Alt-Right? Academics Break Ranks Over Ramsay Centre8 August 2019
Content Warning: white supremacy
Academics at the University of Wollongong (UoW) are speaking out against the institution’s newest Arts major. There has already been major controversy over the unusual fast-track approval of the course, which will be privately funded by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
What’s more, several concerned academics are pointing to how, and by whom, the term “western civilisation” is used in 2019.
Like dozens of other Australian universities, Wollongong offers degrees and majors in history, philosophy, PPE (politics, philosophy and economics), and English literatures. Classics and ancient languages are available at other nearby universities. All of those fields, when studied with the western focus that persists in Australian universities, could be described as “western civilisation”.
And they’re all things that Associate Professor Ika Willis is passionate about. But Dr Willis, an Oxford- educated classicist working at the University of Wollongong, criticised the proposed Ramsay course in an interview with Farrago. In particular, she is wary of the Ramsay Centre’s insistence on using a term that “has been appropriated by … a bunch of loosely-related far- right projects”.
More direct is a letter pinned up a UOW office hallway by another academic. “[The phrase] ‘Western Civilisation’ is now inescapably a right-wing dog-whistle,” it reads.
The letter-writer is talking about a tactic used on the extreme right, in which philosophy and classical studies are appropriated as support for racist, sexist, extreme- right viewpoints. US academic Donna Zuckerberg drew attention to the anti-feminist side of this discourse in her recent book Not All Dead White Men. Conversely, multiple critics of the Ramsay Centre have warned that it perpetuates what they call “cultural supremacy”.
Here at the University of Melbourne, Professor Stephanie Trigg, a medievalist scholar, recently commented during a lecture on the extreme-right appropriation of academic fields such as medievalism and classical studies. Speaking to Farrago, Prof Trigg criticised “the desires expressed by some white supremacist groups to ‘return’ to a more racially pure medieval culture”—an atavistic “wish-fulfillment fantasy” which she says doesn’t accurately describe the cultural reality of the Middle Ages in Europe.
In their demand for a return to the past, these extreme right-wingers implicitly claim that their imagined “pure” western culture is superior, and also that it’s under threat. They refer to the usual suspects: immigration, feminists, homosexuality.
This discourse gained more attention due to its prominence in the “manifesto” of the Christchurch mosque shooter. Rod Dreher, a “Distinguished Speaker” at the Ramsay Centre—though Dreher is not associated with the UoW degree—argued in an article that “Everything [the mass-murderer] identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilization is true.” (emphasis in original)
In fact, that was what first prompted Professor Willis to speak out publicly, to the Sydney Morning Herald, against the western-civilisation major. She told Farrago that she is worried that, in the current climate, the adoption of this degree by a large university will appear to verify the white supremacists’ claims that western culture has been oppressed in academia.
The major has certainly been positioned as a reaction to a threat. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott recounted, in a 2017 article, how he convinced his “good friend” Paul Ramsay AO to bequeath money to establish the Centre. Abbott described the western civilisation major as a “necessary” response to current Australian curricula, which he said lack “respect for our heritage” and are “supposed to be pervaded by Asian, indigenous and sustainability perspectives”. Abbott famously promised that the major would be “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”.
Both Dr Willis and Professor Trigg challenged these claims. “All this material is already taught in very interesting and theorised ways,” Willis said.
“I don’t agree that there is a problem with the way the humanities is being taught in Australia,” Trigg said, “and the thought of two degrees, two sets of staff, and two sets of students studying the humanities on a given campus (one receiving ordinary funding; one receiving private funding) is very distressing to me.”
The proposed funding model will give the Ramsay Centre significant control over hiring decisions and course content. Indeed, the Ramsay Centre was in negotiations with the Australian National University, which broke down allegedly over two factors—their insistence on the name “western civilisation”, and the risk to academic freedom.
The chancellor and vice-chancellor of the ANU later went public with details of the dispute. In an open letter, they warned other universities off the degree, stating that the terms demanded by the Ramsay Centre would have instantiated “an extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach”.
Dr Willis concurred that the Ramsay Centre degree’s funding model is unprecedented in Australian academia. “This is really different because of the level of involvement that the Ramsay Centre has in the title, the curriculum, the hiring process.”
Typically, she added, when private funding is given to a university, the institution has the freedom to choose and hire academic staff who in turn set their own research agendas.
“If you’re not worried about western civilisation, are you worried about the idea of the next billionaire setting up a degree in homeopathy in the medical school, or a degree in astrology in the astrophysics centre?” Dr Willis concluded.
The University of Wollongong has emphasised, in its website and the media as well as staff communications leaked to Farrago, “the multiple perspectives and traditions” of the intended course, and that the curriculum will include “under-represented voices and perspectives from outside of [western] traditions”. Perhaps Tony Abbott’s hopes for the course have been dashed.
Despite its rejection at the ANU, and rumblings at Wollongong, the Ramsay Centre is attempting to implement its degree at still more universities. The University of Queensland has revealed that it is in negotiations.
Sources within the University of Wollongong have forwarded to Farrago internal emails from senior figures from that institution, including the Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE. In one email, he appeared to encourage UoW staff to withdraw their support of a planned legal challenge against the degree’s fast-track approval.
In July, the action was withdrawn, but not by a decision of the staff. The UoW University Council unexpectedly used its executive powers to confirm the degree’s fast-track approval for implementation in Autumn 2020, making it nearly impossible for the decision to be legally challenged.
Announcing the decision not to pursue the legal action, NTEU UoW Branch President Georgine Clarsen stated in an email to staff: “It is notable from our experiences at UOW and other universities that where Ramsay seeks to establish a foothold the only means of progressing approval is for university managers to subvert the normal practices of academic oversight.”
While UoW bills it as a “degree for the intellectually fearless”, the big question for me is whether anyone will actually enrol. Academics, and most universities, seem to be distancing themselves. But with the huge scholarships on offer – reportedly up to $27,000 per annum for students displaying “the Ramsay attributes”—for some young people, studying Western Civilisation could be the only way to afford university.
Professor Trigg concluded, “It is great that there is support for the humanities in Australia: we need more of this. But I am concerned that the Ramsay program seems so dismissive of the great intellectual and cultural traditions of humanities teaching and research in this country. … To argue for the superiority of ‘Western Civilisation’ is going to be very divisive.”
The Ramsay Centre and a representative of the University of Wollongong were contacted by Farrago, and replied but did not provide comment for this article.