Robert Bolton, courtesy of Financial Review, 15 June 2018, where the title is “Why the ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt rejected the Ramsay Centre’s millions” … with highlighting being the imposition of The Editor, Thuppahi
At Tuesday’s meeting of Sydney University’s academic board vice-chancellor Michael Spence took the unusual step of requesting that a discussion about the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation be cut from the minutes. According to the student newspaper Honi Soit Dr Spence explained to those in the room, “there are some cultural warriors on the Ramsay Centre Board”.
It’s not just the Ramsay Centre that harbours outspoken warriors. On the same day Sydney University’s Dr Nicholas Riemer wrote in Sydney Review of Books that in an article for Quadrant magazine chief executive of the Ramsay Centre, Dr Simon Haines showed “a clear example of the racism in which … ‘the characteristics of the dominant are not seen as specific characteristics but as the … normal way of being’.”
Welcome to the world of PhDs.
Given what happened at the Australian National University, it’s clear that Sydney University’s Dr Spence faces a decision in which there is no good option.
On Thursday May 24, ANU was close to accepting the multimillion-dollar, philanthropically funded degree in Western Civilisation when Ramsay Centre board member and former prime minister Tony Abbott published an article in Quadrant about the proposed degree. Most people latched on to his comment that the centre was “about Western civilisation but in favour of it”.
But what got up the nose of ANU vice-chancellor, and Nobel laureate, Brian Schmidt was Mr Abbott’s line, “a management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions”. The next day Dr Schmidt told staff, in case there was any doubt the ANU had a core set of principles, “These include retaining, without compromise, our academic integrity, autonomy and freedom.”
Tension remains extreme
Dr Schmidt had been coming under extreme personal pressure from staff in the ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences not to accept the “tainted” offer. He continued to defend his position until Wednesday, May 30, when he phoned the Ramsay Centre chair and former prime minister John Howard.
Dr Schmidt asked Mr Howard if he could give the centre some distance from the comments by Mr Abbott. Mr Howard, in loyalty to his fellow board member, said he could not. In the words of a person familiar with the matter although probably not the words of the ex-PM, Mr Howard told Dr Schmidt he would have to “suck it up”.
Two days late, on June 1, Friday, Dr Schmidt sent his abrupt letter withdrawing from negotiations.
ANU now says the matter is finished and history. But the tension remains extreme. It’s said that a high-level resignation is threatened in the ANU Chancelry building – home of the uni’s administrators. Not all staff were opposed to the degree, initially.
Professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, Frank Bongiorno, told AFR Weekend he had supported the proposal but the “strident and ill-informed attacks” on the university suggested an “unbridgeable difference” between ANU and the “ideological ambitions of some of those spruiking” the program. This is a pity as there was much of value in it and the ANU was probably the Ramsay Centre’s best chance of getting a good degree up in a leading Australian university. The loss is primarily the students’,” he said.
Chancellor of the ANU and former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, told AFR Weekendthe university’s decision was not founded on hostility to a “well crafted” course in Western Civilisation.
“Great universities are fiercely defensive of their autonomy, and alarm bells properly ring when potential donors refuse, for example, to accept ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective, as was the case here,” he said.
In his Quadrant article Mr Abbott revealed the centre and the degree course had been his idea, which he had persuaded billionaire philanthropist Paul Ramsay to adopt. With so many personal loyalties and principles at stake it is hard to see an easy resolution.