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”.