Michael Spence is certainly game to have a go. On Wednesday, the University of Sydney vice chancellor told Academic Board the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation wants to talk and he is willing to consider what they have to say. The Ramsay centre is short a home for its proposed courses and accompanying many millions in funding since ANU ended negotiations. But while the university considers what Ramsay could be allowed to do there is an opportunity for opponents of any programme to set the terms of the debate.
Which 150 staff did on Friday, signing a manifesto against the Ramsay Centre on campus, which condemns, “western essentialism.”
They suggest Ramsay is keen on cadres; “there is every reason to fear that educational opportunity will be made a function of students’ perceived political sympathies, as ultimately determined by a board, chaired by John Howard, whose political leanings leave little room for doubt … We are a university, not a training institute for a future political ‘cadre’. “
Nor should outsiders stick their bibs into universities: “Enquiry in the humanities must be free and conducted independent of the influence of third parties. It is in the nature of a true liberal arts education that it is undertaken for its own sake, independently of any intended instrumentalisation, whether political or social. Decisions about how the cultural traditions of Europe are to be studied at university are for academics to make, not billionaires or former prime ministers.”
And western exceptionalism is not acceptable. ”The Ramsay programme represents, quite simply, European supremacism writ large: it signals that the study of the European cultural tradition warrants better educational circumstances than that of others. The profoundly dangerous implications of this bias do not, we believe, need further comment.”
Particularly when the (Chinese Government funded) Confucius Centre at UniSyd, “places no constraints of this kind on undergraduate education, which it has no capacity to influence by either imposing or excluding particular lines of study.”
Dr Spence has chosen to put himself in a tight spot, the outcome will depend on the strength of the case the university makes for whatever is decided. It will need to be strong enough to stare down internal opponents if the university decides to partner with Ramsay and powerful enough to answer allegations that the university is not game to take campus activists on if it says no to the civ centre.