Au­ton­omy is non­nego­tiable, says v-c in Western civil­i­sa­tion row

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - John.ross@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

The Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney will set the ground rules gov­ern­ing a con­tro­ver­sial de­gree on Western civil­i­sa­tion be­fore it brooks any dis­cus­sions about the course con­tent.

Vice-chan­cel­lor Michael Spence told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that the uni­ver­sity had ini­ti­ated a fort­night of in­ter­nal con­sul­ta­tion on the “terms of en­gage­ment” for the phi­lan­throp­i­cally funded pro­gramme.

He said that the aim was to deal pre-emp­tively with the con­cerns that had scut­tled a sim­i­lar pro­posal at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, which ac­cused the prospec­tive fun­der, the Ram­say Cen­tre for Western Civil­i­sa­tion, of at­tempt­ing to sub­vert its aca­demic free­dom.

“Be­fore we get down to the tin tacks of sup­port and cour­ses and all the rest of it, [we want to] set the ground rules for the re­la­tion­ship,” Dr Spence said. “These things are non-ne­go­tiable in terms of our aca­demic free­dom.”

A 15-point draft mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing, cir­cu­lated to Syd­ney staff, says that the uni­ver­sity’s usual pro­cesses will ap­ply to cur­ric­ula, de­gree struc­tures, ad­mis­sions, schol­ar­ships and aca­demic ap­point­ments. Test­ing and mark­ing will be the sole re­spon­si­bil­ity of the uni­ver­sity, and staff must be free

from “in­ter­fer­ence or over­sight” out­side the uni­ver­sity’s nor­mal mech­a­nisms.

The doc­u­ment also gives the Ram­say Cen­tre the right to an in­ter­na­tional aca­demic re­view of the pro­gramme af­ter the ini­tial fund­ing pe­riod.

Dr Spence said he ex­pected the most con­tentious point to be ap­point­ment panel rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The uni­ver­sity’s “stan­dard po­si­tion” was that donors were en­ti­tled to one rep­re­sen­ta­tive, which did not give them veto pow­ers in the six-toeight-strong pan­els that se­lected se­nior aca­demics.

Like the ANU, Syd­ney has ex­pe­ri­enced staunch in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion to the Ram­say Cen­tre pro­posal, with staff brand­ing the idea elit­ist and pa­ter­nal­is­tic. Dr Spence dis­missed such crit­i­cisms as “non­se­quiturs”. “By of­fer­ing a course in Western civil­i­sa­tion it doesn’t mean we un­crit­i­cally ac­cept the no­tion of Western civil­i­sa­tion…or de­value the East,” he said.

Dr Spence said that ar­gu­ments on both sides of the de­bate had been “polem­i­cal”, but high­lighted that Syd­ney al­ready had “160 units of study in what you would call clas­si­cal Western civil­i­sa­tions”.

“None of the con­tent of this course is in any sense rad­i­cal. The right want to say it’s rad­i­cal be­cause they want to say we’re a bunch of bomb-throw­ing left­ies who put stu­dents though ide­o­log­i­cal in­doc­tri­na­tion camps.

“They want the Ram­say pro­posal at Syd­ney to fail, be­cause they want to demon­strate that the place is so crazy that you couldn’t have a course like this. The left want it to fail be­cause they don’t want us to ac­cept money from a board [in­clud­ing for­mer con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ters] John Howard and Tony Ab­bott.”

Free­dom of ex­pres­sion has be­come a fraught is­sue in Aus­tralia. Uni­ver­si­ties have been threat­ened with leg­isla­tive mea­sures if they fail to al­low free speech, while ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Dan Te­han re­port­edly pro­posed billing pro­test­ers for se­cu­rity costs if they demon­strated against con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers.

Psy­chol­o­gist Bet­tina Arndt has asked Syd­ney to take ac­tion against sev­eral stu­dent pro­test­ers un­der its code of con­duct, af­ter they dis­rupted her ad­dress at the uni­ver­sity in mid-Septem­ber. Ms Arndt has been tour­ing Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties chal­leng­ing claims of a cam­pus “rape cul­ture”. Dr Spence said the claim was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated, but claimed Ms Arndt’s real agenda was “to prove that there’s no free speech on Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties”.

ANU vice- chan­cel­lor Brian Sch­midt said the ar­gu­ments of both Ms Arndt and her op­po­nents were “puerile”, and that po­lit­i­cal at­tempts to “reg­u­late free speech” were an oxy­moron.

Uni­ver­si­ties had to “al­low com­mu­ni­ca­tion of ideas that are un­com­fort­able”, but were not obliged to pro­vide a fo­rum for “hate speech” from out­siders, he said.

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