Autonomy is non-negotiable, says v-c in Western civilisation row

Sydney sets ground rules for controversial Western civilisation programme before talking ‘tin tacks’

September 30, 2018
Michael Spence speaks at the World Academic Summit

The University of Sydney will set the ground rules governing a controversial degree on Western civilisation before it brooks any discussions about the course content.

Vice-chancellor Michael Spence told Times Higher Education that the university had initiated a fortnight of internal consultation on the “terms of engagement” for the philanthropically funded programme.

He said that the aim was to deal pre-emptively with the concerns that had scuttled a similar proposal at the Australian National University, which accused the prospective funder, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, of attempting to subvert its academic freedom.

“Before we get down to the tin tacks of support and courses and all the rest of it, [we want to] set the ground rules for the relationship,” Dr Spence said. “These things are non-negotiable in terms of our academic freedom.”

A 15-point draft memorandum of understanding, circulated to Sydney staff, says that the university’s usual processes will apply to curricula, degree structures, admissions, scholarships and academic appointments. Testing and marking will be the sole responsibility of the university, and staff must be free from “interference or oversight” outside the university’s normal mechanisms.

The document also gives the Ramsay Centre the right to an international academic review of the programme after the initial funding period.

Dr Spence said he expected the most contentious point to be appointment panel representation. The university’s “standard position” was that donors were entitled to one representative, which did not give them veto powers in the six-to-eight-strong panels that selected senior academics.

Like the ANU, Sydney has experienced staunch internal opposition to the Ramsay Centre proposal, with staff branding the idea elitist and paternalistic. Dr Spence dismissed such criticisms as “non-sequiturs”. “By offering a course in Western civilisation it doesn’t mean we uncritically accept the notion of Western civilisation…or devalue the East,” he said.

Dr Spence said that arguments on both sides of the debate had been “polemical”, but highlighted that Sydney already had “160 units of study in what you would call classical Western civilisations”.

“None of the content of this course is in any sense radical. The right want to say it’s radical because they want to say we’re a bunch of bomb-throwing lefties who put students though ideological indoctrination camps.

“They want the Ramsay proposal at Sydney to fail, because they want to demonstrate that the place is so crazy that you couldn’t have a course like this. The left want it to fail because they don’t want us to accept money from a board [including former conservative prime ministers] John Howard and Tony Abbott.”

Freedom of expression has become a fraught issue in Australia. Universities have been threatened with legislative measures if they fail to allow free speech, while education minister Dan Tehan reportedly proposed billing protesters for security costs if they demonstrated against controversial speakers.

Psychologist Bettina Arndt has asked Sydney to take action against several student protesters under its code of conduct, after they disrupted her address at the university in mid-September. Ms Arndt has been touring Australian universities challenging claims of a campus “rape culture”. Dr Spence said the claim was being investigated, but claimed Ms Arndt’s real agenda was “to prove that there’s no free speech on Australian universities”.

ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the arguments of both Ms Arndt and her opponents were “puerile”, and that political attempts to “regulate free speech” were an oxymoron.

Universities had to “allow communication of ideas that are uncomfortable”, but were not obliged to provide a forum for “hate speech” from outsiders, he said.

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