An agreement to offer a philanthropically funded degree in Western civilisation, which blindsided an Australian university’s community when it was revealed the week before Christmas, was renegotiated and changed a month later.
The University of Wollongong said that the memorandum of understanding, originally signed on 14 December and announced three days later, had been amended and “re-signed” on 21 January. Changes were made to “more clearly describe the scope of visitation” by representatives of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which is bankrolling the controversial degree.
Theo Farrell, executive dean of law, humanities and arts, said that there was nothing unusual about university benefactors visiting campus to observe the impact of their gifts. “Because concerns raised elsewhere about this aspect of the relationship prompted questions following our announcement, all parties wanted to ensure the MOU clearly conveyed what had always been our shared intention,” Professor Farrell said.
“Visits will be for observation and social functions – not for any formal teaching evaluation – so they will not impede UOW’s academic independence. This distinction will also be clear in the final contract.”
The Ramsay Centre’s attempts to support similar courses at several of Australia’s top higher education institutions have prompted fierce opposition at the universities of Sydney and Queensland, after negotiations broke down with the Australian National University.
Wollongong avoided a similar furore by conducting negotiations in secret, and revealing the signed memorandum of understanding as a fait accompli in December. While staff cried foul, the university said that it had “learned from the experience of other institutions”.
A spokesman said that a “small” team had “quietly addressed all matters related to academic freedom, governance and autonomy from the outset”.
The university has now released the six-page agreement, along with the course curriculum and feedback from academics consulted on its development. The document says that the course will be approved through “the appropriate UOW academic approval mechanisms”.
It says that the Ramsay Centre will fund up to 10 full-time equivalent academic staff to deliver the core content and provide academic management. They will be assessed by a selection committee including “two suitably qualified academics nominated by the Ramsay Centre and agreed to by UOW”.
Scholarships for the students, who will typically come from the top-scoring 5 per cent of school leavers, will be administered by Wollongong but awarded by a selection panel including Ramsay representatives.
Visitation rights for Ramsay representatives will be to “observe the teaching and facilities” and to attend major social events.
The agreement bans Wollongong and Ramsay from making public statements about the memorandum of understanding without each other’s prior written consent. “The parties will work together to gain mutually beneficial public visibility for the ongoing relationship,” it says.
The curriculum is based around 16 core subjects focusing on philosophy, but extending to religion and science, with honours students also taking a unit on research. Core subjects include “Wisdom, Truth and Reason”; “The Good Life and the Virtues”; “Philosophy of Democracy: Britain, America, Australia”; and “The Self in Western Thought and Art”.
The university has also released endorsements from 16 “expert academic consultants” in the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, Finland, Norway and Singapore. Sonia Sikka, of the University of Ottawa, said that she was usually sceptical of “great books” initiatives.
But she said: “This programme makes a genuine effort to integrate critical voices in its approach to the canon and to engage in a meaningful fashion with non-Western traditions.”