The McGill Administration’s Response

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“H. Rocke Robertson, Principal 1962-1970.” Photograph. The McGill University Archives. PN023259.

Background and Biography

Harold Rocke Robertson was born in 1912 near Victoria, British Columbia, spending his early years in Canada and Europe, and in 1929 enrolling at McGill.[i] After graduation, he enlisted as a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, and began researching physiological effects related to the trauma of war.[ii] He returned to Canada in 1944 to devote himself to the Royal College of Surgeons, implementing structural reforms to make the process less biased. In 1958, he was invited to become surgeon-in-chief at the Montreal General Hospital, and chairman of the Department of Surgery at McGill.[iii]

From when he was first appointed Principal of McGill (in 1962), there was immediately tension with the student body. On his very first day, student groups demanded he soundproof the walls in the newly built residences, complaining the insulation so lacking they could hear a “neighbour change his mind.”[iv] The next five years were marked with incidences of this sort, days of protest demanding free education in 1965, and growing activism on the part of the Students’ Society and the McGill Daily.  Robertson discussed with the Deans “action that might be taken to counteract [the] communist-like activities of the Students’ Council,” but staying out of the affairs lest they “should be accused [of] suppressing speech.”[v]

Turbulence

In the Fall of 1967, Harold Rocke Robertson indicated his plans to retire in 1971, dreading “four full academic years to go.”[vi] The trouble began on November 3rd, 1967, when a student named John Fekete reprinted an article in the McGill Daily describing fornication between then President Lyndon Johnson and the deceased John F. Kennedy. Robertson was appalled at this “loathsome and malignant” article, and the “Police Morality Squad […] gathered up and destroyed all the copies of the Daily they could find.[vii] The administration charged Fekete with “obscene libel,”[viii] and demanded tighter administrative control over the Daily, which exacerbated existing tensions around student rights at the University. On Novemeber 9th, 1967, 300 students occupied the administration building for a sit-in, in the hope of preventing the hearings against Fekete. As well, 60 students broke into Robertson’s office, and were forcibly removed by police officers.[ix]

Three people were arrested for allegedly assaulting the officers: two students and Stanley Gray, a Marxist professor of political science, allied with the student cause. Throughout the next month student groups distributed pamphlets describing police brutality the night of the break-in; which Robertson likened to “Communist-trained organizers,” and “fall of man sympathizers.” These quotes indicate the stance of the administration at the time, who believed that it was hoodlums and rabble-rousers drumming up activism, and that it was no cause for serious concern. They drafted pamphlets describing the actual events and distributed them. There were fears of a riot, but it never came, and the Administration continued their duties.[x] Gray was not convicted, and continued teaching.

"H. Rocke Robertson inspecting the Dawson papers in the McGill University Archives, 1969." Photography. 1969. McGill University Archives. PR017034.

“H. Rocke Robertson inspecting the Dawson papers in the McGill University Archives, 1969.” Photography. 1969. McGill University Archives. PR017034.

Rapid Intensification

The beginning of 1968 was marked by Fekete being given a 1-week suspension and then being allowed to return to school, with the full support of the student society. Protests around the country continued, though a mass demonstration in Quebec was averted after the government allotted additional student aid. The institutions were still reacting on an ad-hoc basis, and had no reason to expect the protests that would come.[xi]

On March 15th, 1968, Stanley Gray wrote an article in the Daily, “Administration: an unconstructive minority,” criticizing the administration’s actions as “pragmatic [with] no consistency or regard for principle.”[xii]

On October 25th, 1968, Rocke Robertson said “raining hard, a shame,” in his description of the 10,000 students who marched on McGill, and that they planned a “splendid ceremony.” This tone of absolute dismissal in the face of a widespread protest is one of the prevalent themes in the actions of the administration, especially at these early stages.  He described the ongoing issues between the McGill Daily and the Senate over greater representation as a chore throughout October, and implemented Senate reform; he ran the first “open senate meeting,” with eight elected students, granting student wishes for greater control over university affairs.[xiii]

In mid-November when students stormed into the Club Council room in the middle of a Faculty meeting, there was no protocol in place and the Faculty was divided on whether to continue the meeting and open it up to the students.[xiv] The student departmental strikes did not warrant more than cursory mentions in his diaries, and the administration simply waited for the students to give up rather than engage in appeasement. Throughout January of 1969, Robertson was more concerned about imminent separation and funding[xv], upset about the trivial increase in McGill’s budget (4%) compared to the French universities (over 200%).[xvi] Still, Robertson was unhappy with the student displays in the Senate, claiming the students’ purpose was “the destruction of the credibility and the reputation of the Senate [rather] than its advancement as an effective academic body.”[xvii]

Stanley Gray’s activities had been ongoing. In January, he disrupted various meetings, and led students throughout the school, disrupting classes, in protest of Robertson.[xviii]

The Plan

On January 31st, Robertson was frustrated enough that he drafted what he called “the plan.” It included: indicating the problem at Senate; having the Senate publish a letter deploring disruptive action; moving against Gray; getting Deans and Department Heads to work towards regaining the trust of staff and students; follow a prosecution plan (against Gray) of the Canadian Association of University Teachers; using evidence of him having led the November 7 riot, breaking into meetings, and leading movements against nominating committees and governors; and having lawyers move forward with this plan.[xix] It is essential to note that the fundamental assumption of this plan was that the students were not motivated internally, but rather guided by Gray and communists to disrupt civil society. His solution was thus simply removing Gray from the equation, waiting for troublemakers to graduate, and convincing students to rejoin the administration’s side. The main reason for this belief was perhaps that in the letters he got from students, half of them accused him of acting too harshly, and the other half wondered why he had not yet expelled the rabble-rousers.[xx]

It was Operation McGill Français, a protest 10,000 strong at the Roddick gates on March 28th, 1969, that proved Robertson’s fears about growing nationalism correct. The students demanded McGill become francophone, pro-nationalist, and pro-labor, though many of them did not go to McGill. However, some of McGill’s own staff were in support of the protest, including Vice-Principal Michael Oliver, who thought “McGill should become more sensitive to the needs and demands of a largely francophone Quebec in the heaves of a multi-faceted social revolution.”[xxi]

Robertson, despite knowing its potential to inflame the situation further, still laid charges against Gray. The trial went throughout the summer, and eventually it was concluded that “McGill was within its rights to dismiss Gray, whose actions were unauthorized disruptions.”[xxii] During the rest of the year, bombs were placed and detonated on campus, though no one was injured, and students who attacked the President of the Students’ Society were expelled. Whereas, previously, Deans would convene to decide a student’s fate, the process was institutionalized through the creation of a Senate Disciplinary Committee. After that, scattered protests were directed towards the U.S., but Rocke remarked, “the real battle ended early in the year 1969.”[xxiii]

In his reflections in 1978, he felt that overall there was little disruption to the University, with few lectures cancelled, and the school never closed. His main concern moving forward was that the implementation of democratization would “have a stifling effect on truly scholarly activities,” and that “the public would never regain its respect for universities.”

He announced his intention to resign in September 1969, two years earlier than intended, and in March 1970 a new Chancellor was appointed.

The Aftermath

McGill University under H Rocke Robertson had a period of expansion, re-organization, and increasing student representation on the Senate. The administration navigated under-funding, the advent of CEGEP, and hundreds of thousands of protesters remarkably well, and was pivotal in establishing McGill as it exists today, from the Leacock building to the reputation of the McGill Daily.

After he retired from McGill, Robertson began working towards public health reform, publishing reports on behalf of and for universities, hospitals, and governments.[xxiv]

He also began a dictionary project, where he attempted to trace a history of the English language through over 350 dictionaries dating from the Renaissance period. The collection can now be found at the University of British Columbia with the exception of Diderot’s L’Encyclopaedie, housed at McGill.[xxv]


[i] Richard W. Pound, Rocke Robertson surgeon and shepherd of change (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 4-31.

[ii] Ibid., 57-58.

[iii] Ibid., 89-109.

[iv] Rocke Robertson. “Ten Years After.” Talk, James McGill Society Lectures from McGill University, Montreal, QC, October, 1978, 11.

[v] Ibid., 11-12.

[vi] Diary of Rocke Robertson, 4 September 1967, File: Diary 1967 – 2, Container 18, Rocke Robertson Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[vii] Robertson. “Ten Years After.” 13.

[viii] Diana Grier Ayton, “Yesterday’s News: March 1967,” McGill Alumni Magazine, March 14, 2012, accessed March 30, 2014, http://publications.mcgill.ca/mcgillnews/2012/01/26/yesterdays-news-march-1967/.

[ix] Robertson. “Ten Years After.” 15.

[x] Diary of Rocke Robertson, 10 November 1967, File: Diary 1967 – 2, Container 18, Rocke Robertson Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xi] Robertson. “Ten Years After.” 16.

[xii] Stanley Gray, “Administration: an unconstructive minority,” The McGill Daily, March 15, 1968. 5.

[xiii] Diary of Rocke Robertson, 31 October 1968, File: Diary 1968 – 2, Container 18, Rocke Robertson Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xiv] Diary of Rocke Robertson, 19 November 1968, File: Diary 1968 – 2, Container 18, Rocke Robertson Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xv] Diary of Rocke Robertson, 30 January 1969, File: Diary 1969 – 1, Container 18, Rocke Robertson Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xvi] “The ‘Administrative Error,’” Free Press, November 23, 1966, 5.

[xvii] Robertson. “Ten Years After.” 17.

[xviii] Richard Pound, Rocke Robertson, 212-213.

[xix] Diary of Rocke Robertson, 31 January 1969, File: Diary 1969 – 1, Container 18, Rocke Robertson Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xx] Robertson. “Ten Years After.” 16.

[xxi] Bronwyn Chester, “McGill français and Quebec society,” The McGill Reporter, April 8, 1999, accessed March 31, 2014, http://reporter-archive.mcgill.ca/Rep/r3114/francais.html.

[xxii] Richard Pound, Rocke Robertson, 217.

[xxiii] Robertson. “Ten Years After.” 18-19.

[xxiv] Ibid., 249.

[xxv] Ian B. Robertson, The Robertson Project, University of British Columbia. Accessed April 1, 2014, http://rbsc.library.ubc.ca/files/2013/08/HRR_Dictionary_Collection_UBC.pdf.

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