Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans, ANU chancellor

Good God, the Ramsay Centre. This really has become like Neighbours, hasn’t it? There seems to be no end. In the latest twist, ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt and chancellor Gareth Evans have dropped the bomb. In an article in the Oz, they have revealed the real nature of the Ramsay Foundation’s commitment to free speech and inquiry: as part of the deal, the centre wanted to not only have control over hiring and firing, but also plant operatives in the lectures, to scrutinise staff performance, watching out for thought crimes.

This, as numerous Twitter commentators noted, was “bonkers”, something no university worth the name — including the tech colleges that now have the name — could accept. It will make it all but impossible for other public universities to accept a Ramsay Centre, and pretty difficult for publicly accredited Catholic universities such as the ACU to do so as well. Doubtless they’ll find a way to slither in somewhere; but it’s clear that the whole episode has done more to discredit “Western civilisation” as a sleazy fix, than a legion of Che-quoting tenured radicals could have done.

There wasn’t much doubt that the Ramsay Centre’s idea of free inquiry and free speech was cracked. Even so, the idea of monitoring lecturers with randoms in the audience is so breathtakingly nihilistic as to give pause. These guys really hate the university, don’t they? The institution, which is supposed to be infinite in its capacity for free thought, is proposed as being no more than an adjunct of power, and a pre-decided set of values. “University is a chore,” John Howard had said in a Four Corners interview once, and it is that view, combined with an endless whiny, self-pitying rant about people c-c-c-c-riticising it, that motivates this supremely anti-intellectual, anti-freedom movement.

Mind you, it’s Geoffrey Blainey I feel sorry for. The hapless old fella is always wrong-footed in these things, and this one was no exception; he was one of the latest to accept the Oz’s invite to write an op-ed piece condemning ANU for knocking the Ramsay Centre back, suggesting they had no grounds to do so. John Carroll was caught in the net, as was my good friend Peter Craven. None of them would accept the condition of being spied on in their lectures; all had defended the Ramsay model before its full character was revealed.

What now? The Catholic Leninists wrecking the ANU-Ramsay deal from within might have overplayed their hand. It may now be impossible for Catholic universities to accept the centre. The Ramsay Foundation and the IPA are now a laughing stock. But that doesn’t really assuage the chill feeling of cynicism that issues from them.

As someone who found university to be a liberation of the mind — the very opposite of a chore — I really hate the sheer neuroticism of the right’s relationship to the contemporary humanities, the desperate defensiveness against actual thought. The true university may arise within a culture, but it functions outside of it. The university is the place where the values of all cultures can be subject to critical questioning; it is, potentially, always one step back from any given condition. Attempts to subordinate it to powers within that “given” world are ultimately totalitarian in nature.

I could have done this as another Neighbours parody, it’s that absurd. Or Gordon Ramsay’s Ramsay Centre Nightmares (“I’m here in Canberra to check out an outfit going broke because chef Tony keeps serving up shit sandwiches”). But it’s not really funny; the fact that so much of the mainstream right could go down this path. It’s a real measure of how anti-democratic and illiberal the right have become, that they could even attach themselves to such a proposal — and a warning about where they will go in the future, and how far.