WUS from the mid 60s to the early 70s

There follow impressions reconjured from some very happy years with the  International WUS Secretariat from 1965 until 1973 first as Technical Officer responsible inter alia for publications and later as Associate Secretary with responsibility for the Latin American programme.  

First impressions 

My first impression of International WUS was of the building which housed the secretariat in the rue Calvin in Geneva; a very grey building which had decidedly been built to last. It was a beautiful 17/18th century “hotel particulier“ – the first of 11 built in Geneva from 1699 to 1747 whose history deserves a volume by itself.  

Imagine opening (with difficulty) the smaller door which was a part of the very grand double carriage doors which gave access to the courtyard and seeing this:  

The building known as the Hotel Buisson was built in 1699 by the entrepreneur-architect Moïse Ducommun, according to plans sent from Paris. By its size and sumptuousness, it stood out from neighboring houses and introduced a new type of building in Geneva: the mansion being between the main courtyard and the garden. Both luxury and classicism in the composition reveal French influence and show “the evolution of patrician architecture” in the city.

A carriage door opens from the street onto a courtyard, surrounded by a U-shaped building: the central facade is remarkably articulated and decorated (large steps, columns supporting a balcony, stacked order of pilasters, emblazoned pediment, window size, hardware). Long facade on the garden side.

Department of public works and energy / Service of monuments and sites. Geneva 1994 

Inside, 18th century decorations attributed to Jean Jaquet. Restoration in 1971 (facades) and in 1978-1982. 

The extent to which a building affects the daily round inside it is much romanticised by poets, composers and the like, but Charlotte Lohrig – known to all as Lo – captured that same spirit when she wrote (in the 50th Anniversary edition of WUS in Action) of her arrival at the rue Calvin in 1929:  

“It was on one of those incredibly beautiful pre-autumn days which Geneva so often gets in early September, that I crossed the large entrance door leading from rue Calvin into the lovely court yard of the beautiful 17th-18th century house in which the secretariat of ISS was lodged and where I was to take up a temporary job, estimated to last  3 months and which in fact has gone on for 40 years.This happy impression of my arrival in a sunny, harmonious surrounding proved to be a symbol of the atmosphere in which I was to live, of the people I was to meet, of the aims and the spirit of the work in which I was to take part.”

Some 35 years after Lo, I crossed the courtyard in early 1965 – a very green, horribly over-eager 21 year old.  

The spirit of selflessness  

Inside I found the sunny, harmonious and happy environment still very much intact. Above all there was everywhere a spirit of selflessness which, in time, I realised was the WUS spirit.  In an international career of some 40 years, my time at WUS was the sunniest, most harmonious of all my assignments.  

And the selflessness was evident in the personal as well as the organisation lives of the staff I worked with – it was the way they believed they should live and the organisation should behave.  

The spirit of selflessness was just one of the common values which the members of the secretariat shared.   In 1952, the then Chairman of WUS – indeed essentially the first Chairman of International WUS 1 – had identified the values of all those who worked for the Organisation:  

“The most important is a belief in the world which cannot be separated….  
Secondly the credo of the dignity of man (and woman)…..  
Thirdly the belief in the equality of races and nations……which makes the richness of  civilization…  
Fourthly the belief in the independence of academic research and the principle of academic freedom……  
Finally the belief in the existence of a world community between members of the university  community“  

It was in this spirit of mutual respect, and service that WUS worked.  

For me, the WUS ethic was perfectly encapsulated in the Preamble to the Statutes which states that:  

“World University Service is based on concern for:
The sincere and objective search for the truth which implies:
1. Creative thinking and a critical many-sided approach
2. Resistance to all external pressure liable to hinder freedom of study, teaching or research“  

Oh that other international organisations would make creative thinking and a many-sided approach requirements for all candidates seeking employment.  Intellectual curiosity seems to me to be a totally unexplored skill.  Let’s add “Hire for curiosity” to the recruitment agencies’ mantras.  

The offices and the team  

For all the grandeur of the building itself, office accommodation was suitably tailored to practicality; I worked in a small plywood box in the corner of the former ballroom which also served as the offices of two colleagues and the general office where mail arrived, documents were  stapled and conversations held.  Once a year or so the plywood partitions were pulled down to allow the former ballroom to be converted to a meeting room for the Executive Committee – like this one in 19702:  

In 1965, I joined a team of some 9 regular staff in the international secretariat – three Shorthand Typists, an Accountant (Georgette Robert), an Adminstrative Secretary (Lo), a Technical Officer (me), two Associate Secretaries (Chidambaranathan and Tom Turner) and the General Secretary (Hans Dall) who also had responsibility for the programme in Latn America.  These were the days when international communications were essentially by letter – skilfully crafted by the word smithies Hans, Nathan and Tom. Nathan dictated all his missives, which were often 12 or more pages long, to an uncomplaining secretary.   

Tom left soon after my arrival and was replaced by Michel Gouault who stayed at the Africa desk until after 1973; Hans Dall moved to FAO in 1968 and was replaced by Nathan as General Secretary, I took over as Associate Secretary for Latin America and Hema Dassanayake replaced me as the Technical Officer. Lo and Georgette remained long after I left in 1973.  

The Offices in the rue Calvin were all on the ground floor. WUS had 4 sprawling rooms divided up where necessary; the remaining rooms on the ground floor were occupied by the staff of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), the organisation which gave birth to the forerunners of WUS.  

The owners of 13 rue Calvin – members of the Naville paper manufacturing family -who rented the ground floor to WUS and WSCF at a very reasonable rate, had rented out the first floor – it was rumoured – to the son of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.  

The context  

The late 60’s were quite simply momentous years – on all fronts.  

1968 was marked by protests worldwide as social conflicts escalated into major riots characterized by popular rebellion against the bureaucracy and the military.  Probably the most well remembered are those in Paris, which began in May sparked off by student protests against capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism and traditional institutions.  

But similar riots rocked the world of 1968; in the US major protests took place in more than a dozen cities and university campuses, in Poland 300 student protesters were beaten, in West Germany students protested against the perceived authoritarianism  and hypocrisy of the German Government, in  

Scandinavia, Pakistan,Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Brazil,  Spain, Italy,UK, and elsewhere students took to the streets to manifest their discontent  with the social order or rather “inorder” between the “haves” and the “have-nots”………  

The period is considered a cultural, social and moral turning point.  

The May 1968 International WUS General Assembly in Leysin, Switzerland

The institutions were taken by surprise by the outpouring of venom against them. I have a very vivid memory of the then UNESCO Assistant Director General3 addressing  the WUS General Assembly in May 1968 – and saying in effect: “as we sat in UNESCO in Paris earlier this year, we really did not see this coming”   

And WUS could not but be significantly affected by this social revolution. The Leysin General Assembly gave support to more major projects. as opposed to dissipating WUS’ impact on funding many smaller activities. And intellectually the Organisation defined its concept of the role and function and the social obligation of the university. To back up this new emphasis on student action for development, a seminar was organised in  July1968 and a  new post was created in the international secretariat to spearhead thinking on WUS’s role in social reform to which Martin Loney was appointed sometime later. The seminar took place in Juelsminde, Denmark and brought together students from WUS as well as the International Student Movement for the United Nations (ISMUN) and the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA) with which WUS collaborated on its global student health programme. 45 participants from 24 countries and all continents participated.    

The discussions which were taking place at the time of global unrest were highly charged.  Much of the debate centred upon the appropriateness and really the willingness – of the student community “to take to the streets”.  

The report slightly coyly concluded that “attitudes must be radically changed in order to motivate a more positive and revolutionary approach to these problems and to their solution” (emphasis added). I think I remember a great deal of heavy breathing – not to say dissent – about the inclusion of the word “revolutionary”. But there was a sense of urgency in the text of the final statement which also reflects the spirit of the time:   

“1. We, a group of individual students associated with IFMSA, WUS and ISMUN, coming from all continents and meeting in Juelsminde Denmark in July 1968, believe that the world is hurtling towards a major catastrophe resulting from the injustice, prejudice and ignorance fatally dividing the world into hostile camps of rich and poor nations.  

2.We predict that within our lifetime this catastrophe will befall the vast majority of the world’s peoples unless drastic action is taken to eradicate the inhuman conditions under which most of these peoples now exist.  

3. We believe this action to effect chance must be undertaken by peoples and governments together on a massive scale in an effort far greater than we now see.  

4. We must instil in all people, but particularly young people – your generation – a greater knowledge and fuller understanding of the economic and social problems of this world and their inevitable consequences. Young people must be trained in coming years as citizens of the world.  

5. We recognize that attitudes must be radically changed in order to motivate a more positive and revolutionary approach to these problems and to their solution. Students must be in the vanguard of the struggle for the complete elimination of poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and ignorance. In this struggle, public opinion must be mobilized through political action.  

6. We call for the reform of educational systems to promote a social consciousness among students which will produce such awareness of national and international responsibilities as to lead to true social, political and economic revolution.  

7. We pledge ourselves to work for the implementation of the recommendations elaborated by the Juelsminde Seminar. We ask all students to join us in urging government, universities and international organisations to implement the conclusions and recommendations of this seminar.”     

Earlier in 1968, WUS had appointed a study-group of 8 to prepare a Guide to Student Action for Development which laid down the techniques for student action in raising social  development issues.  

Full disclosure: these projects were my responsibility. Looking back with the somewhat jaundiced eye of age, the texts give the impression of tub thumping sermonising but they are nevertheless a wholly genuine expression of the bewilderment of a generation growing up in a “cold war” in which they seemingly had no role nor voice in the future direction of political and social decision making.  

Restructuring of International WUS  

The 60’s was also a period of the restructuring of International WUS which I feel was more divisive than I understood at the time. and which may have played a part in the break-up of International WUS.  Then, it seemed a wholly appropriate reflection of global democratisation and of those who were the life blood of the Organisation – the national committees.  

But maybe in casting off the sponsors and abolishing the structures that allowed  the voices of history also to be listened to (much like those in the upper chambers of a number of bicameral political structures), a valuable sounding board was lost.   

European Student Relief – born in 1920 – was the operations arm of the World Student Christian Federation and the link with WSCF remained very close until the establishment of WUS in 1950.  WSCF had become a “sponsor” together with Pax Romana and the World Jewish Congress and automatically a member of the governing bodies of the bodies which preceded WUS. These sponsors together with other individual members constituted the Assemblies.  

In the early 60’s the structure was reformed to take the weight away from the sponsors and individual members and to the representation of national committees.  A category of “members at large” of the Assembly (i.e. interested and renowned individuals) remained until 1970 when a vote was taken to abolish it.    

There were a number of eloquent advocates for preserving this category (I recall an impasssioned plea from John Thomson a former International treasurer), but the mood was clearly towards greater direct representation of recognised national WUS committees.  

The Statutes adopted in August 1972 limit the composition of the Assembly to National Committees and members of the Executive Committee (non-voting).  Article 6 reads:   

“Members of the General Assembly up to a maximum of 5 for each National Committee shall be nominated by their duly recognised National Committee…….”  

The 11 members of the Executive Committee were also to be elected “by and from the delegates to the General Assembly…” and were required to be “seniors” (teachers  or administrators or otherwise active in post-secondary education) or “students” (Article 13 and Bye-Law 3).. The Bye-Laws also provide for the election among the 11 members of the Executive Committee of four regional members – the four regions being considered as: Africa, Asia and Australasia, Europe and North America and Latin America. The political die was cast.  

The work of WUS  

Others will I hope write of the international Programme of Action which flourished through the late 60’s and early 70’s and thereafter. The African refugee scholarship programme was in itself a remarkable humanitarian and, indeed, political, success story.   Throughout that story WUS played its part with integrity and with the judgement and justice which was the hallmark of its being.  

One last anecdote:  

In a quiet early evening chat with Lo around the “Thermofax” copier in my earliest years at WUS, I must rashly have reflected on my impecunity; she drew herself up to a theatrical Lady Bracknell height and said with unquestionable authority:  

“You should pay us for the experience you are gaining.”  

She was absolutely right.  

Author profile
Roger Eggleston

Roger Eggleston began his WUS career as a technical officer in 1965, and from 1968 to 1973 he was Associate Secretary for Latin America. Between 1973 and 1988 he moved to WHO positions in Copenhagen, New Delhi and Geneva. His last position was an elected one at the secretariat which supported the work of the inter-agency coordinating body where he was responsible for introducing policy changes affecting working conditions across the UN system. He is now retired and living in England.