The Sussex Spirit?

I have undertaken most of the empirical research for my book at Sussex University, where I have been working since 2014. In this post, I want to unpack this particular academic location a bit more.

Opening page of the Sussex 2025 Strategic Framework document

The University of Sussex, a public university just outside Brighton, was founded in 1961 as the first of the new or ‘plate glass’ universities set up by the UK government after WWII. The term was coined by Michael Beloff in reference to the new architectural style of these universities – using steel and glass rather than red brick and a traditional Oxbridge look. The Sussex University design by Sir Basil Spence (who incidentally also designed the new Coventry Cathedral after the original was destroyed during a massive Nazi air raid in 1940 and the Beehive, the seat of the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington) was inspired by the beauty of the surrounding South Downs National Park (which also makes Sussex the only UK university to be located in a National Park). It was more of a combination of the old and new as many of the university’s buildings are dominated by red brick (now mainly greyed by age and pollution), with the initial buildings organized around a central quadrangle with modernist arches. Today, while students might still appreciate the modernist architecture, they mainly get lost in the mazes that have been purposely designed in many buildings.

What was new about Sussex was its break with academic traditions through progressive and interdisciplinary teaching, materializing in a school system that was unique for the times. Sussex also developed a reputation for student radical activism, supporting anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam war struggles (including a group of students preventing then government advisor Samuel Huntington from speaking on campus in 1973 and throwing red paint over a visiting US diplomat). Closer to home, student dissatisfaction was manifested through boycotts of assessments as a form of social control, student protests, (rent) strikes and the periodic occupations of administrative buildings, as chronicled by Ed Goddard, a Sussex alum. Students also enjoyed concerts by legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. The forerunner to the School of Global Studies, where I teach, was AFRAS (School of African and Asian Studies), which became known for challenging existing ideas around race and gender, hosting scholars and activists from global South and counting among its alumni activists such as Helen Pankhurst.

In the late 1960s, the United Nations asked a team of experts at Sussex for science policy recommendations, resulting in what became known as the Sussex Manifesto, which was deemed as too radical to become the foreword for the UN World Plan of Action for Science and Technology in Development. It nevertheless influenced UN thinking around this confluence and was used for teaching courses in universities in the Global North and South. Forty years later, a new Manifesto was issued as the result of collaborations between academics at SPRU, IDS and Global Studies, all of which are contributing to Sussex being repeatedly ranked first in the world for Development Studies. In 2018, the university divested from fossil fuel investments after a long Student Union campaign and last year it declared a climate emergency.

If that sounds too much like all is good at Sussex, it is because it isn’t. The current Vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell, became known as the ‘neoliberal beast’ during the first wave of staff pension strikes in 2018, when he was the only vc to openly side with the UUK, which was also in contrast to his former much more critical academic views on neoliberalism. Sussex became a hotspot of protests during that strike and the most recent ones and many students supported striking faculty members. The university’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science continues to be funded by fortunes made from the opioid epidemic, and a domestic violence case involving a staff member and his doctoral supervisee was initially handled in grossly inadequate ways. More generally, the Changing University Cultures report commissioned by Tickell in 2017 speaks of the performance of activism and shows the persistence of structural inequalities around race, gender and sexuality, institutional privilege and deep divisions between staff and senior management at Sussex. Still, the university’s strategic vision for the future, called Sussex 2025, wants to harness the ‘pioneering spirit’ of Sussex, however superficial this might be.

As part of this, the university has launched a management-driven Pedagogic Revolution that is more style than substance at the moment. Still, there are interesting teaching initiatives on campus such as the Active Learning Network and a great number of passionate and committed educators, many of whom I am lucky to work with in the International Development department and who have inspired my own teaching and this book. Working out the extent to which such individual, smaller-scale initiatives can have a meaningful impact on transformative teaching will be an important part of my writing. Here, I am guided by the wise words of fellow anthropologist Margaret Mead:

never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens [educators] can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.