think his summer school was pulled by the university in the Farthing years, if I remember correctly because it didn't make enough money or some reason like that. It actually was very inexpensive to run. I shared Laci's contempt for this decision, which had nothing to do with education or humanity, and I really felt for him. Laci lived in the UK until 2017 then went back to Switzerland with his wife, Sheila, where he died in 2021 aged 88. He always said he was very grateful to both Switzerland and Britain. Laci was yet another person at Sussex who was nice to me and supportive. He was courteous and kind and had a mischievous dry humour. I remember some wicked jokes of his about Sussex Vice-Chancellors (university CEOs), best not repeated here. Colleagues wrote in his obituary that, 'his was an extraordinary life and he was an extraordinary man'. When Laci died I wrote to his wife and she sent a very nice reply.

The origins of Sociology at Sussex

I didn't know that the founding of Sociology at Sussex was quite rooted in the second world war and the fleeing of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. But, jumping ahead a bit, in about 2009-10 I was asked to write a chapter on the history of Sociology at Sussex for a book Making the Future: a History of the University of Sussex. This was for the 50th anniversary of Sussex in 2011. I asked around people who had been at Sussex Sociology from the early days and discovered quite a story.

Zev (Zevedei) Barbu was born in Romania in 1914, fought on the Russian front in 1941 and was imprisoned for desertion, separatism, and leftism. After the war, he was part of a team that drafted a new constitution for his country and he represented Romania at the Paris peace conference. He sought political exile in Britain in 1950, and in the ‘60s was given the task of setting up the new Sociology group at Sussex. The department had two members at its inauguration. One was Zev and the other was Helmut Pappe, a German refugee from the Nazis in 1939. Helmut came to Sussex with interests spanning sociology, history, philosophy, law, and economic theory, in line with the interdisciplinary traditions of the university. Pappe and Barbu were encouraged to come to Sussex by History professor and later Vice Chancellor Asa Briggs. In the late ‘60s another refugee from the Nazis, Julius Carlebach, joined Sussex Sociology and had a long association with the university. Brighton has a tradition of putting the names of celebrated residents on the front of buses, and I frequently see the bus that bears Carlebach's name.

A Dean overseeing the publication of the history of Sussex book emailed out a celebratory message saying it was the best-selling book ever published by Sussex University. I was unaware Sussex University had ever even published books. I was sick and tired by this point of managers dressing up things in a disingenuous way and was in trouble-making mode. I emailed him back asking how many books Sussex had published. Maybe they had published a lot and this was genuinely a great success relatively. But I never heard back from him. In 2023 my partner saw a copy of the book in an Oxfam shop, opened it and found my chapter, which she was unaware of, excitedly sending a photo of it to me on her phone. It's a great book and nice for anyone who would like to know more about the university's past. I really enjoyed reading it. My chapter on Sussex Sociology 1961-2010 is here.

Globalisation and Political Sociology

Back to 1998-2007. In this period I put together a course on the Sociology of Globalisation that I taught for many years, at one point a two-term course, then shortened to one term. My other main teaching at this time was a Political Sociology course that I had inherited and developed. I was pretty shocked one year to find that a later head of department had just deleted the political sociology course from our offerings without even asking me about it or bringing it up for discussion at a department meeting. The globalisation course became a book. It was just an introductory book but it was fairly epic, 13 chapters and about 130,000 words. The final months of writing it involved me getting up at 5am in the morning, writing without a break until about 3pm every day, then collapsing, only to rise the next day at the same time to continue the process.

The book didn't do badly in terms of being used by students (which was what it was intended for) and there was a second significantly revised version published in 2017. The first edition got one or two negative reviews but, as I have found over and over with academic reviewing, they were littered with inaccuracies and it was obvious the reviewers hadn't even read the book properly. One particularly grating criticism was that I had only three paragraphs on one specific theme. In fact, I had devoted three paragraphs specifically to the theme but had decided it was better to cover it throughout the book whenever relevant rather than hive it off to one section. A quick glance at the index would have enabled the reviewer to see that. The other annoying kind of review of a book proposal or article submission is the one that's supposed to be anonymous, but where it's clear who's written it from the repeated recommendation over and over that I cover the work of one specific person. I'm not bitter. I've also received critical reviews of book and article drafts of mine where what I've written has been read properly and the criticism been entirely justified.

Next post Sussex Stories 5

Previous post Sussex Stories 3

Contents and Introduction here