The Australian starts new culture war over Ramsay Centre and threatens academic independence

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Skewed reporting on negotiations between the Ramsay Centre and the ANU has given way to massive overreach by the Turnbull Government, challenging not only academic standards but also the independence of universities from the whims of political parties, writes Sam Brennan.

THE FAILURE of negotiations between the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and the Australian National University has ignited a culture war in the opinion pages of The Australian. One that has seeped into Federal politics and now poses a threat to the independence of universities.  

The Ramsay Centre was launched back in 2017 with a $3 billion bequest from healthcare-magnate and top Liberal party donor Paul Ramsay. The half lobby group, half trust is staffed by Liberal party giants John Howard and Tony Abbott, among others.

In late 2017, the group began negotiations with ANU to introduce a new Bachelor’s degree in Western Civilization. This degree, like the Ramsay Centre itself, is “in favour” of Western civilisation.

To create this pro-Western degree, the Ramsay Centre advocated the establishment of new institutions and methods in breach of academic independence. Abbott said the group will form a committee inside ANU that will make staffing and curriculum decisions. The group’s CEO, Professor Simon Haines, reportedly said they would pull their multi-million dollar donation if the degree wasn’t sufficiently pro-Western, which would include not hiring academics who have been critical of the West. The group also wanted to send representatives to sit in on courses to carry out “health checks” on the teachers and removed “academic independence” from their memorandum of understanding with the university.

Unsurprisingly this caused an uproar at ANU. The National Tertiary Education Union put out an open letter voicing their concerns about the degree’s threat to “academic freedom, integrity, autonomy and independence.”

Students have also spoken out, with the Student Representative Council condemning the universities secretiveness around the degree and disregard for the student body.

In early June, ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt withdrew from negotiations to maintain the university’s 'academic integrity, autonomy and freedom'.

Once Schmidt announced the withdrawal an issue previously reserved for the third page of the student newspaper suddenly became an existential threat to the social fabric of Australia.

Leading the crusade was The Australian with even supposedly level headed analysts like Greg Sheridan saying it was 'a pivotal moment in modern Australian history'.

A spate of opinion articles accompanied Sheridan piece in The Australian, each one falling into contradiction, irrelevant hypotheticals or misrepresentation.

For the Institute of Public Affairs director and News Corp columnist Janet Albrechtsen, this issue was her bread and butter, her arguments characterising the distorted reporting on the issue.

Her first mention of the Ramsay Centre came in a piece about rising anti-intellectualism in Australia.

This anti-intellectualism was not in reference to the Ramsay Centre attempting to impose political dogma against the will of academics and university standards. Instead, Albrechtsen claimed that the concerns of university intellectuals were indicative of why the Ramsay Centre is apparently 'needed more than ever'.

Rather, she makes the bizarre argument that the university should remain silent in the face of the Ramsay Centre overreach. Because scholars pushing for academic standards are somehow against the free-speech embodied by true intellectuals, like the far-right YouTube personality Jordan Peterson.

In another article, Albrechtsen draws a false parallel between donations from individuals in other countries and the Ramsay Centre. Albrechtsen notes that the ANU receives money from the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran (Vice Chancellor Schmidt later said that ANU does not receive money from the UAE Government).

She argued that it is hypocritical of ANU to accept donations from the Middle East and not the Ramsay Centre. Of course, these groups made none of the demands that the Ramsay Centre made. Turkey did not ask for a special academic board in which they could decide who to hire and what to teach. If they had they would have run into the same issue that the Ramsay Centre did.

It is also not entirely clear how funding from extremely conservative and right-wing countries fits into the overarching argument that universities are infected with a pervasive left-wing bias.  

Albrechtsen is also guilty of poor research. Such as when she lists a series of a dozen authors students will learn about in the course. Unfortunately, she did not look at the Ramsay Centres Indicative Curriculum before penning her article as only five of the authors she mentions were covered in the degree syllabus proposed by the Ramsay Centre.

However, if students do want to study the authors not covered, they can do so in one of the ANU’s more then 150 courses in Western culture.

Another example of poor journalism is seen in the repeated refences to Abbotts April 2018 Quadrant article as instigating ANU’s withdrawal, specifically the quote':

'... the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it.'

Only Abbott used the exact same quote in a November 2017 article for The Australian itself, undermining the assertion that the Quadrant article was an unfortunate mishap.

These mistakes show a detachment from the facts of the negotiations in favour of fanning the flames of a non-existent culture war.

The final flaw Albrechtsen – and many others – make is the complete mischaracterisation of the Ramsay Centre’s goals.

Albrechtsen throughout her work makes reference to students being denied “a truly liberal education.” This reflects pervasive language used by The Australian’s columnists who refer to the degree as encouraging “debate,” teaching critically and offering “genuine intellectual inquiry.”

This ignores Abbott’s repeated assertions that the degree will be in favour of Western Civilisation not critical of it, Haines saying he would lobby against teachers with alternative views and Howard’s dismissal of opinions that approach the Western culture from a different perspective.

The course was never intended to be critical or encourage debate. However, The Australian’s gaslighting has been mimicked by the Government, leading to truly disturbing developments.

Liberal politicians quickly towed the line taken by pundits such as Albrechtsen and came to the aid of their fellow politicians at the Ramsay Centre.

New South Wales Education Minister, Rob Stokes, saidI can’t direct universities to take a centre … but my powers are those of persuasion”.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the issue is “absolutely vital” for the Coalition and vowed to “fight on it”.

Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull directly intervened calling Schmidt to question him over his withdrawal.

The Liberal party made a concerted effort to pressure a public university into changing their curriculum to suit a politically dogmatic group staff by ideologues from their own party.

In what may be the most concerning development, former IPA staffer and now Liberal Senator James Paterson called for the imposition of fines on ANU for not kowtowing to the Ramsay Centre.

Writing in The Australian, Paterson said

'... only imposing real, financial consequences will bring an end to the kind of administrative cowardice that was epitomised in the ANU’s decision to cancel their proposed course on Western civilisation.'

This call for government to take punitive action against universities protecting academics standards was not dismissed by Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who said he “welcome[d] debate and ideas on how our universities can be further held to account…”

The skewed reporting on the negotiations between the Ramsay Centre and ANU has given way to massive overreach by current government, challenging not only academic standards but also the independence of universities from the whims of political parties.

Sam Brennan is a freelance journalist and the admin of the Keep Ramsay out of ANU Facebook page. 

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