'Political agenda': ANU academics sound alarm on 'radically conservative' new degree
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'Political agenda': ANU academics sound alarm on 'radically conservative' new degree

Academics at the Australian National University have questioned the integrity of a proposed course in Western Civilisation which some fear could give "unprecedented" control of the curriculum to an outside philanthropic organisation.

The university is the first to enter into detailed negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to run its new degree and scholarship program, which will be funded as part of a $3 billion bequest from health care magnate Paul Ramsay.

This week, the National Tertiary Education Union demanded the university provide a guarantee of its academic freedom, warning of a potential "backlash" if the final deal is seen to compromise on the ANU's core values or link the university to a "divisive cultural and political agenda".

The move came after former prime minister Tony Abbott, who sits on the board of the centre along with John Howard and Kim Beazley, wrote an article in Quandrant magazine implying the charity would wield control over curriculum and staffing decisions.

According to the ANU's website, decisions on curriculum will be made by a "partnership management committee" consisting of two academic staff from the Ramsay Centre and two university academics, but considered through the normal academic process.

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The union's ANU branch president Matthew King said any influence on academic considerations from outside the university was unprecedented and could damage the ANU's reputation.

In a letter to ANU Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, Mr King said there were "grave concerns" among academics that the "the Ramsay Centre seeks to pursue a narrow, radically conservative program to demonstrate and promulgate the alleged superiority of Western culture and civilisation".

On Thursday, a university spokeswoman declined to comment on negotiations with the centre as the ANU "was not yet in a position to make an announcement on the outcome".

"The University has a long history of managing donations and gifts from a range of private and public donors," she said.

"Academic independence is a core ANU value which underpins our global reputation and standing in research excellence."

Mr King said staff were not against philanthropic donations, but pointed to successful scholarship programs such as the Tuckwell program as examples of "arms-length" funding.

Academics who spoke to Fairfax Media said they were concerned about reports that the "secretive negotiations" were considering if Ramsay Centre staff could sit in on classes to monitor content or exclude certain diverse writers and political theories from the degree.

One academic, who asked not to be identified, rejected the assumption there was a crisis in the way Western history was taught in Australian universities. The ANU already has more than 140 courses in Western culture taught by 92 academics.

"This idea that something has happened to the dead white male's version of literary history, it really is coming from people like Howard and Abbott," he said.

"The university system has been gradually starved of funding in recent times and it's becoming more vulnerable to the influence of wealthy donors."

The course will provide about 30 scholarships worth $25,000 each to students, and run tutorial-style classes in the old Oxford tradition. In his article last month, Mr Abbott said it would mirror the great-books courses taught in liberal arts colleges in the US.

"An education-union shop steward has voiced his resentment that money bequeathed by Paul Ramsay to establish the Centre for Western Civilisation is not being doled out by the ANU's academic board," the introduction to the article read.

While the Ramsay Centre declined to answer questions on negotiations, chief executive Professor Simon Haines said it was "fully committed to the principles of academic freedom, integrity and autonomy which are essential to the proper functioning of universities and to Western Civilisation".

ANU student association president Eleanor Kay said students had also raised concerns with the university about its academic autonomy.

"We have also had concerns raised with us [about] the way the language of ‘western civilisation’ could be used as a political or rhetorical tool to prioritise western history over other cultures," she said.

Mr King said the degree would be rejected by staff and students and could lead to significant "anger, protest and division" if it was seen to compromise the ANU's principles.

He noted staff would not have the opportunity to view or sign off on the final agreement and must therefore rely "on the good faith" of the university's leadership, but said he was quietly confident the ANU would uphold its independence.

A final figure for the Ramsay Centre donation will be disclosed if an agreement is reached.

The ANU has previously said it expects the course to be up and running by first semester next year.

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs