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