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Chancellor of USyd rejects Howard’s commentary on Ramsay Centre

Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson says that universities are less left-wing and ‘politicised’ now.

USyd Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson has refuted former Prime Minister John Howard’s claim that “left-wing sentiment” dominates universities, arguing that universities have become less left-wing and ‘politicised’.

“The politicisation of what goes on at universities is much less than it was many years ago,” she said at a forum hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies last Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Hutchinson said that, in comparison to anti-war demonstrations of the past, the number of students and staff who regularly participate in protests and other political activities is at a low.

“If we get a rally, we’re very lucky to get 20 to 30, maybe 40 students rallying,” she said. “I can probably name on one hand those who are the staff members who are going to be absolutely out there pushing against certain things…The vast majority are just getting on with their job.”

Hutchinson was responding to a comment from Howard, a board director of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which implied that universities are beholden to a left-wing agenda. A decision to reject the Centre’s proposed Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation would, he implied, confirm that universities are captive to leftist ideologies. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he still hopes the Centre can reach an agreement with USyd, his alma mater.

The Centre aims to establish a course in western civilisation at multiple Australian universities. It has been met with resistance from students, academics and commentators, who are concerned that the Centre’s proposed course threatens academic freedom and has racist overtones.

The board of the Centre has done little to quell such suspicion. Beyond the fact that the board is composed of prominent conservatives, including Howard and Tony Abbott, Abbott wrote an op-ed in Quadrant revealing that the Centre is “not merely about western civilisation but in favour of it”.

USyd has been in discussion with the Centre since June and is yet to make a decision.

In June the USyd branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) formally called on the University to end talks with the Centre, and to establish a formal Education Agreements Policy to safeguard the value of academic freedom in any future negotiations between the University and external organisations.

USyd’s SRC and the Education Action Group staged an on-campus protest against the University’s decision to enter into negotiations with the Centre in late June. The demonstration came shortly after a group of USyd students protested against the University’s involvement with the Centre outside the ABC studios, the night Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence appeared on Q&A.

The ANU recently rejected the Centre’s proposal—and its millions of dollars—because it was concerned about the Centre exercising excessive control over courses and teachers, endangering academic freedom. The Centre wanted to establish a management committee and appoint Ramsay Centre representatives to half of the positions, and wanted to periodically sit in on lectures and tutorials to assess the classroom material. In light of Tony Abbott’s infamous comment in Quadrant, the two parties clashed over the proposed name of the course: the Centre wanted to call it a ‘Bachelor of Western Civilisation’ while the ANU wanted to name it ‘Bachelor of Western Civilisation Studies’, in line with the naming conventions of other cultural studies majors.

The University told Honi that it has “nothing to add” to Hutchinson’s comments, “except to note that staff and students hold – and are free to express – a wide range of views.  The University defends their right to hold and express those views vigorously and regularly.”

The University also said, “discussions between the Ramsay Centre and the University are ongoing but formal negotiations have not commenced…There is no definitive timeline for this process at this stage.”

SRC Education Officer Lily Campbell, who questioned Spence about the Centre on Q&A and led the on-campus protest, suggested that Howard’s comment was ironic because, as universities have transformed into huge corporate entities, they have become increasingly conservative.

“It’s pretty crazy for the right to be stirring up the image of universities today as hotbeds of cultural Marxists. Howard clearly is doing so to justify the introduction of a right-wing propaganda machine, supposedly to balance out the ideology. I think universities today are increasingly run according to a right-wing agenda. As universities have corporatised and thus become increasingly open to the private sector, private interests of people like John Howard are able to dominate.”

Campbell disputes Belinda Hutchinson’s claims that the left are dead on campus, pointing to the on-campus Ramsay Centre protest, the popularity of the Keep Ramsay Out of USyd Facebook Page, and the relative strength of the USyd branch of the NTEU. “We’re definitely still kickin’ up a fuss,” she said.