One of the best things about Western civilisation (a list of debatable length) is its obsession with spectacle. Another is academic freedom. So it was thrilling to see both these traditions collide on Tuesday in Brian Schmidt’s explanation of the ANU’s decision to walk away from the creation of a Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
The vice-chancellor of the ANU gave us something rare in Australian discourse at the moment: honesty. Speaking both on Radio National and through The Australian, Schmidt defended his organisation and his decision in language without compromise.
He wrote in the Oz:
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.
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.
And then this closer:
The university has never accepted gifts with such restrictions as demanded by Ramsay, and under our watch as chancellor and vice chancellor never will.
Similarly on the ABC’s AM today, Schmidt’s defence of the ANU’s decision was compelling listening.
He made it clear, for example, that it was Tony Abbott’s Quadrant piece, published in print in May, that scuttled the deal.
I think we need to get the chronology right. It was actually put out on Quadrant online in the beginning of April. We asked for clarification. Would they be prepared to make a public declaration of our autonomy? And they said yes, yes but it didn’t happen and still hasn’t happened.
Schmidt also had a bounder of a response for historian Geoffrey Blainey. On the weekend, Blainey said that if a Chinese donor were to hypothetically give him a big pile of money for his chosen field, cosmology, Schmidt would gladly take it.
Professor Blainey is mixing together the notion of giving a grant versus giving a gift. If the Ramsay Centre, for example, wanted to fund one of our academics to do just about anything, we would take the money if the academic wanted to do it. That would create a great deal of controversy on our campus and that’s fine. I don’t mind controversy, universities are open to ideas, that is our whole point.
And yet, it wasn’t just a ruthless attack. He left the door open, so long as the Ramsay crew came back on his terms. Smooth, Brian Schmidt. Smooth.
We do not hold grudges. We are happy to work with almost anyone provided they respect the university’s autonomy.