The debates about The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization have provided some of the most disorienting (and entertaining) convulsions in our political and media landscape in months. There have been a number of role-reversals and surprising firsts, such as seeing conservative warriors Tony Abbott and John Howard attempting to pour huge sums of money into universities and humanities departments, or academics – usually unquestioningly partial to more funding and engorgements of the academe — actively turning down substantial financial resources and the prospect of more jobs by signing an extraordinary open letter in opposition to the very idea of a course in Western Civilization.
Most bizarrely, we’ve seen socialist Labor politicians such as Kim Carr become self-appointed champions of academic freedom and true custodians of the values which underpin Western Civilization. This from a man routinely described by his colleagues as “Kim Il Carr” for his Marxist sympathies.
The great unspoken irony overshadowing this is that the politicians self-righteously lecturing us about the need to preserve academic freedom from ‘problematic’ external influences (such as the Ramsay Centre) have been repeatedly disgraced by their readiness to accept political donations from almost anyone with an agenda to undermine and compromise Australia’s political sovereignty. The whole conversation is riddled with this kind of rank hypocrisy, confusion and pettiness, all of which is to the detriment of the students and broader Australian populace, which emphatically supports the notion of university courses in Western Civilization.
One of the latest voices to enter the fray is Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek, with a piece in the Fairfax press running the new line that universities should have nothing to do with the Ramsay Centre because it represents a threat to academic freedom. For a would-be Education Minister, Plibersek’s confused piece reveals such a disturbingly shallow grasp of history that it almost makes the case for the new Ramsay Western Civilization degrees on its own.
Tanya Plibersek, Kim Carr and the coterie of Australian academics – who have been smoked out like termites from the house they destroyed — aren’t really concerned about academic freedom at our universities. If they were, they would have raised concerns about the spread of Confucius Institutes at all our major universities, which have long been critiqued as tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and are globally recognised as a genuine threat to academic freedom.
They would have baulked at the proliferation of institutes such as the Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) at UTS, established with $1.8 million worth of funding from Huang Xiangmo, president of the United Front Body and close associate of the Chinese Communist Party. Many similar institutes are nested within Australian universities with either start-up or ongoing funding from external sources, which are often linked to foreign governments or entities who do not share our democratic values, let alone support the principle of academic freedom.
Are Plibersek and Carr seriously suggesting that the generous bequest of the late Paul Ramsay is more of a threat to academic freedom, the culture of our universities and Australian democratic values than the propaganda and soft power of the CCP-linked institutes mentioned above, or the anonymous millions poured in to various ‘funded Chair’ positions at Islamic Studies centres from petro-monarchs in the Middle East? When have we ever had a debate or an uproar about the nature of these funding arrangements, and the attendant restrictions on publication, teaching and staffing that surely come with these contracts, written or otherwise?
The universities are of course free to accept or reject funding from any source. But they should at least be honest and consistent about the reasons why they do so. As custodians of taxpayer-funded institutions, perhaps they should be made to publicly account for their decisions to deny a greater diversity of learning material, resources and jobs to both students and staff alike. This could only leave them embarrassed about the hypocrisy of accepting funding from a range of questionable sources while they blithely turn away much-needed resources from our humanities departments.
ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt’s rejection of the Ramsay Centre’s offer has nothing to do with “academic autonomy”, as the released correspondence from Former Prime Minister John Howard demonstrates. Instead, it has everything to do with the unfortunate combination of unimaginative and limp-wristed university administrators bowing to the demands of a vocal but unrepresentative minority of unionists and agitators at The National Tertiary Education Union and the radically activist elements of the broader student population.
Australian unions have long been led by militant Marxist-Leninist thought and its obstructive practices. Witness Norm Gallagher and the Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s, or even further back to the 1920s, when the Communist Party of Australia encompassed the Maritime Union and hobbled Australian industry. The Ramsay proposal has been ensnared by this same complex, and unduly influenced by sectional interest groups who dress their anti-Western biases in confected concerns about academic freedom.
The starting position in these debates should be exactly what Plibersek identified at the beginning of her piece: “that there is not enough philanthropy in Australia” and that our universities would be justified in accepting more funding to improve the quality of our humanities courses. Everyone agrees with this. The Ramsay Centre and university administrators should start there, and then find a way to make it work for the benefit of teaching and learning at our tertiary institutions, ensuring similarly adequate checks and balances for the preservation of academic freedom which have allowed for the funding of other institutes, such as the US Studies Centre, the Australia China Relations Institute, and the Confucius Centre.