Australians Must Reject a Nationalist Push Into Our Universities

In 1985, the Australian entrepreneur Paul Ramsay took a tour of Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana. So impressed was he with the luxurious “white castle” mansion and its grounds that he decided to buy it right there and then. In Mr. Ramsay’s hands, the property became a popular tourist attraction and resort. The resort’s website continues to revel in Nottoway’s antebellum glory days, while neglecting to make any mention of the slave labor from which it was built.

A similar desire to whitewash the past informs the institution that Paul Ramsay has left Australians as his legacy: the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization in Sydney.

In the 1990s, Prime Minister John Howard accelerated the privatization of Australian health care, introducing a tax rebate for those who took out private insurance. During the sell-off of state assets, Mr. Ramsay specialized in turning veterans’ hospitals into profit-making enterprises, before expanding his interests across the sector. By the time he died in 2014, his net worth was likely upward of $2 billion.

Mr. Ramsay’s health care fortune is now being plowed into a second sector facing a dire erosion of public funding: higher education. With Mr. Howard as chairman of its board of directors, the Ramsay Center is in negotiations with multiple Australian universities to fund a new program of courses in Western Civilization.

There’s no denying the benefits that philanthropy can bring to a public university, but the Ramsay Center is no ordinary donor. Its board members have been frank about their political goals: to redress what they see as excessive criticism of the West in Australian universities, and to cultivate a “new generation of leaders” who will “defend and promote” Western civilization, which the chief executive of the center, Simon Haines, believes is “arguably the richest of all civilizations”.

The Ramsay Center wants to establish its program alongside, and separate from, existing offerings in disciplines like history and philosophy — disciplines already heavily weighted toward the West. And it intends to privilege “Western civilization” by providing its budding “cadre of leaders” with scholarships and learning conditions that outstrip those available to their peers.

Ramsay’s push onto campuses marks the next step in a wider campaign to roll back the more pluralistic definition of national identity that is emerging in today’s multicultural Australia. In the 1990s, Prime Minister Howard voiced his hostility to a “black armband view of history”, which in his view gave excessive weight to the indigenous viewpoint on Australia’s colonization.

Speaking in 2010 at the launch of the Foundations of Western Civilization Program, an initiative of the free-market Institute of Public Affairs, Mr. Howard railed against the Australian Labor Party’s new high-school history curriculum, which he felt belittled European and British influences on Australia.

But it is not only Australia’s history wars in which “Western civilization” serves as a rallying cry for conservatives. In a 2011 address entitled “Western civilization must be defended”, Mr. Howard argued that same-sex marriage was “an exercise in de-authorizing the Judeo-Christian influence in our society”. Another former prime minister, and Ramsay Center board member, Tony Abbott, has justified the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of “defending Western civilization against the forces of chaos”.

The myth of an embattled “Western civilization” has also been featured in a recent series of alarming interventions into the politics of race and immigration in Australia. In August, Senator Fraser Anning referred to his harsh policy ideas as the “final solution to the immigration problem”, arguing that we must not “concede the field to enemies of Western civilization”. Earlier this month, the governing Liberal-National coalition endorsed Senator Pauline Hanson’s motion echoing the alt-right slogan “It’s O.K. to be white”, and deploring “attacks on Western civilization”.

Efforts to re-center the university curriculum on more celebratory notions of “Western civilization” feed off, and in turn give scholarly legitimacy to, interventions such as these. The Ramsay Center’s rhetoric may sound more sophisticated than the outright Western chauvinism emanating from the Australian Senate, but the kinship they share is obvious.

The Ramsay initiative mirrors a wider global trend in which politicians and activists shape nationalist sentiment into pride in artificial and ahistoric notions of civilization. Amid growing geopolitical rivalries, and widely expressed hostility toward free trade, kindred spirits on the global right now seek to divide the world into cultural camps, threatening the critical spirit and international exchange that is so vital to scholarly work.

In the United States, the conservative National Association of Scholars has lobbied to restore “Western civilization” to the centrality it once held in America’s college curriculum. This campaign led to the creation of Texas Tech’s Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, headed by the N.A.S.’s founding chair. Next month, the institute is hosting Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, who will present “the case for colonialism”.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is introducing a curriculum that will inculcate a “new civilization” informed by his definition of Ottoman and Islamic values. In China, President Xi Jinping has similarly set himself the task of reviving his nation’s confidence in “5,000 years of Chinese civilization”.

In some cases in Australia, universities have shown themselves vigilant to the dangers inherent in this climate of cultural nationalism. When Beijing’s Confucius Institute came knocking at the University of Sydney, my colleagues rightly insisted that they have no role in teaching Chinese language and culture to our undergraduates.

The Ramsay Center’s first suitor, The Australian National University, balked when it realized the constraints the center wished to place on its autonomy and the intellectual freedom of its faculty. Yet with much of the same proposal still intact, including a periodic review of funding and Ramsay participation in hiring decisions, administrators at the University of Sydney have been unable to resist the lure of the center’s millions and — to the considerable disquiet of staff, including me — are plunging into negotiations. More preliminary moves are afoot at the University of Queensland.

In the face of administrative intransigence and the erosion of faculty governance, staff and students at the University of Sydney have mobilized strongly against the Ramsay proposal, and enlisted the support of colleagues from around the country and overseas. Several departments have issued open letters opposing the partnership, and some faculty have threatened to boycott it. An arm wrestle is taking place on our campus, and its outcome will have significant consequences for Australian higher education.

For universities to fulfill the critical role they were designed for, it’s essential that they not simply serve as conduits for the viewpoints espoused by the loudest or wealthiest voices in the wider society. The values of pluralism and diversity that all Australian universities profess to represent shouldn’t be reduced to mere advertising slogans — they’re prerequisites for the participatory intellectual climate in which scholarly work thrives. It’s time for our universities to live up to these promises and to reject Ramsay.

David Brophy is a senior lecturer in the department of history at the University of Sydney, and a member of the Staff Against the Ramsay Cente r group.

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