The reputational risk of rejecting funding for controversial courses focusing on Western civilisation would be as grave as the risk of accepting it, the University of Queensland has told its staff.
In an email summarising the outcomes of consultations over a proposed partnership with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, Queensland says that it is “mindful” of the potential adverse impacts on its image.
But knocking back the deal could jeopardise future donations and create an impression that the university was not prepared to work with outsiders whose ideas were “at odds with some academic opinion”.
“The role of universities is to defend open, respectful and robust debate, including engaging with ideas and texts that staff and students may not agree with,” the email says.
“The university’s reputation is arguably likely to be enhanced and not diminished if we are viewed by external stakeholders as being even-handed in relation to all philanthropic partnerships.”
An agreement with Ramsay would be likely to secure Queensland tens of millions of dollars to hire new staff and bankroll generous student scholarships. Under the proposal, the university would restructure current humanities and law degrees to include major components on Western civilisation.
Similar arrangements have sparked furious backlashes at the Australian National University and University of Sydney. ANU eventually broke off negotiations with Ramsay while Sydney, like Queensland, has not yet publicly decided to proceed with a partnership.
The Queensland email suggests that it strongly favours a deal with Ramsay, expressing an “aspiration” to begin classes next year. But an agreement will proceed “only if it is consistent with the university’s policies of autonomy over curriculum, academic appointments, academic freedom and governance arrangements”, the memo stresses.
The new courses will be subjected to the usual approval processes including consideration by the academic board and the committee for academic programmes policy, it says.
It lists seven broad areas of staff concern, with curriculum attracting the most objections. Other topics include reputational risk, academic freedom and autonomy over staff and student selection.
The email shrugs off most of these fears, promising further action only on curriculum. Senior humanities and law academics will “enhance” the draft curriculum ahead of a 9 April meeting of the board of studies for humanities and social sciences, it says.
It adds that Ramsay has undertaken to include a commitment to academic freedom in agreements that it strikes with any university.