There has been much excitement in these pages over the past few weeks as the self-appointed defenders of all that is good rage against the temerity of universities in insisting on their intellectual sovereignty by applying long-held standards of rigour and objectivity.
These heroic culture warriors insist that universities are wrong to maintain their independence from a donor’s preferences on content, direction and staffing of a funded program.
But think about what they are railing against.
The principle of academic freedom — along with its close cousin, scientific independence — is itself one of the central tenets of the Western framework that these blowhards claim to defend.
Whether it is a funded chair, a research centre supported by a corporate partner or a set of courses sponsored by a philanthropic foundation, universities are entirely correct to disallow any attempt to influence content, direction, personnel and outcomes.
Indeed, the credibility of the research program or course of study depends on the exercise of that independence, something that enlightened donors recognise as the primary value of their engagement.
A compromised sponsoring relationship doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.
By making their shrill arguments against the entirely appropriate application of institutional autonomy, the commentators of the right are undermining the very standards of intellectual procedure they allegedly cherish.
But, although they may be ideologically blinkered, they are not unintelligent, Their inconsistency is exhibit A for the charge that there is something else going on.
Exhibit B is the fact that, contrary to their insistence that there is a desperate need for instruction in Western thought, the current curriculum is almost entirely based on, suffused with, and consists of precisely this Western intellectual tradition.
A glance at an academic calendar — not only in the humanities, but in science, economics, art, law, medicine, technology, everywhere — suffices to show that the assertion of a yawning gap in Western intellectual currents is entirely and palpably false.
Let me be clear. The West does not have a monopoly on scientific rigour and intellectual honesty. The global history of ideas and innovation is replete with instances of discoveries, insights and wisdom from other traditions, including indigenous knowledge systems, Middle Eastern thought and Eastern approaches.
Unlike those other systems, however, the West has evolved an approach with its own character and structure, which have served us very well over the centuries. The modern university — and virtually its entire research enterprise and teaching curriculum — is one of the leading instances of the Western tradition.
It is not necessary to make a claim that Western thought is superior to the alternatives for us to argue that it is distinctive and worthy of study in its own right.
Yet these commentators invariably do make such claims for superiority, usually armed with an utterly superficial understanding of the other traditions they deride. And that’s exhibit C.
So what is going on here? A clue is in the occupant of the chair of the Ramsay Centre board, former prime minister John Howard.
This is the man who derided calls for an apology for the Stolen Generations as mere symbolism, yet would never dream of sleeping in and missing a dawn service on Anzac Day. A man who argued that current generations are not responsible for the sins of our fathers in the case of the violent dispossession of those who were here before us, but that we are nonetheless rightful beneficiaries of the fruits of those sins.
Furthermore, the entire sorry episode is a textbook example of classic bully-boy behaviour.
First, as attested by the Australian National University’s vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, the Ramsay Centre sought a level of influence over the ANU’s curriculum and staffing that was inconsistent with academic autonomy. If anyone should have known better than to try this ploy, it’s an outfit claiming to defend the Western tradition.
Alas, mid-negotiation they were undone by the typically premature effusions of board member Tony Abbott, who belled the cat in Quadrant by boasting about this victory in a culture war that has apparently raged unabated for decades on the streets of Warringah.
Then, when the ANU withdrew from the process once the potential donor’s intentions became clear, the Ramsay Centre’s allies in the conservatariat unleashed a relentless barrage of insult, hyperbole and sheer fiction in an attempt to intimidate another university — any other university, by appearances — into accepting their pieces of silver.
Finally, there was the unedifying spectacle of Simon Haines, chief executive of the Ramsay Centre, shaking his head in sorrow at the much-needed riches the universities will deny themselves if they insist on maintaining their academic independence.
It is shameful. If ever there was a demonstration of the need for adequate public funding of teaching and research in Australian universities, this is it.
Instead of admonishing universities and their staff and students for staying true to their mission, their statutes, and indeed to the Western tradition, Education Minister Simon Birmingham ought to reconsider his punitive defunding regime that renders institutions vulnerable to the temptations of dangled riches.
But, sadly, the government’s response has been wholly inappropriate, attacking instead of defending the very standards that underpin the vital contribution that Australia’s universities make to the nation.
Fortunately, the universities themselves understand what is at stake, and will not be dictated to, either by a neglectful and spiteful government or by an insistent and intrusive potential donor.
They are to be applauded, not attacked, for their fortitude.
This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, 20 June 2018.