Flatly denying the Ramsay Centre deal for a Western civilisation course at Wollongong University has been kept a secret, the university’s executive dean of law, humanities and the arts, Theo Farrell, insists he had been discussing the idea with colleagues since 2017. “Some colleagues have gone public saying there has been no consultation,” Professor Farrell said this week.
“That’s basically factually wrong. There were consultations in July and August 2017, and emails backwards and forwards from me and members of the faculty.”
When the Ramsay Centre first published its formal call for expressions of interest in October 2017, there was a mixed reaction from Wollongong academics, Professor Farrell said.
“There was some opposition, as you would expect, but also some colleagues who thought this would be a very good opportunity. And a couple of colleagues who were just enthusiastic, actually.”
The university had to accept Ramsay’s terms, he explained. These included the stipulations that the liberal arts degree would be called a bachelor of arts in “Western civilisation”, that it would be a great books liberal arts course in the classic North American style, and that it would focus on those works.
Some Wollongong academics were appalled to learn in December that the deal had already been done. A visiting fellow resigned and others voiced their opposition.
Diana Kelly, a historian at the university, said she had been disconcerted to read about the Ramsay deal in the papers, and then to discover that the vice-chancellor had emailed a message about it at three minutes past midnight.
“It was presented to everyone as a done deal,” Associate Professor Kelly said.
“They said it was because Ramsay insisted on the secrecy to avoid the ‘problems’, in other words to avoid what is core to academic values — transparency, openness and debate. They’ve already compromised the academic values, in my view.”
Professor Kelly said the Ramsay partnership would erode the University of Wollongong’s traditional egalitarianism.
“Now we’re going to have two universities within one — one group in classes of four or 10 or something, and the rest of the students, the vast majority of students, in tutorials of 20 and 30.”
Professor Farrell said the partnership agreement had met the university’s minimum requirements.
“Obviously you have to preserve academic freedom and the governance principles and values of the institution,” he said, adding that the Ramsay Centre had no final veto over the new course’s curriculum.
He said the university’s memorandum of understanding with Ramsay would not be publicly released because it was commercially in confidence, and he would not provide a final budget, except to say it was more than $50 million over eight years.
“We don’t have any direct dealings with the Ramsay board,” he said. “We’ve obviously presented to the board, and I have to say they were gracious hosts when we presented. They asked intelligent questions, they really pushed us. I thought (former PM and Ramsay chairman) John Howard seemed to do an excellent job chairing that particular session.”