The defence of Western Civilisation: It's not over yet

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Bilal Cleland discusses whether our academic institutions will continue to resist donor control of enquiry and research.

THIS MONTH has seen a sudden upsurge in the cultural battles between the conservatives and mainstream academia.

It has centred upon the offer of a substantial donation to the Australian National University (ANU) by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation for a bachelor degree and an accompanying scholarship program.

The Centre is chaired by former PM John Howard and has Tony Abbott on its board.

Abbott wrote in Quadrant about its purpose, with the following statement described by Eureka Street as "the clincher":

'Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not be all equal and that truth might not be entirely relative.'

Eureka Street put it very succinctly:

'This is supremacist stuff, and also massively ignorant. Sophistication in art, literature and science has never been a monopoly of the West unless a case could be made that the rest of the world were somehow less human.'

ANU's Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt issued a statement on 5 June 2018, pointing out:

'ANU Centres have received donations from a range of countries in addition to funds from government and industry. In all cases, ANU retains control of both curriculum and staffing decisions.' 

It could not accept the claims of the Ramsay Centre to control curriculum and staffing.

The IPA quickly let it be known this rejection was "a terrible indictment on the state of our universities".

Then the Australian Jewish Association accused the ANU of having been “Islamised”.

“We have been quite blunt in raising the question of whether ANU has been Islamised,” Dr Adler told The Australian. “We have seen Islamic countries invest in university education around the world very substantially and we know that ANU has a program of Arabic and Islamic studies and received millions in funding from Arab and Islamic countries.”

The ANU Vice-Chancellor pointed out in his statement:

The Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies received one-off donations from the private Al-Maktoum Foundation in Dubai, the Iranian Ministry of Education, and the Turkish Government in 2000-2001. All these donations were matched by ANU, enabling the Centre to have a dedicated building, establish four endowment supported positions in Arab and Islamic Studies, Persian Language and Turkish language and studies. All its activities, including appointments, have been under the exclusive control of the University. The Centre, which receives its operating budget from the University, is a great success story, with more than 1,000 undergraduate and over 200 graduate students, as well some 20-25 PhD students a year.

The intensity of the attack on our national university is clear evidence of the intention of the Ramsay Centre. 

Richard Denniss pointed out just how intense the attack has been in The Age:

After the ANU expressed concern that the Ramsay Centre might seek excessive influence that would impede academic freedom, the university was openly criticised by a prime minister, a former prime minister, a raft of front benchers and prominent national commentators. Put simply, the ferocity and power of the attack on the ANU is the clearest proof that they made the right decision.

The ANU is to be applauded for its loyalty to the most basic foundations of “Western civilisation”, namely the protection of freedom of enquiry and devotion to the search for truth.

Realising that Sydney University would be the next target, more than 100 academics from that institution signed a letter opposing this 'European supremacism writ large'.

The SRC also organised a petition to the Vice Chancellor, warning:

'Ramsay Centre CEO Simon Haines has said they will review all course content, not hire teachers who have criticised Western civilisation and will withdraw funding if they think the course isn’t sufficiently pro-West.'

The response of the Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence was that:

' … he would not be prepared to accept a Ramsay Centre gift that endorsed a narrative in which Australian universities were "dominated by a certain 'leftist' propaganda that needs to be countered by a certain 'conservative' propaganda."' 

However, the story has not yet finished.

The Ramsay Centre is showing some signs of retreating from the triumphalist position with its CEO Simon Haines (but not Tony Abbott) indicating that:

' ... normal academic processes would be followed, and the centre would have no power of veto. If the Centre didn't like the direction in which the university took the course, it would withdraw. "If we felt, three or four years into the degree, that this is not working out, the stories we are getting from the students [are] that most of the courses are pointing out that the West is a wicked, colonial, imperialist, racist, sexist civilisation, we would say, 'look, we didn't give you the money to do that, we want something balanced'".

That is, we will just take away your financial support!

We will watch with bated breath, concerned for the ability of our academic institutions to resist donor control of enquiry and research.

Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

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