ROGER SCOTT. “Paying the piper but hating the tune”

Jul 5, 2018

The ANU has touched off a debate which has ramifications across the whole university system, or at least that section of it with prestige high enough to attract philanthropists with deep pockets.

The Conversation on Monday reported at admirable length on the controversy in an article entitled “ANU stood up for academic freedom in rejecting Western Civilisation degree”.   This provides chapter and verse from both sides of the dispute between the university and the Ramsay Centre, which can be read there free from the extended but selective intervention from The Australian newspaper and its editorial staff.

It gives the detail about the protracted negotiations which eventually reached headlines and lengthy comment in the Murdoch press.  The Conversation’s extended documentation makes it clear that the much-quoted comment in Quadrant by Tony Abbott was not misleading or an accidental kneejerk.   The purpose of Ramsay’s bequest was to promote the primacy of Western Civilisation rather than just study it objectively and potentially critically, and both Howard and Turnbull were in sympathy with Abbott on this point.

There are plenty of people from across a wide political spectrum who are concerned with two elements in the current university climate – the tendency to squeeze out the study of humanities subjects like history and literature in favour of more vocationally-oriented activities and the tendency of universities to accept money from special interests to fund and therefore reorient a research focus towards work that might combine outcomes of value to them and also offer public acclaim for their generosity.  Mining and pharmaceutical interests come to mind but even small-scale funding can be cited, for example by a gunowners interest group seeking a critical analysis of State legislative restrictions on gun-ownership as a PhD or post-doctoral project.

Humanities are in trouble because student preferences have drifted away from the traditional canon of history and literature, linked to the colonial heritage of the major ethnic group of Anglo-Celts.   This drift has been reinforced by the universities detecting the possibility of expanding their offerings through external funding for both research and curriculum offerings which attract students towards a wider horizon – from the Middle East, the Pacific and Asia, particularly China.   Add a vocational component into the mix and a distaste for the behaviour of Anglo-Celtic politicians encourages local students to study international relations.   It also encourages universities to offer courses which are designed to add vast numbers of international students to the cohort.

The Ramsay Centre may have been flogging a dead horse but the ANU was right to resist the temptation to take their money anyway.   It would have been more worrying if the target had been Immigration Studies or Capital Punishment Studies and these pipers were chosen by the paymasters.   American experience gives evidence of this strategy at work among philanthropists with axes to grind and pipers lining up to be paid.    And Australian universities may exhibit similar tendencies, although the curriculum targets are generally identified with greater care and staffing appointed with due diligence.

Sixty years ago, I took a first year course which would have warmed the cockles of the Ramsay’s heart – four subjects: origins of modern Europe (History), Greek history (Ancient Civilisations), development of the Westminster model (Political Science) and a Geography course which relied on staffing and texts with an English flavour.  (I dodged English Literature’s Chaucer and Shakespeare).   A current student could take the same mix and flourish at the University of Queensland – and UQ has a chair in Classics endowed by someone who shared Ramsay’s enthusiasm for western civilisation but attached no strings.   His funding sustained a chair which would otherwise have disappeared and a growing number of students now opt for this branch of the humanities.  A positive outcome.

But there is a fine line to be drawn in making curriculum or staffing concessions to gain philanthropy.   The University of Queensland has recently accepted a major benefaction from two of its own alumni, enough to fund infrastructure and research in applied science.  The alumnus’s career and recent employment was in the chemicals industry and environmental activists have noted that he held a senior managerial post with Dow Chemical (of Agent Orange fame) and that “he is a business ally and supporter of Donald Trump.…It is rank hypocrisy that a company that abuses the environment is now setting up an academy that the university says will ‘address sustainability issues’” (Red Flag, 28.6.18).     But a protest meeting which hearkened back to Vietnam War days attracted only a score of supporters and the local media welcomed the philanthropic initiative as possibly adding to the current debate over coal mining and electricity generation.

The epic failure of the Ramsay negotiation was that the Centre was inextricably caught up in partisan politics and entrenched prejudices from its inception.   The leaders within the Centre treated the ANU with continuing suspicion about its radical or socialist preferences, leading to a lack of trust on both sides.   Western civilisation hasn’t yet crumbled but it is clear that any future discussions of curriculum issues will be coloured by this failure.

Roger Scott, Centre for Policy Futures, University of Queensland.

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