Open Letter to Michael Spence: We Do Not Consent

On September 18, Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence surprised staff at the University of Sydney with an announcement that he had revised his proposal to the Ramsay Centre, and now hoped to secure Ramsay funding for a new major in Western Tradition. The following open letter was drafted in response, and drew more than sixty signatories in the course of a weekend. Any staff wishing to add their name can do so by emailing David Brophy.

Dear Michael,

Re: Your new proposal to the Ramsay Centre

With reference to your email to staff of 18 September 2019, we would like to raise the following concerns:

First, you are seeking our assent to a proposal that we have not seen, as you have not made the text of your letter to the Ramsay Centre available to us. It is unacceptable for the Vice-Chancellor of this University to speak in the name of its academic staff without our knowledge and without our consent.

Second, from what we can ascertain from your communication to us, the rebranding of ‘Western Civilisation’ as ‘Western Tradition’ notwithstanding, the intended content of the proposed offering is fundamentally unchanged:  a narrow, masculinist, Anglocentric view of ‘the West’. Worse, prominent members of the Ramsay Centre Board have defended a hard-right view of ‘Western Civilisation’. Just last week, in the leadup to this week’s Climate Strike and at the height of the heated debate in New South Wales about women’s reproductive rights, Board member and former prime minister Tony Abbott defended his praise for authoritarian Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. Abbott wrote that the greatest problem confronting our societies today was not climate change but ‘our failure to produce more children’. He praised Orbán’s natalist policies, and further praised his hard line against the 2015 ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers into Hungary  (Tony Abbott, 14 September 2019). Abbott’s view of the West is a deeply racist and patriarchal one: white women need to produce more children to help counteract the threat of Muslim ‘invaders’ against whom the ‘West’ must defend itself.

This is the view of ‘Western Tradition’ to which your overtures to the Ramsay Centre tacitly lend support. In the words of a British academic who resigned her visiting fellowship at the University of Wollongong in protest at the UoW’s agreement with the Ramsay Centre: ‘What the Ramsay Centre seeks to do is institutionalise a far-right intellectual agenda into Australian higher education’ (Dr Sarah Keenan, Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck School of Law, University of London, 17 December 2018).

Third, we remind you that in a staff survey conducted last year, half of the respondents were opposed to any agreement with the Ramsay Centre (according to this report in The Guardian). Yet in your message to us of 18 September, you co-opt a number of disciplines, many of which are represented among the signatories to this letter, in the name of your proposed cobbled-together major in ‘Western Tradition’. You offer our curricula for sale to the Ramsay Centre, speaking in our name and in the name of the University without any direct consultation with the disciplines concerned and without any reference to Academic Board, which is the collegial governance body of this University charged with approval or otherwise of any new academic programs. At the most recent meeting of that Board, on 3 September this year, the new DVC Indigenous spoke of a range of initiatives to promote greater inclusion of Indigenous students, and a Chinese student voiced concerns over racism and discrimination on campus. The Board made a commitment to continue dialogue with our Chinese students over this issue. Any alliance between this University and the Ramsay Centre would directly contradict, indeed, seriously undermine, these commitments to inclusion and dialogue.

Among the core values ostensibly defended by this University are intellectual freedom and collegial governance. You yourself set up this July a consultative group to determine implementation of the Australian Government’s recommendations on freedom of speech in Australian universities (the so-called French Review, 2019). These are freedoms that the Hungarian leader so admired by Tony Abbott has flouted in his attacks on Central European University, which has been forced to move its main campus from Budapest to Vienna in order to continue to run its programs. Unfortunately, you also flout those freedoms by implying, in your email to staff and presumably in your letter to the Ramsay Centre, consent by the University’s academic community to a proposal that will lead to entrenchment of a hard-right political agenda within our programs. So, let us be clear: we do not consent.

Signatories as at 30 September, 5pm

  1. Associate Professor Bronwyn Winter, European Studies / International and Global Studies
  2. Professor John Frow, English 
  3. Dr Robert Boncardo, European Studies / International and Global Studies
  4. Dr Coel Kirkby, Law School
  5. Dr Fernanda Peñaloza, Spanish and Latin American Studies
  6. Dr Paul Dwyer, Theatre and Performance Studies
  7. Dr Yaegan Doran, Linguistics
  8. Dr Cat Moir, Chair, Germanic Studies
  9. James Newbold, Students Representative Council Education Officer
  10. Dr Lucia Sorbera, Chair, Arabic Language and Cultures
  11. Honorary  Associate Professor Estela Valverde, Spanish and Latin American Studies
  12. Dr Maria Cristina Mauceri, Honorary Associate, Italian Studies
  13. Dr Rubén Perez-Hidalgo, Spanish and Latin American Studies
  14. Dr Luis Angosto Ferrández, Anthropology / Spanish and Latin American Studies
  15. Dr Brangwen Stone, Germanic Studies
  16. Dr  Christopher Hartney, Studies in Religion
  17. Sophia Davidson Gluyas, Business School
  18. Associate Professor Annette Katelaris, School of Medicine
  19. Dr Jen Harrison, NTEU University of Sydney Branch Vice-President (General Staff)
  20. Dr Martin Rorke, Research Portfolio
  21. Dr Jennifer Dowling, Educational Designer, FASS  / School of Architecture, Design and Planning
  22. Dr Clara Sitbon, French and Francophone Studies
  23. Shima Shahbazi, Arabic Language and Cultures / International and Global Studies
  24. Dr Nesrine Basheer, Arabic Language and Cultures
  25. Professor Emerita Raewyn Connell, Education and Social Work
  26. Dr Eyal Mayroz, Peace and Conflict Studies
  27. Dr Nick Riemer, English
  28. Nathalie Camerlynck, French and Francophone Studies
  29. James Harding, Physics
  30. Dr Sophie Chao, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry.
  31. Dr Minerva Inwald, History
  32. Dr David Brophy, History
  33. Eda Gunaydin, Government and International Relations
  34. Associate Professor Peter Kirkpatrick, English
  35. Associate Professor Ahmar Mahboob, Linguistics
  36. Dr Thomas Jessen Adams, History
  37. Honorary Professor Gillian Cowlishaw, Anthropology
  38. Richard Manner, Theatre and Performance Studies
  39. Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Peace and Conflict Studies
  40. Dr Toby Fitch, School of Literature, Art and Media (Creative Writing)
  41. Associate Professor Fran Collyer, Sociology and Social Policy
  42. Dr Catherine Burgess, Education and Social Work
  43. Professor Melinda Cooper, Sociology and Social Policy
  44. Honorary Associate Professor Stuart Rosewarne, Political Economy
  45. Gabrielle Adamik, Sydney College of the Arts
  46. Dr Robert Fisher, Human Geography
  47. Professor Linda Connor, Anthropology
  48. Associate Professor Charlotte Epstein, Government and International Relations
  49. Dr Julie-Ann Robson, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry
  50. Associate Professor Michelle Royer, Chair, French and Francophone Studies
  51. Dr Louise Marshall, Art History
  52. Dr Wendy Lambourne, Chair, Peace and Conflict Studies
  53. Honorary Professor Stephen Castles, Sociology and Social Policy
  54. Associate Professor Ruth Phillips, Social Work
  55. Natali Marinovski, School of Social and Political Sciences
  56. Dr Lynette Riley, Coordinator, Indigenous Studies, School of Education and Social Work
  57. Dr Vek Lewis, Chair, Spanish and Latin American Studies
  58. Dr Beth Yahp, English
  59. Associate Professor Frances Clarke, History
  60. Dr Michael Beggs, Political Economy
  61. Dr Gaynor Macdonald, Anthropology
  62. Elizabeth Makris, Sydney Institute for Community Languages Education
  63. Evelyn Araluen Corr, Indigenous Studies / Creative Writing
  64. Professor Carole Cusack, Chair, Studies in Religion
  65. Dr Neil Maclean, Anthropology
  66. Professor John Keane, Government and International Relations
  67. Dr Holly High, Anthropology
  68. Dr Madeleine Kelly, Sydney Collège of the Arts
  69. Professor Megan Mackenzie, Gender and Cultural Studies
  70. Dr Sonia Wilson, French and Francophone Studies
  71. Dr Elizabeth Valiente-Riedl, Interdisciplinary Lecturer 

Dr Sarah Keenan: Why I Resigned my Fellowship at the University of Wollongong

On Sunday 16 December, news broke that the University of Wollongong had reached an agreement with the Ramsay Centre to run a Bachelors degree in Western Civilisation. The news came as a shock to Wollongong staff, who had been kept entirely in the dark about their university’s long-running negotiations with Ramsay. The NSW branch of the NTEU has launched a petition opposing the partnership, and Wollongong staff and students have started to organise against it.

In response to the decision, Dr Sarah Keenan, Senior Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck School of Law, University of London, announced that she would resign immediately from her visiting fellowship at Wollongong. In the letter below, she provides her reasons why.

Dear Professor Farrell,

It is with great sadness that I am writing to you to resign from my position as a Visiting Senior Fellow at the University of Wollongong’s Legal Intersections Research Centre (LIRC) due to UoW’s announcement that it will be hosting the Ramsay Centre’s degree in Western Civilisation.

I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting UoW over the past two years, engaging in the exchange of intellectual ideas with LIRC members and graduate researchers. My fellowship thus far has been a generative, collaborative association and I had looked forward to making more of it in the upcoming year by building interdisciplinary connections with UoW’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. However, I cannot in good faith retain a fellowship at a university that is hosting a degree with a blatant ideological commitment to the uncritical centring of Anglo-European culture, values and history. As has been pointed out by others, Anglo-European culture, values and history already dominate the curriculum in Australian universities. Indeed, Australian higher education is notable for its lack of degree courses on race, colonialism or Aboriginal studies. What the Ramsay Centre seeks to do is institutionalise a far-right intellectual agenda into Australian higher education.

The Ramsay Centre’s attempted entry into Australian universities is occurring at a time when populist white supremacist movements are being invigorated and normalised both nationally and internationally. The Australian government’s refusal to accept the moderate proposals put forward by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, its continuing removal of Aboriginal people from their land, families and culture, and its uniquely cruel regime of indefinitely detaining irregular migrants on remote extra-territorial islands under conditions found by the UN to constitute torture, are each undergirded by the premise that Anglo-European (ie ‘Western’) civilisation is both superior to and under threat from “other”, read non-white, civilisations. The Trump presidency and the Brexit vote are similarly reliant on, and in turn reproductive of, an ideological commitment to Anglo-European supremacy. This ideological commitment involves side-lining the historical reality that Anglo-European colonisation was perpetuated through land theft, enslavement, terrorism and mass murder, and that these histories remain largely unacknowledged and unaddressed.  In this climate, it is essential that universities refuse the lucrative financial reward being offered by the Ramsay Centre for providing its dangerous agenda with institutional facilities and intellectual legitimacy.

Finally I note that to my knowledge, LIRC members have had no input into the university’s decision to sign the deal with the Ramsay Centre, and that indeed it was kept secret from both the public and from UoW staff until the deal was signed last Friday.


Sarah Keenan

Support our Campaign

Our employer, the University of Sydney, Australia, is currently in negotiations with The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to fund a dedicated undergraduate program in ‘Western Civilisation’, understood in a narrow and Anglocentric way, to be taught to a cohort of students who will enjoy scholarships and learning conditions far superior to those available in other programs. Two former conversative Prime Ministers of Australia, John Howard and Tony Abbott, sit on the Centre’s Board of Directors, and Abbott has made controversial public statements about the explicitly pro-Western outlook that informs the Centre’s pedagogy. The Ramsay Centre’s CEO, Simon Haines, has also stated that the Centre would be unwilling to support the appointment of academics to teach the Western Civilisation program whose views were not in conformity with the Centre’s philosophy. One of Australia’s leading universities, the Australian National University, withdrew from negotiations with the Ramsay Centre when it became clear that the Centre would attempt to interfere with the University’s independence by vetting classroom teaching. Despite these warning signs, the University of Sydney has drawn up a draft Memorandum of Understanding with the Ramsay Centre. The University’s decision to engage with the Ramsay Centre is the subject of growing staff protest, and significant press coverage. Faculty have not yet been given full access to the draft MoU, but Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has signalled his intention to pursue negotiations with the Centre whether or not the venture enjoys our support. For this reason we are now calling on University of Sydney alumni, and academic colleagues in Australia and around the world, to support our campaign. We ask you to stand in solidarity with University of Sydney staff and all those who value academic freedom, intellectual pluralism and cultural diversity, in protesting the University’s moves to enter into a partnership with the Ramsay Centre.

Sign the statement of solidarity with University of Sydney staff here

Professor Simon During (University of Queensland) on the Ramsay Centre Pedagogy

Reposted with permission from Simon During’s Facebook page:

The Ramsay Centre’s efforts to bankroll humanities courses in a bunch of Australian universities is understandably causing anxiety. But I went to meeting on Friday last week that gave me a slightly different understanding of what is involved, which I’ve been asked to post…so this is an overlong post…

First though, for anyone who might read this but who doesn’t know the background: the Ramsay Centre seems to want to fund what it calls “liberal arts” courses on the model of the US great books courses (especially as taught at St Johns College i.e. the model developed by Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom). Lots of money involved: more than a billion all up. One problem has been that the Centre have also wanted a say in selection, curriculum, pedagogy in ways that academic autonomy and freedom can’t permit. Negotiations over that underway in three universities here. Another problem is that they are linked to the Aussie hard right, and well-known cultural crusaders in defence of “Western civilization” have leaped to their defence so that there is a quite intense left resistance to the whole thing.

But there are also narrower intellectual and institutional difficulties. The Ramsay Centre (which is not just run by committed Straussian cultural warriors I think) seems to want to introduce undergraduates to the Western canon (literary, philosophical and so on) without much mediation. Leaving aside the question of eurocentrism, it wants to avoid the various (not congruent) methods and approaches that the humanities have developed over the last couple of hundred years: historicism, sociologisms, biologisms, materialisms, politicizations of various kinds, cultural relativism… In fact core concepts like “culture” (in the anthropological sense) “function” “ideology,” “society” dont really play a role in how the Ramsay centre thinks. Instead students are supposed to soak in the “wisdom” of great texts by direct connection to them and via a pedagogy which is thought of as a three-way “conversation” between the texts, the students and the teacher (in that order). In practical terms they want to take students with high marks, and, minimizing electives, put them into small tutorial-style classes with sympathetic teachers and let them rip in ways their non-Ramsay Centre funded students won’t be able to.

‘The West at the expense of the Rest’: Why Sydney should reject Ramsay

By David Brophy (History)

First Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12/9/2018

When we acknowledge country at the University of Sydney, we often add a line about respecting the traditions of learning that existed in Australia prior to the arrival of Western civilisation, which very nearly wiped these traditions out. We still have a long way to go to realise the meaning of this formula in practice, but the acknowledgement is a start.

These words will ring increasingly hollow if we move forward in negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, whose mission is to restore an explicit hierarchy of civilisations to the way we teach and learn in Australia.

The Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, is talking tough, insisting that we won’t allow outside donors to introduce political bias into our classroom; that Sydney University will be in full control of how Ramsay’s curriculum is taught.

But even if the Ramsay Centre gives up the right to supervise our classrooms—a key sticking point at ANU—this is far from the only way in which it threatens our institutional autonomy and intellectual freedom.

Ramsay course offers stark choice to Australian universities

By Nick Riemer (English and Linguistics)

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald 6/9/2018

Pared down to its essentials, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation course confronts Australian vice-chancellors with a stark choice: are they willing to let their institutions’ authority to be used to bolster xenophobia and national chauvinism in our society?

The entire educational mission of the proposed Ramsay Centre is premised on the “civilisational” inferiority of non-Western cultures – the very ones Australian politicians go to war against in the Middle East, punish with interventions in the Northern Territory, stir up moral panics about and whose members they imprison in island camps when their boats come near our shores.

The Ramsay course has mainly been promoted by John Howard and Tony Abbott, the Ramsay board’s most powerful members. Their enthusiasm for studying the heritage of the West doesn’t spring from any newfound passion for Marcus Aurelius or Rousseau. Instead, the value of the Ramsay Centre to them lies in the intellectual legitimation it would confer on the other political agendas they champion. Tony Abbott, after all, has insisted on the need for the Ramsay Centre to be explicitly “right-wing”.