VC's Update - our viewpoints on Ramsay

25 June 2018

On 1 June The Australian National University announced that it was withdrawing from negotiations to create a degree program with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. We took our decision for no other reason than the Centre's continued demands for control over the program were inconsistent with the University's academic autonomy.

We anticipated attacks from some for even contemplating introducing the degree, and from others for being anti-Western civilisation. What we had less reason to expect was the protracted media firestorm which has continued daily for nearly a month, in certain sections of the press, with ANU constantly assaulted for capitulating to pressure from those hostile to the Ramsay Centre, but without evidence or new information being offered. Scrutiny from the press is crucial in western democracies in holding public institutions to account - and universities should not escape it. But does stating over and over again a false narrative make it true? 

We have intentionally refrained from going into the details of the University's negotiations with the Ramsay Centre, partly because of our respect for what we had understood to be the confidentiality of those negotiations, partly to allow the Centre clear air to rethink its position after exploring options with other institutions, and partly because of our unwillingness to personalise the arguments in the way that others have been all too ready to do. But it has become obvious that we need now to further explain our decision "in the public square".

If ANU had withdrawn from the program simply because some people within our ranks were uncomfortable, for essentially ideological reasons, with the very idea of it, we would deserve all the criticism hurled at us.  But that was absolutely not the case. There was, and remains, strong support across the University for a major enhancement of our teaching and research capacity in the area of Western civilisation studies. We are attracted by the wide-ranging liberal arts courses taught in some prominent American universities, and remain wholly willing to craft a similar degree course here. Designed to convey understanding and respect for the great Western intellectual and cultural traditions - albeit in our own way:  analytically rigorous, not triumphalist, and open to comparisons being drawn, as appropriate, with other major intellectual and cultural traditions.

ANU has long been ranked number one in Australia in humanities disciplines, and we already teach some 150 undergraduate subjects addressing Western civilisation themes. The attractiveness of having major new resources to advance them, is why an enormous amount of effort has been invested by our staff in developing a very detailed proposal, including a draft syllabus, in support of a Ramsay gift, and why negotiations for common ground continued as long as they did.

So what went wrong? We withdrew from negotiations because there were irreconcilable differences over the governance of the proposed program, not its substance.  We were willing to accept the Ramsay Centre having a voice in curriculum design and staff appointments. But only a voice, not a controlling influence. From the outset, however, the Centre has been locked in to an extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach to the proposed program, unprecedented in our experience, embodied in a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) of some 30 pages with another 40 pages of detailed annexures.

It has insisted on a partnership management committee to oversee every aspect of the curriculum and its implementation - with equal numbers from both the Ramsay Centre and ANU, meaning an effective Ramsay veto.

It has been unwilling to accept our own draft curriculum, and has refused to accept our preferred name for the degree ('Western Civilisation Studies').  While acknowledging that any curriculum would have to be endorsed by the ANU Academic Board, it has made clear that to be acceptable to the Ramsay Centre it would have to find favour with the joint management committee - with its representatives being able to sit in the classes that we teach and undertake "health checks" on the courses and the teachers.

It became clear that there are fundamental differences in our respective conceptions of the role of a university.  The Centre has gone so far as to insist on the removal of "academic freedom" as a shared objective for the program: this remains in the draft MOU as an ANU objective, not a Ramsay one. For us academic freedom doesn't mean freedom to underperform or to teach without regard to the disciplines or agreed objectives of a particular syllabus. But it does mean appointment or retention of staff on the basis of their demonstrated academic merit, not political or ideological preference.

A continuing concern has been that the proposed Ramsay funding is provided short-term, up for renewal in eight years. A time-limited gift is not in itself problematic, but building a major program involving the hiring of a dozen staff, and then being held hostage to its continuation by a donor whose most senior and influential board members appear to have manifestly different views to ours about university autonomy, is not a happy position for any university to be in.

Ramsay CEO Simon Haines, in an interview in last weekend's Fairfax Press (The Age, 23 June), has now at last engaged in a little circumspect distancing from the Tony Abbott article in Quadrant, which was very explicit about the controls envisaged. But that dissociation has been a long time coming, and it remains to be seen whether there will in fact be a change in the Ramsay board's position.  In successive conversations with the Centre, ANU sought public assurances that Ramsay's position had been misstated, and that the University's autonomy in actually implementing agreed objectives would be fully respected.  But no reply we have received has given us any cause to believe that the MOU, with all its over-reach, would be fundamentally revised.  In the result, it was simply impossible on our side to believe that there was sufficient trust and confidence for the project to proceed.

We withdrew from the negotiations for governance reasons of this kind. Boiled down, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation simply did not trust the ANU to deliver a program acceptable to it, and consequently asked for controls on the University's delivery of the degree that ANU could not - and should not - agree to.  

ANU, accepts gifts from individuals, foundations, groups, entities, government agencies, and foreign governments. In no cases are these gifts allowed to compromise the University's academic integrity, nor are they allowed to impose on our academic freedom, or autonomy. Regarding historical gifts surrounding our Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS), Australia's leading academic capability in its area, let us be clear: if the Ramsay Centre were to take the same approach to a gift to ANU as the donors to CAIS, we could reach an agreement in less than 48 hours.

The University has never accepted gifts with such restrictions as demanded by Ramsay, and under our watch as Chancellor and Vice Chancellor we never will.

Let us offer this frank assessment as things stand at the moment, as the Ramsay Centre seeks other partners: to succeed, either they will have to change its approach and trust its partners to deliver a program in Western Civilisation studies, or be limited to a university willing to make concessions on academic autonomy. If the Ramsay Centre and its board are prepared to understand and respect the autonomy of Australia's national university, our door remains open.

Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC and Professor Brian Schmidt AC are Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, respectively, of The Australian National University.

As published in The Australian on 26 June 2018 as "Why ANU Knocked Back the Ramsay Proposal" 


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Comment by Elizabeth Curran
1.30am 26 Jun 2018

I am greatly relieved by this decision. I have always been proud of being a part of the ANU community and believe academic freedom is an essential part of rigor, free speech and democracy.

I was deeply troubled, as were some former students, by this and am proud to see such a strong and unequivocal statement issued by the University leadership.

I hope this serves as a real example for universities and public authorities world-wide about the importance of fearlesness, standing up for independence, evidence based practice and the public good that this sort of leadership can lead to. Dr Liz Curran, ANU College of Law (School of Legal Practice).

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Comment by Dr Charlotte Galloway
7.45am 26 Jun 2018

Thanks very much for making this public statement. I have been asked many questions regarding ANU's withdrawl from the Ramsay negotiations, and while had a general understanding of the reasons, did not have this detail. And thanks to you and the Chancellor for upholding ANU's academic integrity and autonomy.

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Comment by David Blair
8.15am 26 Jun 2018

I commend ANU for its principled stance and fully support the decision taken.

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Comment by Craig Ashhurst
8.45am 26 Jun 2018

Thank you, an excellent, clear argument for our uni autonomy.

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Comment by Vincent Craig
9.30am 26 Jun 2018

It's great to see our Vice Chancellor, supported by the Chancellor stand up for core academic values.

Thank you!

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Comment by Jenny Sinn
9.45am 26 Jun 2018

Thank you for your decision, the way you dealt with the media and now the update on the situation.  I think if was indeed a wise one.

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Comment by Ian Chambers
10am 26 Jun 2018

The actions of ANU have been exemplary, and as a PHD candidate, my respect for the way this has been handled cannot be overstated. It was difficult for us all to watch the daily media 'bombardment', however, the decision to not buy into the personalised debate again shows integrity and appropriate restraint in dealing with a challenge to the very foundations of the purpose of higher education. Finally, the inclusive manner in which this has also been handled across the university, particularly with this latest update distributed to all students and staff is welcomed and applauded.

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Comment by Garrick Anderson
10.15am 26 Jun 2018

It is so heartening to see such cogent arguments expressed susinctly and publically regarding these matters.

I am justifiably proud of ANU's academic standards and status. I am reassured that ANU's custodianship is in very good hands.

Well done Brian and Gareth.

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Comment by Helmut Simon
10.30am 26 Jun 2018

I agree. The management and PR issues that ANU are experiencing around this matter are short term. If the offer had been accepted it would have consumed a major amount of management time from the VC downwards for years. If any wishes of the Ramsay Centre were not automatically agreed there would be a further media storm like that currently being experienced.

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Comment by Lin Enright
10.30am 26 Jun 2018

A precise, detailed and rational response to a brouhaha confected by vested interests. University autonomy is a keystone in protecting democratic conversations.

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Comment by Dianne D
10.45am 26 Jun 2018

I am proud and relieved at the integrity of the ANU response. Such an important time to protect democracy.

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Comment by Marianne Dickie
10.45am 26 Jun 2018

Thank you for the stand you have taken with this. The ANU was subject to a milder version of control for many years with the Migration Agent Registration Authority prescribing subject matter via an MOU and more troubling attempting repeatedly to determine who could teach, what academics could discuss etc. All of these attempts were robustly rebutted by the Director and the students received an education expected from a modern university. One that allowed them to analyse not parrot the law. Your stand upholds the values we expect from a university.

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Comment by Dione Smith
11am 26 Jun 2018

Thanks to you both for giving an encouraging example of a reasoned and respectful argument (well, a respectful defence) in the public sphere. When different perspectives / opposing values meet, respectful articulation of one's own position, respectful engagement with / listening to the other, and ultimately respecting each side's limits is a win for integrity, whether or not negotiations lead to a joint endeavour.

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Comment by A'an Suryana
11.15am 26 Jun 2018

I fully support ANU's standpoint. Academic autonomy shall not be compromised.

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Comment by Tony Kevin
11.45am 26 Jun 2018

A clear and well argued statement by Brian Schmidt and Gareth Evans. Despite my personal respect for Simon Haines - I have none for Tony Abbott - this statement convinces me. The constant repetition of mistruth and prejudice does not make it true. Case in point - the West's current wave of Russophobia. If this course ever comes to fruition anywhere in Australia, I would love to give a seminar on this relevant topic.

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Comment by Gwen Wilcox
12.15pm 26 Jun 2018

Thank you for this explanation. I imagined this was your rationale for rejection. Have you asked for this to be published in the Australian and Fairfax media?

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Comment by Jeremy Callaghan
1.30pm 26 Jun 2018

You made the right decision and you have explained your reasons well. I can't help thinking that your statement will prove difficult for any other university dealing with the Ramsay Centre. I also think that you overstate the value of these types of programme and the quality of the American institutions in which many of them are offered. But ANU deserves respect for standing firm on the principle of academic independence.

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Comment by Tony Hennessy
1.30pm 26 Jun 2018

Gareth Evans, the former Minister in a Labor Government finds a major fault in a programme designed to study a conservative view of Western Civilisation. That is no surprise. However it could be viewed that since the ANU has no shortage of funds that some from the Australian Government should be removed.

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Comment by Leo Dobes
1.45pm 26 Jun 2018

Thank you for the explanation. A good and courageous decision.

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Comment by Stephen Duckett
2pm 26 Jun 2018

Very well argued. Totally agree with approach. Stunned to see a donor would even think that micromanagement of that kind, including sitting in classes, is acceptable.

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Comment by David Burke
2.45pm 26 Jun 2018

Thanks for clarifying this completely. I really appreciate working for and studying at an institution with this level of academic integrity.

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Comment by Melanie Fisher
3.45pm 26 Jun 2018

Thanks Brian. It's good to see the detail of why the ANU withdrew from the Centre made transparent - and so articulately. If only one version of events is presented in the 'public square' then it is harder to refute the assertions of those holding the pen (or megaphone in this case). Dignified references to academic freedom didn't really convey what was at stake to a lay audience.


The Ramsey Centre approach looks similar to that used by the Koch brothers when offering their generous donations to universities in the US and there has been vigorous debate there about the intentions behind the wish to have that degree of control.

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Comment by Anthony George Booth
3.45pm 26 Jun 2018

I am proud to have studied there and proudly say good for the VC to stand up for academic integrity. I hope people everywhere will reaffirm these principles.

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Comment by Luca Biason
4pm 26 Jun 2018

There's no doubt the "irreconcilable differences over the governance" would have percolated into the substance of the program, and only the blind or the hypocrites would deny the intended purposes of the Centre. The reaction from those certain sections of the media proves this point better than anything.

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Comment by Fiona Sweet Formiatti
4.30pm 26 Jun 2018

A much-needed boost to ethical decision-making. Thank you.

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Comment by Peter Read
4.45pm 26 Jun 2018

Well done there was no alternative

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Comment by Chris Borthwick
4.45pm 26 Jun 2018


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Comment by Nigel Thompson
5pm 26 Jun 2018

As someone who graduated with an Arts degree featuring majors in Ancient Greek and Classical Civilisations, I originally welcomed the increased resourcing of the humanities that the Ramsay proposal could have provided.

This is because I consider that an American-style Liberal Arts program has much to offer in terms of broadening otherwise technical or career-focused university education.

However, I latterly became concerned that, instead of encouraging a broadening of the mind, a very narrow, prescribed view of the world would be imposed.

My suspicions were confirmed by the fact that not one but TWO former Liberal (sic) Party Ministers, in the persons of former Prime Ministers Howard and Abbott were prominent on the Ramsay Foundation board.

To say that in rejecting the Ramsay proposal, the ANU was demonstrating political bias or somehow rejecting Western Civilisation, as some politicians, their acolytes and the Murdoch press have suggested is ridiculous.

In rejecting the strings attached to the Ramsay proposal, the ANU has in fact enhanced its reputation for independence from political and other interference with all fair-minded people.

We do not want to return to the days when the Holy Inquisition could ban books and silence scholars like Copernicus and Galileo because what their eyes told them differed from the teachings of the Church.

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Comment by Michael Woodcock
5.45pm 26 Jun 2018

Excellent decision. When will they ever learn  oh when will they ever  learn. Our economiy our future and our culture are in danger and these two past persons want to hammer one more nail in.

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Comment by Barbara Dobinson
7.45pm 26 Jun 2018

Well said gentlemen. Thank you for expanding on your position and for insisting on academic integrity.

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Comment by Darren J Sutton
8pm 26 Jun 2018


Whole hearted support.

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Comment by Richard Love
9.30pm 26 Jun 2018

Very well explained. Just so disappointing that you needed to do it. Full respect to the ANU standards.

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Comment by Joanne Donnelly
7.15am 27 Jun 2018

Thank you, thank you, thank you for upholding the values and integrity of academia, the importance of which cannot be overstated, especially in these times.

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Comment by Michael Faulkner
9.45am 27 Jun 2018

As a retired university academic I strongly applaud this lucid statement by Professors Gareth Evans and Brian Schmidt on behalf of the ANU.

It should, if it hasn't already, be offered to the Fairfax Press at least, for publication in its Sydney and Melbourne dailies.

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Comment by Joan Stivala
10.45am 27 Jun 2018

It is a matter of concern that the discussions were 'commercial in confidence'. The increasing number of decisions made in secret by public institutions is an affront to democracy. In the end it means that we must decide whom we trust and believe rather than being able to base our decision on the arguments put forward by both parties.

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Comment by Mr Bethune Carmichael
11.30am 27 Jun 2018

Good work, but I must say I think you have been very nice about it.

The attack comes from the Australian Newspaper, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch and his 'journalists' deny the science on climate change and along with fellow stable mate Fox News played a vital role in promoting the war in Iraq, which academia at the time warned would give rise to today's terrorism. Murdoch's support of Trump through Fox's misinformation makes him an anathema to academia, or any intellectual persuit. The Australian Newspaper abuses the responsibilities that come with free speech on a daily basis, it defends nothing but Rupert Murdoch's free speech.

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Comment by Anita del Gigante
2.45pm 27 Jun 2018

Thank you for illuminating the ANU's perspective and position on this matter.   I love that the ANU is sticking to these strong academic and freedom principles.   Plus, I think that the behaviour of the media in this, like many situations nowadays, just gets shabbier and shabbier.   Well done Brian and Gareth.

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Comment by Bob Weis
3.45pm 27 Jun 2018

Gareth, you have eloquently put the case for academic freedom and for not taking money tied to outcomes the University doesn't control or share.  Bravo.

In an age where taking the cash and thinking about the implications later seems to be more acceptable, it is good to see some principle rather than greed informing your process.

This is not an issue of who is offering but rather what they are asking or indeed demanding.

I assume that your guidelines are explicit about the conditions of accepting funds from third parties but if not maybe should be.

"We welcome your contributions but will not engage in a quid pro quo"

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Comment by Sheila Gowans
4pm 27 Jun 2018

How affirming to read such a clearly articulated explication by ANU's Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the need to defend academic integrity. This is what authentic leadership with integrity looks like. Though the principles underpinning the Ramsay Centre's initiative are sound their proponents are not.  It is gratifying to see Australians understand that Ramsay's ideological intent as driven by Abbott and Howard, is to rationalise a suppression rather than foster authentic scholarship. Such suppression of ideas gives rise to propaganda and must be resisted at every turn. 

If the Ramsay Centre genuinely wishes to foster engagement with studies in western civilisation in Australia, it would benefit from exploring the modus operandi and programs to be found at the New College of the Humanities, established in London by A.C. Grayling: Australian humanities faculties can take heart in the reality that the humanities, despite the current dominance of funding by the STEM disciplines, has much to offer - and is seen to have much to offer as exemplified in the rapid success of the New College. After reviewing Ramsay's current flawed manifesto, one can but wonder what benefits could be gained by the Ramsay Centre if it contemplated some form of collaboration with the New College in fostering expansion of its programs in Australia. Ramsay could start by supporting scholarships for Australian students to study in London, then fostering pathways for these graduates to enhance dedicated high calibre humanities' courses here in Australia - a Humanities 'Colombo Plan' if you will.  Ramsay's impact would be broader, and Australia could only benefit from such a collaborative approach.

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Comment by Kathryn Wells
5.45pm 27 Jun 2018

I am proud of ANU's stand on academic integrity. I attended a conference last year where Ramsay CEO Simon Haines presented. Upon questioning; it was clear that the Ramsay Centre was not going to resource any curriculum studies which interrogated 'Western Civilisation' and its intersections, whether philosophical, mathematical, political, economic or cultural, the context in which many 'western' ideas developed. This approach seems the apotheosis of the Socratic Method, supposedly promoted by Ramsay, a dramatic irony indeed. Thank you Brian Schmidt.

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Comment by David Brasted
6.30pm 27 Jun 2018

I am glad to see the ANU make clear its objections to being politicised and compromised.

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Comment by Alex Njoo
9.30am 29 Jun 2018

Shades of the 20 - 30s.

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Comment by Karen Brown
10am 29 Jun 2018

I fully support and am proud of the stance taken by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. Their integrity has only reinforced my great confidence in my university and the quality of education it offers. Hear hear!

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Comment by Nicholas de Dear
7.15am 3 Jul 2018

As a citizen, humanities graduate and teacher I seek considered and rational contributions to this debate.  As yet undecided on the issue because I have yet to discern sufficient evidence within the febrile haze of the (higher) educated version of name-calling this issue ignites in some.  This article by Schmidt and Evans seems reasonable and well prepared.  Several comments that follow it engendered an uneasy feeling of sycophantic barracking but I tried to ignore the obvious emotion and willingness of some contributors to, 'play the man' (men? - Abbot / Howard) rather than the issue.  That said, are all these supporters of Evans and Schmidt's defense of ANU's negotiations, actions and position still staunch after reading Simon Haines' response in the The Australian, 12:00AM June 28, 2018?  Would any deign to read it?  Or would such a Socratic search for truth, not fit comfortably with the confirmation bias appearing to seep through too many of these comments?