August 2018


Abbott, ANU and the decline of Western civilisation

By Robert Manne
How the Ramsay Centre’s degree stopped before it started

In 2011 Tony Abbott began conversations with his friend Paul Ramsay, a conservative, childless healthcare billionaire, about the creation of a Western civilisation university program based around reading “the great books” of the tradition. Ramsay was convinced. He died in 2014, however, before the idea had taken final shape.

A new organisation was created, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation (hereafter Ramsay). A board was formed, chaired by John Howard, including on the right Tony Abbott and, for balance, on the “left” Kim Beazley. The Ramsay bequest was to be used to fund generous scholarships at three of Australia’s most prestigious universities, and to employ dozens of academics to teach them in small Oxbridge-like tutorials. Simon Haines, a literature professor, was appointed CEO. Haines and his staff took residence in elegant Macquarie Street offices. Ramsay called for expressions of interest from the universities. The Australian National University was definitely interested. In early 2018 talks began. If outstanding problems were resolved, by 2019 ANU would offer a degree in Western civilisation.

Tony Abbott was blithely unconcerned about these problems. In April our former prime minister published an article in Quadrant that almost equalled in political ineptitude his decision to make Prince Philip a knight of Australia. Abbott argued that Ramsay was not “merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”. It had been formed because of profound dissatisfaction with the fate of humanities in Australian universities. Abbott also made it clear that Ramsay was a right-wing organisation and would so remain, citing what he called O’Sullivan’s Law: “every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing”. Abbott most likely had in mind the trajectory of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, which had received considerable right-wing money – from the Howard government, Frank Lowy and Rupert Murdoch – but had become conspicuously mainstream, something the cultural warriors interpret as a drift to the left. Did Abbott not realise that an initiative of the Ramsay kind was certain to face fierce opposition at ANU? The opposition no longer had to prove Ramsay was a right-wing organisation. It had been so described by a member of its board.

Abbott even made it clear that Ramsay’s ambitions were ultimately not educational but political. “[Differences] could be made by small numbers of committed and capable people … Person by person, the world does change. A much more invigorating long march through our institutions may be about to begin!” Abbott’s fantasy was that the hundreds of Ramsay scholars would form a cadre of the right-minded, capable of recapturing these institutions from the left.

At the time Quadrant published Abbott’s article, the negotiations between Ramsay and ANU had encountered certain difficulties. The ANU team suggested that the undergraduate degree should be called the Bachelor of Western Civilisation Studies. Ramsay insisted on the Bachelor of Western Civilisation. Both sides agreed there needed to be “health checks” on the subjects and the teachers. Ramsay insisted that they include the right to sit in on the tutorials and the lectures of the teachers it was funding, to ensure that it was not wasting its money on those it regarded as insufficiently enthusiastic about the glories of Western civilisation. In the memorandum of understanding, ANU included support for the idea of “academic freedom”. Ramsay refused to sign on. An organisation devoted to restoring respect for Western civilisation proposed spying on the teachers it funded and rejected an idea fundamental to the university, one of the West’s oldest institutions. Apart from these particular problems, ANU became concerned about the complexity of the negotiations – a 30-page MOU with 40 pages of annexes – which were quite unlike its dealings with all earlier donors. Ramsay was “micromanaging” its gift. That was why Abbott’s boast in his Quadrant essay – “A management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions” – confirmed ANU’s worst fears. ANU believed that in exchange for an extraordinarily generous offering it was being asked to surrender its “academic autonomy”.

Five days after reading Abbott’s Quadrant article, ANU’s vice-chancellor, the Nobel Prize–winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, suspended team negotiations and began talking directly with Howard. According to Schmidt, these discussions resolved nothing. On May 24, perhaps aware of trouble, The Australian declared its support for the Ramsay Centre on the grounds that it would “disrupt the march of cultural Marxism”. It also reported the opposition to Ramsay from ANU’s academic union branch president, Matthew King, who was “very concerned that this would violate the core principles of academic freedom, integrity and independence” and the students’ association president, Eleanor Kay, who believed that the study of Western civilisation was frequently “a rhetorical tool to continue the racist prioritisation of Western history over other cultures”. These comments were recycled on dozens of occasions over the next six weeks. Several pro-Ramsay articles followed in The Australian. All in vain. On June 1, Schmidt formally withdrew from the negotiations, describing the Ramsay gift as a “sponsored program”. Howard told The Australian’s Greg Sheridan that ANU had abjectly surrendered to the left. Sheridan announced that ANU’s surrender was “a pivotal moment in modern Australian history”.

In the six weeks between May 24 and July 9, The Australian published 75 articles on the Ramsay issue and 110 letters to the editor. Almost all were hostile to ANU. Guy Rundle found the perfect description for The Australian’s regular culture-war campaigns: “Pravda style bore-a-thons”. The collective case took the following form. The leaders of ANU were cowards who had capitulated at the first sign of opposition. The teaching of humanities at Australian universities had fallen to neo-Marxists, postmodernists and deconstructionists who dreamt of destroying Western civilisation, which they regarded as nothing more than a sorry tale of slavery, genocide, class oppression, racism and sexism. The long march of the left through the key institutions of society had almost arrived at its final destination. As a consequence, the nation faced deadly peril. The Ramsay experience at ANU showed that it might already be too late.

Because Schmidt and his chancellor, Gareth Evans, believed that the negotiations with Ramsay were confidential and that outlining what had happened might imperil Ramsay’s discussions with other universities, they maintained a month-long gentlemanly silence. Eventually, they spoke out. The decision to reject Ramsay, they explained, had nothing to do with internal opposition or ideological hostility to a “great books” program. Claiming otherwise a hundred times did not make it true. Talks had broken down because no university worthy of the name could accept a gift from a benefactor who did not trust the beneficiary, who wanted therefore to micromanage its implementation, and who had shown during discussions that it respected neither the autonomy of the university nor the idea of academic freedom. ANU frequently accepted gifts but none with the kinds of strings attached by Ramsay. One agenda item of The Australian campaign was the hypocrisy of ANU leadership that had accepted money from Iran, Dubai and Turkey to support a Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. Evans and Schmidt made it clear that if Ramsay had offered similar terms, an agreement could have been finalised in 48 hours. Despite a whimper or two, their calm intervention killed the controversy. The pivotal moment in modern Australian history had lasted precisely 34 days.

What conclusions can be drawn from this curious episode? There is need for a discussion over the teaching of the humanities in the contemporary Western university. This discussion should draw a clear distinction between the place of theory – neo-Marxism, deconstruction and postmodernism – and the place of judgements of value – the post-’60s identification of the dark shadows of the Western tradition. Racism, genocide, imperialism, patriarchy, class oppression and environmental degradation pose profoundly disturbing questions about our civilisation. In this controversy they were too often reduced to a shopping list affording an opportunity for the right-wing cultural warriors to sneer. On the other hand, the idea that studies in the humanities in Western universities have become ideologically conformist is not empty. Despite the fact that cultural warriors misuse the idea of political correctness daily, it is often an enemy of the open mind.

The discussion of the health of the humanities should take place primarily within the university itself, and in books and journals of opinion. In Australia, the Murdoch newspapers have ruled themselves out as serious or responsible participants. In the past few years I have taken a rest from the battles on the frontline of the culture wars I once examined closely. The extremity and stupidity of the contributions of some of the Murdoch columnists in the course of the Ramsay bore-a-thon took me by surprise. Jennifer Oriel told her readers: “If you want a reason to mourn freedom’s demise, observe Western universities destroying the Western mind.” Piers Akerman claimed that “to this day” students wore T-shirts bearing the image of Stalin. (The last time I saw an image of Stalin at a university was on an ironical Labour Club poster in 1968.) Because the university hosted the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, the American neocon Michael Rubin pronounced: “The ANU is sick”. Janet Albrechtsen believed that taxpayers’ money given to the universities was “funding our downfall”. Maurice Newman, not to be outdone, believed that because the left had captured not only universities but also the judiciary and the army, Australia was already “a long way down Andrassy Avenue”, the Hungarian site of its fascist and Stalinist torturers.

Many years ago I was involved with John Hirst and John Carroll in the creation of a modest bachelor’s degree in Western culture (not civilisation) at La Trobe University. Lacking the Ramsay millions, or indeed any funding, it began promisingly but gradually collapsed. So long as it were not undermined by piety towards the “great books”, or by wilful blindness to the dark chapters of Western history, or by an arrogant hostility to the present members of the humanities faculties, I still believe that such a degree, concentrating on the seminal texts and artefacts of the Western tradition, could be a wonderful thing.


July 18, 2018

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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