Brian Schmidt: At the end of the day, it's a matter of principle
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Brian Schmidt: At the end of the day, it's a matter of principle

The news came yesterday that Australian National University remains ranked by QS as No. 1 in Australia and in the top 25 universities in the world. We take this global reputation seriously – one that is built on the basis of academic autonomy and free academic inquiry.

The ANU has declined donations in the past and will again where we are unable to meet the donor's wishes within our normal practices. It is right that we explore opportunities openly and in good faith, but it is also right that we let prospective donors know when we cannot provide them with what they want.

ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt

ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian SchmidtCredit:Joe Armao

Our decision to end negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization has attracted a great deal of interest. In this case, the prospective donor sought a level of influence over our curriculum and staffing that went beyond what any other donor has been granted, and was inconsistent with academic autonomy.

This would set a precedent that would completely undermine the university's integrity.

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While there has been plenty of noise from all ends about the merits of the study of Western civilisation, the decision at our end has nothing to do with the subject matter.

In fact, the reason we entered into discussions and, no doubt, why we were of interest to the donor, is our global reputation for scholarship and teaching across the full breadth of the Western liberal tradition, from classics, history and literature to philosophy, art and music. We offer more than 150 courses in Western scholarship. It would take 18 years of study to complete all of those courses.

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The opportunity to augment our teaching and research in these areas, along with a generous scholarship program for students, was an attractive proposition for the ANU and we were grateful to the Ramsay Centre for considering the ANU as a partner.

But at the end of the day, the university operates on the same principles with all donors, whatever their area of interest. Whether it is funding to support the study of Persian language or the study of classics, the same principles apply. The university retains full control of all curriculum and staffing decisions. This is the crux of the issue here for us. In this case, the donor sought a level of influence over our curriculum and staffing that went beyond any existing arrangements we have.

The ANU has a unique national mission. Since its founding, it has worked to advance both Australia's understanding of the world and the world's understanding of Australia. To do this, it houses many centres dedicated to the study of different regions of the world, including the ANU Centre for European Studies, Australian Centre for Latin-American Studies, the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, and the Australian Centre for China in the World. We are also home to country-based and regional institutes that cover the vast breadth of the Asia-Pacific region.

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I'm disappointed to see that our globally renowned Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) has been singled out. The centre is an important national institution that has received bipartisan support since its establishment.

It makes a significant contribution to Australian knowledge of regional challenges and issues in the Muslim Middle East and Central Asia, including providing training to many of our federal government departments interested in the region. It does great work on behalf of Australia. And the donations it received, like those received by all our centres, are bound by the same principles that apply across the university.

In the great liberal tradition, the university, like our media, is a place of robust debate, discussion and controversy. The debate about approaches to the study of Western civilisation will no doubt continue unabated for generations to come. But in the end, it was not the basis for our decision.

Professor Brian Schmidt is the Australian National University's vice-chancellor and president.

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