Spotlight on universities' role - In Australia

Row over refusal to set up course on Western civilisation

Graduates posing for photos at a Sydney university. Supporters of the proposed Western civilisation course said it was vital for Australian universities to promote Western culture and civilisation. Critics said it represented a narrow ideological wor
Graduates posing for photos at a Sydney university. Supporters of the proposed Western civilisation course said it was vital for Australian universities to promote Western culture and civilisation. Critics said it represented a narrow ideological worldview and privileged study of the West over study of other cultures and civilisations.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Some see left-wing bias, others say private involvement threatened academic freedom

An attempt by a private foundation in Australia to promote the study of Western civilisation has sparked fierce debate after a leading university refused to collaborate with it over concerns about a threat to academic freedom.

The controversy followed the Australian National University's (ANU) decision to reject a proposal to co-develop a Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

The centre, funded by a private donation, has the backing of prominent conservatives such as former Liberal prime ministers John Howard, who chairs the centre's board, and Tony Abbott, a director.

Announcing the decision not to cooperate with the centre, ANU's vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist, expressed concerns it could threaten the university's "autonomy".

"We retain, without compromise, our academic integrity, autonomy and freedom, and ensure that any programme has academic merit consistent with our status as one of the world's great universities," he said in a statement.

The move triggered a vocal debate and opened a new front in the so-called "culture wars", which pit conservatives against progressives on issues such as the content of school curricula and the extent to which the nation should focus on, and apologise for, its historical wrongdoings.

Supporters of the proposed Western civilisation course said it was crucial for Australian universities to defend and promote Western culture and civilisation. Critics said it represented a narrow ideological worldview and privileged study of the West over study of other cultures and civilisations.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Liberal MP, weighed in on the debate, questioning the decision by ANU.

"I find it very hard to understand why that proposal from the Ramsay Foundation would not have been accepted with enthusiasm," he said.

Separately, more than 100 academics at the University of Sydney urged the university not to collaborate with the centre, saying in an open letter the proposal was "European supremacism writ large".

"Decisions about how the cultural traditions of Europe are to be studied at university are for academics to make, not billionaires or former prime ministers," the letter said.

The debate was partly fuelled by suspicions about the motives of the Ramsay Centre, which was created last year with funds from a roughly A$3 billion (S$3.02 billion) charitable bequest by billionaire Paul Ramsay, a private healthcare mogul who died in 2014. Mr Ramsay had never married and had no children and was a prominent donor to the Liberal Party.

The centre aims to promote the study of the liberal arts in Australia by working with two or three leading universities to create a BA in Western Civilisation. This would include funding student scholarships and new academic positions.

Critics of ANU's decision said it demonstrated that universities tend to have a left-wing bias and are overly critical of Western and Australian history and culture.

"The prevailing anti-West sentiment at Australian universities and their determination to see the world through the prism of oppressor and oppressed is precisely why the Ramsay Centre wants to establish a degree in Western civilisation," wrote conservative commentator Rita Panahi in The Herald Sun.

"The Ramsay Centre wanted to counter the bias… but all it succeeded in doing was proving just how illiberal modern academia has become."

Ramsay Centre's chief executive, Professor Simon Haines, a literature academic and former diplomat who studied and taught at ANU, said the centre "fully endorsed the principles of academic autonomy".

The concerns about the aims of the Ramsay Centre were heightened following an article by Mr Abbott earlier this year in Quadrant, a conservative magazine.

Mr Abbott said the centre was "not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it". He criticised Australia's education curriculum, saying it "was supposed to be pervaded by Asian, indigenous and sustainability perspectives".

The article prompted concerns among students and the union that represents academics about the impact of the course on academic independence.

"Students and academics feared the programme would become a magnet for Liberal Party supporters wanting to confirm their pre-existing beliefs about the superiority of Western civilisation," wrote an ANU student, Mr Luke Kinsella, in the Queensland Times.

"You can't just pay a university to host your own partisan political training ground."

The debate has also raised concerns about other collaborations in which universities have accepted funds from outside parties, including from foreign governments.

Professor John Fitzgerald, from Swinburne University of Technology, called on universities to reconsider their decisions to set up Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes, Chinese language and culture centres which are hosted at universities in Australia and around the world. He wrote in The Australian that the crucial decision when accepting donations was "the degree of direct involvement the donor is permitted to exercise over the staffing, teaching and research".

"This goes to the reputation and integrity of a university and to the principle of academic freedom."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2018, with the headline 'Row over refusal to set up course on Western civilisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe