Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation

Former Liberal Party deputy leader Julie Bishop was unveiled last week as the new chancellor at Australian National University. Given her history with Tony Abbott, the prospect of the university changing its tune on his beloved Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is now even less likely.

Thankfully for the centre there are other irons in the fire. So far it has done a deal with the University of Wollongong, and is currently in negotiations with other unis across Australia, including the University of Sydney, University of Queensland and the University of Western Australia, leaving a trail of annoyed staff and students.

But just what do these negotiations entail? What are the folks behind the Ramsay Centre angling for, and will any universities take the bait?

University of Sydney

The experience at USYD followed the established pattern. First there was backlash from academics and students: 12 departments wrote open letters rejecting the proposal for the centre to fund a course in Western tradition. Then there was a comparatively tepid response from pro-Ramsay academics, who gathered 13 signatures (six of which were anonymous) welcoming the “the reading of ‘great books’ in small seminars led by scholars from throughout the university”. In contrast the initial opposition attracted hundreds of signatures.

And then… nothing. As a Honi Soit piece from March 2019, there has been an “eerie silence” on the subject since the turn of the year.

University of Western Australia

At the other end of the continent, the centre is in talks with the UWA to put together a summer school to be jointly run by St George’s College and the Ramsay Centre.

“UWA has been informed that St George’s College and the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation are in very early discussions about the possibility of St George’s hosting a summer school on the influences and impact of Western civilisations, particularly in relation to Western Australia,” a UWA representative told Campus Morning Mail in July. “As this proposal is still in its early stages, there are no details of how such a course might be administered.”

Academic board chair Raymond da Silva Rosa told CMM he was organising a series of “collegial conversations for board members” and other UWA stakeholders — the first of which featured “a lively discussion for two hours” and “vigorous engagement in the debate from the several students who also attended”.

Among those students were writers for uni magazine Pelican, who reported that the UWA experience mirrors one criticism of Ramsay, significant but too mundane and quotidian to have been taken up by the culture war: its content is not actually addressing any kind of gap. Academics gave feedback that they “already teach quite a lot of that” and “a lot of the stuff you’ve talked about is already offered”.

UWA chancellor Robert French, incidentally, authored a recent report on the “free speech crisis” on Australian campuses, concluded that such a crisis did not exist. The Australian reported it as though it had said the opposite.

University of Queenland

This pattern continued at UQ: staff didn’t want it, and a union meeting passed two resolutions calling on management to withdraw their expression of interest with the centre. The union resolved that “academic freedom, university autonomy and transparency must be non-negotiable preconditions of any relationship with external partners”, arguing the program is an “explicitly elitist venture, which will disproportionately confer benefits on a small and privileged group of students”.

Further, a general meeting of students — the first since early ’70s apartheid protests, attracting nearly 500 students — to overwhelmingly vote no to the private humanities degree.

The UQ seems intent on pressing on despite the curriculum being rejected twice by the humanities faculty board. It noted that the board is an advisory — rather than approval — body.

University of Wollongong

Thus far, the only deal the Ramsay Centre has actually sealed is at the University of Woolongong, who signed a memorandum of understanding with the centre in mid December 2018. In March the UOW academic senate voted 28 to 16 to formally object to the fast-track of a Ramsay-approved bachelor of arts in Western civilisation.

The university simply “noted” this objection, and steamed ahead regardless.

Peter Fray

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