The Mustard Project is located at the heart of a complex web of intertwined histories. The events at Essex took place at one of a number of so-called ‘new universities’ of the 1960s in the UK, and at a very specific moment in the expansion of – and the widening of access to – the higher education sector at that time. Dr Albert Sloman, the founding Vice Chancellor of the University, had written and broadcast a series of Reith Lectures for the BBC on ‘A University in the Making’, and had a reputation as a champion of liberal education. However, his decision to suspend three student ‘ringleaders’ in the wake of the events of 7th May seemed fundamentally illiberal to many students and staff, even as he was lambasted by the media for not taking a tough enough stance.
The students were initially spurred to protest by their revulsion at the prospect of the University hosting a chemist working for the UK Government’s Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment at Porton Down, Witshire. Students were suspicious that the research work carried out at Porton had been put into active use on US campuses and in the fields of Vietnam, and (at the least) wanted the visitor, Dr Thomas Inch, to account for an apparent lack of ethics in his research community.
The campus protests and ‘Free University’ at Essex involved ‘teach-ins’ on the social and political functions of knowledge in general, and the connections between technological research and the environment in particular. As such they contribute to a minor, but by no means insignificant, strand of the broader history of scientific and technological research.
Participants have made it clear that they were heavily influenced by the pronounced cultural shifts of the day, most obviously in the areas of fashion and music, but also especially in terms of political cultures and the kinds of grass roots politics that had been informing popular struggles against colonialism around the globe. The Essex student actions of the 1960s (and beyond) are further bound up in wider histories of protest on and off university campuses, and range from the distinctly parochial to a genuine engagement with politics on a national and global level.
There was a protest against the price of meals in the University’s Hexagon restaurant, but also the staged disruption of a talk by Member of Parliament Enoch Powell, shortly before his notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech, protesting what students were already identfying as a racist strain in the MP’s public statements. In March and October, contingents of Essex students attended major national demonstrations against US military actions in Vietnam in London, both of which involved clashes with the police as the protestors marched on the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
Meanwhile, at the height of the ‘May events’ in France in 1968, cars full of students made the journey from Colchester across the English Channel to Paris, where they joined in discussions in seminars and ‘action committees’, helped to produce mimeographed bulletins and other publicity in solidarity with the local protestors, as well as fighting alongside them in pitched battles with the French riot police.
It is important to emphasise that not all students at the University of Essex at the time took part in the protests; it is equally important that the actual number of students supporting the protests varied quite widely, and that there were divergent ideas and feelings even on the part of the more stable ‘core’.
For all their disagreements, however, the Essex student protestors were unanimous at least in the convictions that the US campaign in Vietnam was fundamentally misguided and morally reprehensible, and that scientists (and universities) should give up attempts to view and present research as purely abstract intellectual enquiry, acknowledging instead its practical applications and real-world implications.