The Ramsay Age: Three billion dollars and no one to give it to

Academics speak about the Ramsay Centre and the future of education funding

Artwork by A. Mon.

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is in a uniquely difficult situation: it currently has three billion dollars, but nobody to give it to. Intentionally or not, the late Paul Ramsay has left the country not only one of the largest educational funds in Australian history, but a new and high stakes battleground in the seemingly interminable Australian culture wars. Negotiations between the Ramsay Centre and the University of Sydney have not only caused concern about the legitimacy of Western civilisation in academia, but have also raised questions regarding the compatibility of academic autonomy and an increasing reliance on private sponsorship in the context of public funding cuts.

Since June, the Ramsay Centre has joined the ranks alongside fabricated ‘African gangs’ and reusable plastic bags as one of the nation’s foremost cultural crises (at least according to the indefatigably indignant conservative commentariat). This process was accelerated by the dramatic and apparently acrimonious breakdown of negotiations with the Australian National University, a disagreement elevated to the status of national news by the unexplained intervention of the Prime Minister.

Though negotiations shuffled along quietly for the first half of the year, receiving little attention outside of academic spheres, Ramsay board director Tony Abbott characteristically invited controversy in late May after publishing an online essay in Quadrant about the proposed degree. The former Prime Minister triumphantly declared that negotiations were reaching a close, and that the Ramsay Centre was on the precipice of restoring Western civilisation to its rightful prominence in tertiary education. Finally, Abbott declared, after years of suppression, Western civilisation could be taught free from the pesky pervasion of Asian and Indigenous perspectives—unhindered by the radical notion that “all cultures are equal”.

ANU’s withdrawal was supported by a lengthy explanation from the Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt. Under siege by aggrieved conservatives from Sky News, The Australian, and the Federal Parliament, Schmidt declared that negotiations were halted not due to the substance of the program, but due to “irreconcilable differences over [its] governance” reflected in an “extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach” which sought to undermine the autonomy of the university by dictating curriculum as well as staffing. Despite defending the independence and integrity of an institution which Ramsay supporters point to as a jewel in the crown of Western civilisation, Schmidt was lambasted as a “left-wing ideologue”; a cultural Marxist blindly opposed to the study of Western civilisation from the outset.

As the dust settles in Canberra and the Ramsay Centre retreats to the alma mater of its board director, both advocates and sceptics of the proposed degree appear divided. Since the publication of Abbott’s ideological manifesto, Ramsay Centre CEO Simon Haines has been tasked with recovering a respectable front for future operations. This draws a distinct line between him and his radical conservative colleagues (two of whom,  coincidentally, are former prime ministers). Haines, a former academic himself, has gone to lengths to position himself above the perceived ideology of the Centre, lamenting the blemish left on what he sees as an honest educational mission. It’s no mistake that over the past two months Haines, not Abbott, has been the face of the Centre.

With Haines and the ragtag bunch of former prime ministers knocking on USyd’s door, the response from academics can be broadly grouped into two categories: those who are willing to inch the door open (albeit with the security chain firmly in place), and those who would leave the call unanswered.

Dirk Moses, professor of Modern History at USyd, falls into the former camp. Moses became a leading voice in the Ramsay debate overnight after writing an article which drew indignant criticism from conservative commentator Chris Kenny. Despite his firm opposition to Kenny and the conservative vilification of universities he represents, Moses thinks that USyd should engage with the Ramsay Centre, though with caution. Like many academics, he thinks that the Arts faculty simply cannot afford to refuse funding.

“Research for research’s sake is not indulged like it used to be,” he explains. “Similarly with teaching, resources are allocated like a business—meaning student demand for teaching—rather than on intellectual merit.

“Look what happened to Indian history: it disappeared. And where is African and Islamic Studies in this faculty? Entire civilisations are not taught.”

Along with an absence of historians of Africa, the Department of History is also lacking in academics specialising in Indian history, as noted by Honi in late 2016.

Moses thinks there’s a potential overlap between the vision held by Haines and units currently offered at USyd. As noted by Vice Chancellor Michael Spence on Q&A in June, the University currently teaches a ‘great books’ program, which shares some of the features proposed by the Ramsay Centre. One of the units, ‘Great Books that Changed the World’ (FASS2200), promises to extend students through the “intensive reading” of “challenging texts”. The unit has restricted access however—it’s part of the Dalyell Scholars program, meaning only students with an ATAR of ninety-eight and above have access to it.

“Let’s democratise the Dalyell program by making it generally available,” argues Moses. “If you want to democratise it, though, you need to devote resources for the small-group teaching. I have no problems with Ramsay contributing them so long as we run the program on our terms. But we should walk away if Ramsay insists on calling it “western civilisation” rather than “great books”—a political rather than academic project.”

Beyond financial considerations, Moses argues that to engage the Ramsay Centre rather than ignore them would be politically tactful.

“We can’t be seen to be a priori against the proposition. We would fall into the stereotype of a PC university, which is what our critics want. If negotiations falls down, it should be because Ramsay was intransigent, not us.”

“I have confidence in my colleagues. I’m confident that the VC and the Dean would not accept a deal that would compromise university standards. I’m confident that the university’s vetting procedures would produce an outcome that would issue in a serious great books stream.”

On the other side of the debate are the so called ‘Sydney 200’—the roughly two hundred USyd academics who signed an open letter from the National Tertiary Education Union to Michael Spence urging against any arrangement with the Centre, citing the intention to “predetermine academic outcomes” and prioritise students with an interest in the West. The student movement ‘Keep Ramsay Out of USyd’ is aligned with these academics.

Dr Nick Riemer, senior lecturer in English and linguistics, and the first signatory on the NTEU letter, flatly rejects both the financial and political justifications for engaging the Centre. To engage them, he claims, even with a healthy degree of scepticism, would be to afford it “social capital” and “academic respectability”, potentially strengthening the future bargaining position of the Centre with other universities less protective of their academic autonomy.

As for the political implications, Riemer thinks rejection is the only option. “Another way of describing ‘not engaging in the culture wars’ is ‘letting the right win them’”, he argues. The only way to prevent the politicisation of universities in the future is to turn away the ideologues without hesitation.

Advocates, sceptics and opponents of the Ramsay Centre alike all act with vigilance instilled by past experiences. The United States Studies Centre, a research institute and think tank located at USyd, has provided lessons for both conservatives keen to combat the perceived left-wing slant of universities and academics wary of ideological agendas. John Howard, a member of the Ramsay Centre board, was responsible for directing twenty-five million dollars towards the USSC at its inception to promote the Australia-US alliance.

To a large extent, the USSC has served its purpose—a  source with inside experience at the USSC told Honi that the think tank component of the Centre is an “echo chamber” and “essentially a branch office of the US embassy”. At the same time however, conservatives are dissatisfied with the critical research produced by the Centre, echoing the oft cited remarks of former Thatcher speechwriter John O’Sullivan that “every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing”. The Australian’s Gerard Henderson lamented that the academic component of the USSC is “stacked with leftists” and has an “acute lack of political diversity”. For academics and ideologues alike, the USSC has provided a precedent that informs both sides the Ramsay debate.

The Ramsay Centre’s proposed degree also has an obvious analogue in the ‘Contemporary Civilisation’ course run by Columbia University in the US. Students are required to take a ‘Core Curriculum’ in addition to their own studies, where they learn about “the history of moral and political thought from Plato to the present.” First implemented in 1919, the course arose amid post-war xenophobia. Students were expected to gain an appreciation for ideas like capitalism and democracy, instilling within them a renewed patriotism and ultimately affirming the West’s place at the forefront of global politics.

As the Contemporary Civilisation course approaches its centennial, it remains criticised for over-emphasising the importance of Western contributions to global history and philosophy. The programme has certainly shed much of its original nationalist ideology, however, mainly due to the efforts of student and academic protest. Reforms in the 1980s and ‘90s expanded the scope of the course from its Eurocentric origins to include a relatively more diverse and intersectional array of perspectives, such as Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, the Qur’an, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Disagreement over whether USyd might be able to adopt a similar course in collaboration the Ramsay Centre ultimately boils down to one’s willingness to trust university management and their ability to resist intruding demands presented by large corporate benefactors amidst a political context of tertiary education cuts.

It stands to reason that even if USyd is able to decline Ramsay’s offer today, a similar offer could be unceremoniously accepted at some point in the future when funding for the arts is in even more dire straits.

In June 2018 alone, tertiary education institutions were dealt with significant cuts as a result of a Liberal government funding freeze, arguably laying an imperative for greater reliance upon higher student fees in a deregulated environment, or alternatively, on private sponsorship. USyd will receive 2.8% less than expected, equating to a $62 million cut. Smaller universities like the University of Newcastle were also hit hard, losing $30 million of funding. Newcastle is already turning to private donors to fill the gaps left by public cuts, having received $16.4 million as of August 1 from the Paul Ramsay Foundation. Although the Foundation is a separate wing of the Ramsay Centre’s operations, the grant displays the wide reach of the ideologically-charged group.

The University of California, Berkeley demonstrates the implications of a corporatised funding structure. In response to dwindling state support, Berkeley instituted private  support as a replacement. Between 2013-17, the public university raised almost two billion in private funds, a figure that continues to rise. In the 2016-17 fiscal year alone, $191 million of philanthropic support was given for scholarships and fellowships.

Although arguably preferable to a mere absence of funding, the result for Berkeley has been the funding of, for example, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, responsible for explicit research into anti-terrorist responses. In recent years, Australia has witnessed the rise of similarly political and privately-funded think tanks. The Institute of Public Affairs, a prominent beacon of climate change scepticism, was found to source eighty-six per cent of its funding from private individuals, have close ties with the Liberal Party, and receive $4.5 million from mining-magnate Gina Rinehart.

Moses, who completed his Ph.D. at Berkeley, sees the university as a model for USyd’s potential future.

“For good or ill, a UC Berkeley style funding model could be the future for the university, meaning a vast majority of its income is privately generated.”

For those who take issue with the Ramsay Centre, an outcome similar to the Lawrence Livermore labs—or even worse, the Institute of Public Affairs—is precisely the dystopia in mind. One fear is incidents similar to the firing of Steven Salaita, a tenured Palestinian-American professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Illinois, in 2014-15. Having tweeted criticisms about Israel’s 2014 attacks on Gaza, Salatia was later fired. After filing a lawsuit against the university, documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests showed that his firing came following pressure from donors, who threatened to withdraw financial support from the university if he was not fired. Despite inevitably reaching a settlement, it is not difficult for USyd academics to imagine similar events at their own campus, should the university accept funding from an explicitly pro-West source.

There is reason to believe a similarly corporatised university has already taken shape. As of 2016, the Senate—USyd’s governing body—changed its make up with very little student consultation. During student exams in 2015, the Senate cut seven of its twenty-two positions. Of the fifteen remaining positions, six are external appointees with previous experience as CEOs, executive and non-executive directors in corporate business. Students now hold only two positions, and only one representative of the NTEU sits on the board. When asked by the NTEU whether the Senate would allow the Ramsay Centre’s programme to pass, Spence gave words of assurance about the other processes that would need to first be passed before the Senate was consulted. However, given the Senate’s supreme power and recent trends suggesting an ever-enlarging overt corporate influence, Spence’s comments did not satisfy all.

Even though Moses spoke with relative confidence that the worst parts of the Ramsay Centre’s course would not pass, he was also quick to concede that any proposal with such political overtones needs to be approached with extreme caution. Of course, not all corporate sponsorships hold explicitly ideological overtones—take last year’s multi-million deal between USyd and Microsoft to provide research grants and technology. The deal hopes to “reshape national and global security and revolutionise medicine, communications and transport.” Despite being relatively uncontentious in comparison with the Ramsay Centre, the Microsoft deal illustrates the integral role corporate sponsorship is already playing at USyd.

Perhaps, as public funding declines, universities will have no choice but to “hitch their sail to unfettered capitalism,” as Moses so eloquently puts it. Perhaps, as the optimists would suggest, this model is not altogether incompatible with independent academic rigour. But in the trilemma of corporate funding, academic autonomy and ideological warfare, only two can survive. We can only hope that the latter remains confined to the petty squabbles of opinion columns, rather than in our tertiary syllabus.