A series of statements issued by departments of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science
1. Media and Communications (15/10/2018)
Dear Vice-Chancellor, Dear Provost, Dear FASS Dean,
Dear Colleagues and Friends,
The Department of Media and Communications strongly opposes current negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Many colleagues from our institution have already eloquently argued against the proposal and we believe there are at least three reasons to reject it:
- At a time when Indigenous peoples are struggling to have their voices heard, the introduction of this Centre would be a retrograde step, one at odds with the greatest strengths of our Faculty, its diversity and inclusiveness.
- The rhetoric of Western civilisation is highly problematic and certainly in contradiction with the ideals of Australia’s multicultural society and its role in the Asia pacific region. A conversation on “Western culture”- already impossible to define – could not even start without the richness, interconnectivity, scale and complex relations of the multiple communities that have contributed to its flourishing. To “celebrate the West” – the overt mission of the Ramsay Centre – means to advocate for a vision of a society that devalues the “non West” and their synergies, thus undermining the ideals of an egalitarian and just democracy.
- The proposed MOU does not warrant sufficient guarantees of independence from the goals of the Centre: the Ramsay Centre will still have an effective veto over its curriculum and will retain some level of control over academic appointments and on students’ scholarships. The powers to second existing staff to the Centre’s program is also insufficiently explained, potentially requiring staff to teach into the new programs.
We foresee serious damage to our institutional reputation if the negotiations move forward, so we ask for the University Management to reconsider the proposal.
Department of Media and Communications,
SLAM School of Literature, Art and Media
University of Sydney
2. Sociology and Social Policy (16/10/2018)
Dear Dr Spence, Professor Garton, Professor Jagose, members of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences,
We in the Department of Sociology & Social Policy wish to join those of our University colleagues who have expressed their strong reservations about the proposed MOU with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization. This letter was discussed in the Departmental Board meeting on Monday 15 October, and it enjoys unanimous support from the whole Department. Our concerns are as follows:
1. If, as you have indicated in your response to Professor Keane, Vice-Chancellor, it is clear that the proposed curriculum should contextualize and problematize Western civilization, there should be no obstacle to hard-wiring this into the MOU, with the following sorts of provisions:
‘The curriculum of the proposed course will examine Western Civilization in a balanced way. It will canvass critiques of Western Civilization as well as the celebratory accounts, develop a critical approach to the understandings organized around the concept of ‘progress’, and discuss the relationship between patterns and processes of civilization in the West and in non-Western parts of the world’.
‘A central, distinctly Australian focus of the curriculum will be the interactions between Western forms of civilization and culture and those of the Indigenous peoples affected by the expansion of the West’.
This may help address concerns that once an MOU is in place, the curriculum will be developed according to the publicly-stated concerns of key players in the Ramsay Centre.
2. Even with such modifications to the MOU, however, the whole concept continues to suffer from severe plausibility problems. The Ramsay Centre was set up for a very particular purpose, led by two of the primary architects of the Australian culture wars since the 1980s. Vice-Chancellor, you’ve referred to the framing of this discussion in the terms of the culture wars as ‘puerile’, but it is precisely the Ramsay centre and its supporters driving that puerile concern. This is the source of the reputational damage that has been referred to by many our colleagues, and as far as we can see this question has not been satisfactorily addressed.
3. Vice-Chancellor, in response to those concerns about reputational damage, you’ve asserted that the University is at risk of another kind of reputational damage because there is, in your estimation, ‘’a very great swathe of people’ of the view that ‘we’ (we presume you mean the University of Sydney, although perhaps you mean the humanities and social sciences across Australia), ‘have contempt for the cultural traditions of whatever may be called ‘the West’.’ Two comments: first, we have seen no evidence such a view being at all widespread beyond the confines of 2GB talkback radio and the pages of Quadrant. Second, even if this were the case, in our view it is the role of the Vice-Chancellor and the FASS Dean vigorously to defend such a characterization of our teaching and research as it currently stands, not effectively to agree with it by pursuing the ‘remedy’ of the Ramsay course.
4. Provost, you’ve made the point that all of the critiques of Western civilization that have been raised are themselves internal critiques, in the sense that it is precisely the values and principles of Western civilization that make a debate about its dark sides possible, and that this should allay the core concerns. This may be true, but the likelihood that the key players in the Ramsay Centre will appreciate this nuance is as close to zero as it is possible to get. Will this have an impact on the curriculum? In the short-term, perhaps not, but achieving such an impact is central to the Ramsay Centre’s founding mission, and it is not clear why the University should expose itself to this sort of risk.
5. Related to this previous point, we wish to highlight that the proposed course appears to be organized around the construction of ‘Western civilization’ as being about art, philosophy, literature, and history narrowly conceived, and not about changing social, political and institutional forms, not to mention the evolution of ideas, practices and organizational forms in science, technology, medicine, engineering and indeed business and management. It would not be implausible to suggest that the design, construction and maintenance of sanitation systems has done more for civilization, in the West and everywhere else, than the mumblings and scribblings of philosophers. Our socio-legal and criminology colleagues point out that it is a travesty to consider studying Western civilization without examining the rule of law, and yet here we are. Important as the Humanities are, they are not the only game in town, and a genuinely defensible course in Western Civilization – not to mention the benefits flowing from the funding provided by this proposal – would not be confined to a select coterie of disciplines, it would seek the involvement of a much broader range of fields of study.
How the Ramsay Centre enterprise, given its stated goals, could possibly be made to align with the University’s core values, is, to our minds and that of many of us in the University community, a mystery. This mystery needs to be cleared up if people’s concerns that the University appears to be heading towards a Faustian bargain that will inflict considerable harm on its global reputation are to be allayed.
In light of these problems and concerns, we wish to indicate that we do not support the proposed MOU with the Ramsay Centre.
Department of Sociology & Social Policy
School of Social & Political Sciences, FASS
University of Sydney
3. Anthropology (16/10/2018)
The Department of Anthropology also strongly opposes current negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. The procedural emphasis of theMOU currently under consideration is beside the point if a clear rationale for a specific emphasis on Western Civilisation outside the existing and longstanding course structures of the University cannot be presented.
We do not believe that a coherent case can be made.
As a pedagogical and knowledge frame the category Western Civilisation makes no sense. In the common-sense usage of the current negotiations it encompasses a large number of area and disciplinary foci into a category that has neither a methodological or a substantive rationale.
More importantly the common-sense idea of Western Civilisation fails to acknowledge two key aspects of the way teaching and research happen in contemporary universities:
a) it fails to recognize the contested nature of the epistemology and value claims internal to the history of the Enlightenment;
b) it fails to reference the diverse, and very long durée, global dynamics of the cultural, knowledge and political projects that this category claims as its own.
From the point of view of the discipline of Anthropology, with our foundational connections between knowledge as a critical and an inter-cultural project, these are catastrophic problems.
We believe that the well documented politics of the Ramsay Centre makes it impossible to genuinely confront these issues. All the evidence, both from the Ramsay’s Centre’s own website, but also from the broader history of the reemergence of claims for Western Civilisation over the past 20 to 30 years, is that the motivation underlying these claims is ideological and designed to further specific political agendas. It is ideological in the sense that it is designed to both highlight certain knowledge and value claims, and more destructively, to elide or devalue others. It is political in the sense that it is designed to undermine a genuinely dialogical approach to global social policy that has been the work of the last 70 years.
The effect of proceeding with such a program without first directly confronting these issues would be to both compromise our own research and teaching integrity but also to devalue the existing course structures that have genuinely and organically engaged with these problems over time.
Department of Anthropology,
School of Social and Political Sciences, FASS,
University of Sydney
4. Political Economy (17/10/2018)
Dear Dr Spence, Professor Garton, Professor Jagose, members of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences,
We, in the Department of Political Economy, wish wholeheartedly to join those of our University colleagues who have expressed their strong opposition to the proposed MOU with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
There are three main concerns that we wish to address to support the messages sent by Professor John Keane, Associate Professor Charlotte Epstein, the Department of Media and Communications, the Department of Sociology & Social Policy, and the Department of Anthropology. We feel that these collective concerns have been inadequately addressed in the responses to date and not been taken seriously enough.
1) Vice Chancellor, it seems clear to us that in reifying a notion of ‘Western Civilisation’ (or ‘Tradition’ as part of the recently announced gestural amendments) little attention and respect is paid to the violent processes of appropriation that have constituted that history. Specifically, the history of colonial dispossession and extirpation of indigenous peoples—that we in political economy would recognise as the condition of primitive accumulation—has been, to date, paid just lip service in the discussions about the degree, for example in the Provost’s presentation to the Academic Board that flitted over ‘conflict with other cultures’. Sovereignty has never been ceded by First Nations Australians and to concentrate a degree on ‘Western Tradition’, without the presence of Indigenous voices would be to collapse into an ideas-centred account of the actual pillage of the world by the West. To indicate that all such matters will be addressed subsequent to the MOU is not good enough.
As Bruce Pascoe has stridently highlighted in Dark Emu, denying the existence of Aboriginal society and economy—with sophisticated agricultural irrigation, fishing, and housing—fabricates Australia’s claims to legitimacy today. As Pascoe states in his book, ‘If you analyse any element of human life on the assumption that Western thought and Christianity are the unassailable pinnacles of human development, you are bound to find the unbelievers inadequate’. Yet this position is precisely what Tony Abbott as Prime Minister—now on the Board of Directors of the Ramsay Centre and Special Envoy of Indigenous Affairs in the current government—argued in 2014 in stating that ‘in 1788 it was nothing but bush’, referring to Sydney. Elsewhere Claire Coleman in her work of post-colonial fiction, Terra Nullius, explores the themes of dispossession, imperialism, racism, and territorial and spatial expansion characteristic of ‘Western Tradition’. She writes, also as Indigenous Australian, that, ‘Hundreds of years ago the empires of what was then called Europe were driven by a strong, some would say insatiable, desire to expand’. We see no “first contact” between Indigenous authorities and public intellectuals, and the University and the Ramsay Centre, in deliberating a degree on ‘Western Tradition’.
That closure cannot be rectified further down the track on the basis of anodyne assurances that everything will be all right in the white wash.
2) Vice Chancellor, the rationale for the Ramsay Centre is that Humanities and Social Science academics in Australian universities are typically untrustworthy deviants who value ideology over scholarship. This rationale underpins the alleged need for a degree in ‘Western Tradition’ and the professed desire by some of those associated with the Ramsay Centre to police what is taught. As Tony Abbott argued in Quadrant, ‘The fact that respect for our heritage has largely been absent for at least a generation in our premier teaching and academic institutions makes the Ramsay Centre not just timely but necessary.’ To accept funds from such an organisation implicitly legitimises this fanciful view and constitutes a direct attack upon the integrity of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney and impugns the character of its staff.
3) Finally, Vice Chancellor, the risks to the reputation of the University from being associated with the Ramsay Centre far outweigh the benefits from its money. The political economy of a university is closely associated with the status of the institution internationally. The Ramsay Centre knows this well. Paul Ramsay could not bequeath scholarly legitimacy. The political goals of the Ramsay Centre depend on its association with the reputation of a university like Sydney. This is an unequal exchange. What the Ramsay Centre gains from the reputation of the University of Sydney, built by the work and dedication of its staff, students and graduates, the University loses from its association with the Ramsay Centre’s political program. The flood of negative media coverage and public debate over the draft MOU makes this clear. In a funding environment where student and research income follow perceived university status, a decision to accept money that will undermine the reputation of the University of Sydney as a place of independent, rigorous and pluralist learning and research is incredibly short-sighted. Private money for an elite, segregated, exclusive program will never substitute for sustainable public funding for a mass, equitable, diverse higher education system. It is towards this goal that university management should focus its advocacy.
To conclude, we do not believe that any of these serious concerns can be resolved before or after a MOU is agreed to, and respectfully call on you to cease negotiations between the University of Sydney and the Ramsay Centre.
Members of the Department of Political Economy
5. Government and International Relations (22/10/2018)
Dear Dr. Spence, Professor Garton, Professor Jagose, and Professor Jackson Pulver,
I am writing on behalf of the members of the Department of Government and International Relations.
The majority of staff in the Department of Government and International Relations are opposed to continuing negotiation with the Ramsay Centre regarding an endowment for the University to support a teaching program on Western civilisation (or indeed ‘the Western tradition’). We acknowledge the responses of other departments and communities within the University of Sydney and seek to build on these, by drawing attention to three points in particular.
First, and most critically, the MOU poses a perceived and actual conflict with beliefs and values of the Department, and of the University more broadly, which represents a significant risk to the cohesion and reputation of the institution. Specifically, the University of Sydney has an Indigenous strategy, Wingara Mura-Bunga Barrubugu, which outlines a commitment to “creating higher education and leadership opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and valuing Indigenous culture.” The University of Sydney has also invested significant energy and funds towards building cultural competence within the University. It has not been made clear how the University has included or acknowledged Aboriginal knowledge and stakeholders during this consultation process, nor how a Ramsay-backed research and/or teaching program could co-exist alongside any serious commitment to valuing Aboriginal knowledge and a strategy for attracting Indigenous staff and students.
Second, we have concerns about the limited consultation process and the degree to which decision-making autonomy over provision could be realised in practice, whatever the stipulations of a MOU. Finally, we reiterate the potential for reputational damage and draw attention to the ‘optics’ of such an arrangement, which are problematic in the extreme, especially in light of broader international trends towards incorporating decolonial and postcolonial approaches, and the recent rejection of an endowment by the Australian National University following – amongst other issues – concerns about academic freedom.
Thank you for your time and we look forward to future engagement on this issue.
Members of the Department of Government and International Relations
6. English (1/11/2018)
As one of the departments centrally involved in the teaching of the canonical texts of Western culture the English Department takes a particular interest in the proposal to establish a program in what was initially called ‘Western Civilisation’ and is now being called ‘the Western tradition’. Our discipline prides itself on teaching both canonical and non-canonical texts in ways that are critical and reflexive, that recognise the implication of texts with social power and the complex interconnectedness of cultures, and that understand the plurality of traditions that contribute to the formation of any one culture.
While we welcome the flexibility shown by the University in modifying the draft MOU with the Ramsay Centre, we remain concerned that no rationale has ever been given for the proposed program and no gap in the Faculty’s current academic program has been demonstrated. This leads us to suspect that the unspoken rationale is a disregard on the part of the Ramsay Centre for the values that inform our teaching and a desire to pursue a political agenda under the guise of, and with the legitimacy given by, an academic program.
Were the Ramsay Centre to have a genuine interest in the serious and critical consideration of the canonical texts of Western culture, it could give immediate effect to it by offering financial support to those areas of the humanities and social sciences (and indeed the sciences) that already study those texts in depth and with proper scholarly attention to context. We have seen nothing to persuade us that the proposed program fills an existing academic need; nor does it give us any confidence that the University’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity and academic independence would not be compromised.
Rebecca Johinke, Chair of the English Departmental Board, on behalf of the Department of English
7. History (5/11/2018)
Dear Dr Spence, Professor Garton, and Professor Jagose,
As historians, our profession commits us both to the critical analysis of dominant conceptions of culture and identity and to the elucidation of the voices, exchanges, and alternatives often elided by these conceptions. For this reason we have been following closely the present efforts to give renewed prominence to ‘Western civilisation’ (or in the case of our institution now, ‘Western tradition’) in the humanities in Australia.
Some colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences apparently have the impression that humanities disciplines such as ours have been consulted on the Ramsay Centre proposal unlike disciplines in the social sciences. We do not believe that to be the case.
We do not feel a satisfactory intellectual case has been provided for taking up the Ramsay Centre’s proposal. We query the rationale for a programme designed around ‘the western tradition’ as a singular entity. Generations of research on the long history of what we now call globalization has made assertions of the existence of a distinct and coherent western civilization unrealistic. Historians (and others) pay close attention to forces of change—trade and the development of market economies, for instance—that cut across regional and linguistic borders. None of the curricular proposals we have seen would equip students to understand how cultures change and ideas develop as a result of interactions of people and institutions over space and time.
Ramsay units of study would run alongside and compete with our own offerings. It seems quite possible that a discrete programme with generous scholarship funding and a ratio of teachers to students far better than the faculty norm will mean that a constituency of students interested in aspects of European intellectual history—and literature, and art—will go into the Ramsay programme rather than the majors in History, English, Art History, and so on. This would be consistent with the ambitions expressed by some of the Ramsay Centre’s board members and supporters. Indeed, part of the rationale of the Ramsay programme is to provide an alternative to contemporary academic humanities teaching. What is the university’s position? Is it a good thing for the centre of gravity of these topics to shift from disciplinary and interdisciplinary programmes to a non-disciplinary (indeed, anti-disciplinary) Western Tradition programme?
Some members of the department are strongly supportive of modernized great-books-style programmes; some of us have been involved with the Faculty Scholars Program. But we are concerned about setting up a programme in which students read texts out of context in de facto opposition to programmes that take questions of context seriously.
Finally, we note the deep disquiet that many members of the department feel towards the political slant that the Ramsay Centre’s representatives give to notions of ‘Western civilisation’ and ‘Western tradition’ in their public pronouncements, and the harmful consequences a partnership with the centre may have for the university’s staff and students of colour, as well as its standing as an institution committed to values of inclusion and diversity.
This letter reflects the position of most members of the teaching-and-research staff in the Department of History. Not everyone in the department supports this letter. But ours is a department with a long record of responding constructively to the decisions of the university leadership, and I would not be writing to you thus if I did not speak for the majority of the department, and at their urging.
On behalf of the Department of History
8. Departments of Arabic Language and Cultures, French and Francophone Studies, Germanic Studies, Italian Studies, Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies, and Spanish and Latin American Studies, and the Asian Studies and International and Comparative Literature and Translation Studies Programs (12/11/2018)
Dear Dr Spence, Professor Garton, Professor Jagose, dear colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,
Colleagues in our Departments and Programs have followed the discussion about possible cooperation with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization with interest. As representatives of those Departments and Programs, we are aware and respectful of the fact that there is a plurality of views on this matter. Nevertheless, overwhelming majorities in our Departments and Programs wish to add our concerns about the on-going negotiations over possible cooperation with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization to those already expressed collectively and individually by colleagues throughout our Faculty and beyond.
Staff and students in our Departments and Programs come from everywhere in the world, and we are engaged in teaching, learning, and researching the languages and cultural traditions of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America, and their Australian diasporas, including the historical traditions of their major religions. This work we conduct in a spirit of equality, diversity, and open critical enquiry, and it is in defence of that spirit that we address this letter to you.
Our concerns relate both to the structural and procedural matters around the proposed cooperation, and to broader matters of principle of the order already articulated, though as we see it these categories do substantially intersect.
- The Vice Chancellor has insisted on a number of occasions that the MoU, including in its revised form following the consultation, is a first step in the negotiation process, and that the content and structure of any curriculum to be designed with Ramsay Centre funding will be subject to existing University procedures. The key difference here, as we see it, is that the impetus for this new program and its component elements comes not from academic staff initially (as would usually otherwise be the case even in instances where philanthropists and donors fund a lectureship or chair), but from an external funding party. In our view that constitutes a significant departure from ordinary procedures, whereby academics are required to rigorously justify the pedagogical and intellectual value of new programs and individual units. This in itself represents a curtailment of academic freedom and autonomy at the most basic level.
- As has been repeated many times during these discussions, we in our Faculty, and across the University, already provide teaching and research on topics related to ‘western civilization(s)’ and/or ‘tradition(s)’ to an extremely high level despite the unfortunate decline of public funding for our disciplines. As experts in the humanities, we can’t but feel uncomfortable when words such as ‘civilization’ and ‘tradition’ are not inflected in the plural. ‘The West’ is not a homogenous and isolated category. The balance of credits and debits among civilizations can’t be measured, because civilizations, by definition, flourish in contact, and talking about a singular unique civilization or tradition contradicts the recognised epistemological and political premises of our fields. The University of Sydney already offers a generous selection of courses on the European traditions—courses that, naturally, already meet the University’s high standards. Indeed, far from neglecting the ‘West’, the University’s existing curriculum more than adequately covers it. The fact that the Ramsay Centre, and by extension the University in our negotiations with them, believe it necessary to establish a new, additional program explicitly in relation to ‘the West’ could in fact be seen to undermine our justified claim to existing excellence in this area.
- There are also, as we see it, serious questions concerning the creation of competition within the University by establishing a program that would duplicate material already amply taught elsewhere. The requirement in the MoU to have students take an additional major alongside the proposed Western tradition program does not, to our minds, address the risks of duplication and competition that would be likely to arise from its establishment.
- The only currently available indication of what the Ramsay Centre wishes its undergraduate program to look like is the indicative curriculum on its website, which as many have already pointed out is heavily focused on art, literature, philosophy and the like, but also on texts taught solely in English. The fact that language education appears to play no role in the Ramsay Centre’s self-perception of what its ideal program would look like speaks volumes about the conception of ‘western civilization’ or the ‘western tradition’ with which it operates—it is a resolutely Anglo-centric one.
- Even if, as the Vice Chancellor has stated on a number of occasions, the University would shape whatever course might result from these negotiations, that is by no means the only issue, since Universities do not exist in a vacuum, but are embedded in the wider discursive and material power structures of society as a whole. Given the way this project has been deliberately publicly coded by representatives of the Ramsay Centre from the outset, we believe it would be foolish of us to collectively imagine that our decision to cooperate with them will not be interpreted in the spirit in which the proposed undergraduate degree program was first defended in the pages of Quadrant, namely as an affirmation of the supposed superior value of ‘the western tradition’ vis-à-vis others.
- As mentioned above, most of our members of staff and students have an international background and many of us come from post-colonial countries, where the idea of ‘Western Civilization’ echoes histories of slavery, rape, territorial dispossession, colonization and war. This is not just the past, this is the present: let us think only of the experience of our Iraqi students and what the political decisions made by the chair of the Ramsay Board, John Howard, meant for them and their families. Legitimising the ideology of the Ramsay Centre on campus would, we fear, all too easily be perceived by many of our students and staff as reinforcing institutional racism. We therefore call on you to exercise a duty of care for students and staff coming from indigenous and ethnic minority backgrounds, who have suffered from two centuries or more of colonial politics.
- Last, but not least, if a field needs to be reinforced in this University, we believe it is the Indigenous Studies program. It is remarkable that Aboriginal perspectives, including language education, are not already systematically integrated across curricula in our Faculty. If we want to be up to date with the ongoing global epistemic conversation, we need to decolonize our curriculum, not to reinforce its colonial components by reinscribing outdated models of western hegemony in our institution.
In light of these and other considerations already articulated, we wish to express that we do not support cooperation with the Ramsay Centre.
Lucia Sorbera, Chair of Arabic Language and Cultures
Matthew Stavros, Director of Asian Studies
Michelle Royer, Chair of French and Francophone Studies
Cat Moir, Chair of Germanic Studies
Andrea Bandhauer, Acting Director of International and Comparative Literature and Translation Studies
Giorgia Alu, Chair of Italian Studies
Anthony Dracopoulos, Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies
Vek Lewis, Chair of Spanish and Latin American Studies