In an extraordinary public statement, the Australian National University has accused the Ramsay Centre, its proposed partner for a now-cancelled Western civilisation course, of trying to control its teachers and syllabus.
Since the ANU withdrew from the proposed partnership with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation in June, it has sustained criticism from conservative commentators. That prompted yesterday’s statement from ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt and Chancellor Gareth Evans explaining the university’s decision.
Schmidt and Evans described a proposal from the Ramsay Centre that struck out academic freedom as a common goal and allowed Centre representatives to monitor classes to ensure they did not stray from the prescribed Ramsay line.
Academic freedom includes the idea that academics will be judged on the quality of their work, not the politics that underpin it. The ANU statement made the point that without an explicit objective of academic freedom, there is a risk that staff would be appointed because of “political or ideological preference”.
“From the outset, however, the Centre has been locked in to an extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach to the proposed program, unprecedented in our experience.
“It has insisted on a partnership management committee to oversee every aspect of the curriculum … meaning an effective Ramsay veto.”
The ANU stated that the Centre insisted on Ramsay representatives being able to sit in on classes and undertake “health checks” on courses and teachers.
The statement contradicts assurances made last week by Ramsay CEO Simon Haines that the Centre “never would” have controlled “staff hires or curriculum decisions”.
The Ramsay Centre is funded by a bequest from the late private health billionaire Paul Ramsay, and its board is largely comprised of conservative figures, including former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard, as well as the anti-gay marriage unionist Joe de Bruyn.
In a recent article, Abbott outlined that the Centre is “not merely about western civilisation but in favour of it”.
The ANU’s statement is extraordinary because its strident criticism of a potential donor comes at a time when Australian universities have been eager to partner with corporations and institutions to make up for repeated government funding cuts.
Nonetheless, the ANU says it has “never accepted gifts with such restrictions as demanded by Ramsay, and under our watch as Chancellor and Vice Chancellor we never will.”
ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans is a Labor grandee and served as foreign minister in the Hawke/Keating government.
Conversely, the University of Sydney is in continuing talks with the Centre to set up its Western civilisation course at USyd.
The University is already home to other centres that have extensive ties to outside organisations.
The United States Studies Centre has received government funding, as well as donations from companies with an interest in the Australia-US alliance, including those in the military sector.
The Confucius Institute provides Chinese language courses and cultural events and is widely viewed as a part of the Chinese government’s soft power program.
However, there are some differences between the USSC and Confucius Institute on the one hand and the Ramsay Centre on the other.
The Confucius Institute does not teach courses that can contribute to a degree, which limits its influence. The USSC does offer credit-earning courses, but they span the ideological spectrum.
Yet the USSC and Confucius Institute are far from the University’s most controversial partners.
USyd is currently continuing construction on the Chau Chak Wing Museum, even as the donor whose name it bears has been accused of bribing a senior UN official in both parliament and the courts.
The University of Sydney’s decision to work with the Ramsay Centre has been attacked by both the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union and the Students’ Representative Council.
A rally will be held on campus tomorrow expressing some students’ anger at the University’s continuing negotiations with the Centre.
Last year, the University’s powerful Academic Board re-endorsed its 2008 Charter of Academic Freedoms with Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence’s support.
It sets out that the University “undertakes to promote and support the free, and responsible pursuit of knowledge through research”.
When the Board discussed the Charter, Spence said he saw the University as operating in a Western tradition, one that values academic freedom. It remains to be seen how the Vice Chancellor will weigh what, according to Evans and Schmidt, is an opportunity to study the former at the cost of the latter.
The University of Sydney has been contacted for comment.