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Why ANU knocked back the Ramsay Centre course

Co-authored with Brian Schmidt. Published in The Australian, 25 June 2018

On June 1, the Australian National University announced it was withdrawing from negotiations to create a degree program with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. We took our decision for no other reason than the centre’s continued demands for control over the program that were inconsistent with the university’s academic autonomy.

We anticipated attacks from some for even contemplating introducing the degree, and from others for being anti-Western civilisation. What we had less reason to expect was the protracted media firestorm that has continued daily in certain sections of the press. ANU has been constantly assaulted for capitulating to pressure from those hostile to the Ramsay Centre, but without evidence or new information being offered.

Press scrutiny is crucial in Western democracies in holding public institutions to account and universities should not escape it. But does stating over and again a false narrative make it true?

We refrained from going into the details of the negotiations with the Ramsay Centre, partly because of our respect for what we had understood to be the confidentiality of those negotiations; partly to allow the centre clear air to rethink its position after exploring options with other institutions; and partly because of our unwillingness to personalise the arguments in the way that others have been all too ready to. It has become obvious we need to further explain our decision in the public square.

Had ANU withdrawn from the program simply because some within our ranks were uncomfortable, for essentially ideological reasons, with the very idea of it, we would deserve all the criticism hurled at us. That was absolutely not the case. There was, and remains, strong support across the university for a major enhancement of our teaching and research capacity in the area of Western civilisation studies.

We are attracted by the wide-ranging liberal arts courses taught in some prominent US universities and remain wholly willing to craft a similar degree course here, designed to convey understanding and respect for the great Western intellectual and cultural traditions, albeit in our own way: analytically rigorous, not triumphalist, and open to comparisons being drawn, as appropriate, with other major intellectual and cultural traditions.

ANU has long been ranked No 1 in Australia in humanities disciplines and already teaches some 150 undergraduate subjects addressing Western civilisation themes. The attractiveness of having major new resources to advance them is why an enormous amount of effort has been invested by our staff in developing a detailed proposal, including a draft syllabus, in support of a Ramsay gift, and why negotiations for common ground continued as long as they did.

So what went wrong? We withdrew from negotiations because there were irreconcilable differences over the governance of the proposed program, not its substance. We were willing to accept the Ramsay Centre having a voice in curriculum design and staff appointments. But only a voice, not a controlling influence.

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, embodied in a draft memorandum of understanding of about 30 pages, with another 40 pages of detailed annexures.

It has insisted on a partnership management committee to oversee every aspect of the curriculum and its implementation, with equal numbers from the Ramsay Centre and ANU, meaning an effective Ramsay veto.

It has been unwilling to accept our draft curriculum and has refused to accept our preferred name for the degree, Western civilisation studies. While acknowledging that any curriculum would have to be endorsed by ANU’s academic board, it has made clear that to be acceptable to the Ramsay Centre it would have to find favour with the joint management committee, whose representatives wanted to sit in the classes that we teach and undertake “health checks” on courses and teachers.

It became clear that there are fundamental differences in our respective conceptions of the role of a university. The centre has gone so far as to insist on the removal of “academic freedom” as a shared objective for the program: this remains in the draft MOU as an ANU objective, not a Ramsay one. For us, academic freedom doesn’t mean freedom to underperform or to teach without regard to the disciplines or agreed objectives of a particular syllabus. But it does mean appointment or retention of staff on the basis of their demonstrated academic merit, not political or ideological preference.

A continuing concern has been that the proposed Ramsay funding is provided short-term, up for renewal in eight years. A time-limited gift is not in itself problematic, but building a major program involving the hiring of a dozen staff, and then being held hostage to its continuation by a donor whose most senior and influential board members appear to have manifestly different views to ours about university autonomy, is not a happy position for any university to be in.

Ramsay chief executive Simon Haines, in last weekend’s Fairfax press (The Age, 23/6), has now at last engaged in a little circumspect distancing from the Tony Abbott article in Quadrant, which was very explicit about the controls envisaged.

But that dissociation has been a long time coming, and it remains to be seen whether there will in fact be a change in the Ramsay board’s position. In successive conversations with the centre, ANU sought public assurances that Ramsay’s position had been misstated and that ANU’s autonomy in actually implementing agreed objectives would be fully respected. But no reply we have received has given us any cause to believe that the MOU, with all its overreach, would be fundamentally revised.

In the result, it was simply impossible on our side to believe that there was sufficient trust and confidence for the project to proceed.

We withdrew from the negotiations for governance reasons of this kind.

Boiled down, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation simply did not trust the ANU to deliver a program acceptable to it, and consequently asked for controls on the university’s delivery of the degree that ANU could not — and should not — agree to.

ANU accepts gifts from individuals, foundations, groups, entities, government agencies and foreign governments. In no cases are these gifts allowed to compromise the university’s academic integrity. Nor are they allowed to impose on our academic freedom, or autonomy.

Regarding historical gifts surrounding our Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australia’s leading academic capability in its area, let us be clear: if the Ramsay Centre were to take the same approach to a gift to ANU as the donors to CAIS, we could reach an agreement in less than 48 hours.

The university has never accepted gifts with such restrictions as demanded by Ramsay, and under our watch as chancellor and vice-chancellor never will.

Let us offer this frank assessment as things stand at the moment, as the Ramsay Centre seeks other partners: to succeed, either it will have to change its approach and trust its partners to deliver a program in Western civilisation studies, or be limited to a university willing to make concessions on academic autonomy.

If the Ramsay Centre and its board are prepared to understand and respect the autonomy of Australia’s national university, our door remains open.

Gareth Evans and Brian Schmidt are Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, respectively, of ANU

This article was originally published in The Australian