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ANU and Western civilisation course: time to punish unis that limit freedom of thought

By James Paterson - posted Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The Australian National University's decision to cancel plans for a bachelor of Western civilisation has highlighted the rampant anti-Western bias that exists at many Australian universities.

But the administration's decision to cave in to internal pressure should have surprised no one. It is merely the latest in a long line of incidents that expose the perverse incentive structure Australian universities face. Because of this, universities will almost always abandon intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity whenever it brings them into conflict with the vocal minority of ideological enforcers who believe our universities belong to them.

Given the generous taxpayer funding our universities receive, this is unacceptable. The only way to correct this problem is for the government to ensure universities' financial interests align with upholding the values of intellectual freedom, free speech, and viewpoint diversity.


The ANU had been in an advanced stage of discussions over a bachelor's degree covering Western civilisation. The course was to be the beginning of the Ramsay Centre's efforts to "advance education by promoting studies and discussion … of Western civilisation", a mission that accompanied the bequest of Paul Ramsay. To achieve this, the centre was willing to fund 40 student scholarships worth $25,000 each, as well as the salaries of 12 ANU staff.

With such a generous offer, it's no surprise vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt initially wanted the ANU to be the first Australian university to host such a course. What he clearly didn't anticipate was the inevitable backlash from the elements of the higher education establishment that view the study of Western civilisation as, in the words of ANU Student Association president Eleanor Kay, "a rhetorical tool to continue the racist prioritisation of Western history over other cultures".

Kay was joined in her opposition by a host of ANU academics, including National Tertiary Education Union branch president Matthew King, who claimed "any association" with the Ramsay Centre could "potentially damage the intellectual reputation of the humanities at ANU".

In announcing the plan's cancellation, Schmidt attempted to shift the blame on to the Ramsay Centre, claiming its funding posed a threat to academic freedom. Frank Bongiorno, an associate professor of history at ANU, went one better, blaming Tony Abbott for making the truly shocking admission that the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation was in favour of Western civilisation.

These excuses might have been more plausible if the ANU hadn't already accepted generous donations from multiple Middle Eastern governments to fund its Centre for Arab and Islamic studies, and if staff at other universities hadn't been so explicit in their opposition to the Ramsay Centre's proposal for a course in Western civilisation. According to an open letter signed by more than 100 academics at the University of Sydney, it is the embodiment of "chauvinistic, Western essentialism", a conclusion they reached without having seen a draft curriculum or funding agreement.

We may hope that university administrators are willing and able to resist attempts to enforce ideological conformity and stand up for free speech, intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity - values fundamental to the university as an institution. But standing up to co-ordinated revolts takes courage, and it's a simple fact of human nature that many people prefer to avoid conflict - university administrators included. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that the Ramsay Centre's $2 million-odd donation, while generous, amounts to a insignificant fraction of the ANU's annual revenue of $1.18 billion.


And the ANU was simply following the precedent set by other universities: the University of Western Australia, for example, cancelled a $4m agreement to host Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Centre; more recently, James Cook University chose to sack a professor, Peter Ridd, for being insufficiently "collegial" in his criticism of other academics' climate research.

This might be tolerable if these universities were entirely privately funded - but that's not the case. The federal government gives Australian universities more than $16.9bn of taxpayers' money every year. In 2016 alone, the ANU received $632.8 million from Australian taxpayers.

Despite what some academics seem to think, universities don't receive such generous funding so that fringe academics can impose their narrow worldview on the next generation of students. Academic freedom is not a blank cheque for academics to stifle alternative views and prevent the teaching of ideas they don't like. Taxpayers have a legitimate interest in ensuring our universities are genuinely pluralistic and tolerant of diverse opinions.

In fact, since 2011 universities have been legally required to have a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry as a condition of funding. Yet, as the Institute of Public Affairs' 2017 Free Speech on Campus Audit found, only eight of Australia's 42 universities have such a policy. For all its talk of academic freedom, the ANU is not among them.

Clearly, the existence of this requirement isn't enough to counteract the pressure that university administrators face from an angry minority hell-bent on enforcing its ideological hegemony. In order to strengthen their hand, the government should directly tie funding to compliance with the requirement to uphold the fundamental values of free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity.

Only imposing real, financial consequences will bring an end to the kind administrative cowardice that was epitomised by the ANU's decision to cancel its proposed course on Western civilisation.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

James Paterson is a student at the University of Melbourne and a former Liberal staffer.

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