Nearly half of Sydney University staff oppose deal with Ramsay Centre | Australia news


Debate over whether the University of Sydney should accept a lucrative grant from the conservative Ramsay Centre to establish a western civilisation degree is dividing academic staff and prompting internal quarrels.

As the university’s management considers whether and on what terms it should enter into an agreement with the Ramsay Centre to fund the degree, a staff survey on the terms of a draft memorandum of understanding has revealed deep divisions among the university’s academics.

But the vice-chancellor of the university, Michael Spence, has defended the proposal, saying the degree would not be undertaken on the basis of a “presumed superiority” of the west, but rather “contextualise and problematise” the subject if it goes ahead.

An analysis of responses to the survey found that 233 of the 500 respondents indicated they were opposed to a deal, 223 indicated they would support it, and 44 did not provide a clear answer.

Internal university correspondence seen by Guardian Australia also paints a picture of an increasingly tense debate between university staff and management over the proposal.

In an internal email widely circulated among academic staff on Friday, associate professor Charlotte Epstein wrote that an agreement with the Ramsay Centre risked turning the university into an “international backwater” in her area of international relations.

“[T]he discipline globally is actively engaged in developing postcolonial approaches to the study of world politics, and in moving beyond perspectives that maintain … west centred.

“To have this university collaborate with the Ramsay Centre will cast it as an intellectual backwater, and risk it slipping off the map of this global discipline.

“[I] find myself lost for words when I am asked by my international colleagues to explain the university’s undertaking. I know that this embarrassment, dismay even, is widespread among faculty.”

Epstein’s critique of the university follows a similar open letter written by politics professor John Keane.

Keane raised concerns about the “intellectual credibility” of the proposed degree, questioning whether its curriculum would “encourage students to probe with critical eyes the origins of western civilisation and its imperial ideals”.

He also accused the university of “dodging scholarly questions about the program by resorting to managerial methods”.

“This comes as no surprise,” he wrote.

“Our institution is presently awash in procedures, regulations and requirements to fill out forms. It’s arguably no way to run a university, or to win the trust and loyalty of students, teachers, researchers and professional administrators, or to win the cooperation of our union.”

In response to Keane’s letter, Spence said he agreed that talking about western civilisation was “problematic if undertaken on the basis of some presumed superiority, mythic or otherwise, of ‘the West’.”

“It has always been my expectation, however, that any program offered at the University of Sydney would contextualise and problematise the object of its study in the usual way,” he wrote.

Spence and the university’s management have attempted to contain consultation with staff to the terms of the draft memorandum of understanding, a position that has frustrated some staff and the National Tertiary Education Union, which sees the Ramsay Centre proposal as being fundamentally at odds with academic autonomy.

Spence has also been at pains to push staff to conduct the debate over the Ramsay Centre donation respectfully; often referring to a desire for them to “disagree well”.

But internal discussion threads within the university seen by the Guardian show that commitment beginning to fray.

This week Spence responded to criticism aimed at the university for not publishing a draft proposed curriculum for the course by admitting to being “frustrated” with what he called “exciting conspiracy theories”.

“I have always said that any eventual course would have to be workshopped and developed in the ordinary way and approved through the ordinary channels, like any other course we offer,” he wrote.

“This is all so mush less exciting than conspiracy theories about evil management hiding things and being found out in tricky inconsistencies. But it has the virtue of being true.”

In another post on the university’s Yammer – a sort of internal social media network – the university’s provost, Stephen Garton, criticised another academic for using “sarcasm” in the discussion.



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