Sydney social sciences dean open to Ramsay program

As a lesbian and gay studies scholar internationally known for her work in queer theory and the author of a recent work on the “cultural theory of orgasm”, the University of Sydney’s dean of arts and social sciences is widely seen as a socially progressive academic.

Yet Annamarie Jagose says she remains open to the potential of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation’s contentious multimillion-dollar proposal for a degree program at the university.

“I’m in favour of exploring as thoroughly as we can whether or not such a partnership is possible,” she says, adding that a bequest of that size should not be automatically rejected. “I can see the potential benefit of such a large bequest for the faculty of arts and social sciences,” she says.

“It’s completely unprecedent­ed in the history of Australian gifts or benefactions in the humanities. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be repeated in my lifetime, or probably in the lifetime of anyone who’s having this conversation.”

She adds that she would be happy to walk away from the negotiations “without a backward glance” if the final agreement with the Ramsay Centre did not include cast-iron guarantees of academic freedom.

The Ramsay proposal has ignited fury at three universities so far, and a number of academics at Sydney have deplored it as “regressive”, with a curriculum ­designed to inculcate the “supremacy of the West”.

Two former Liberal prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, are on the Ramsay board, and Jagose concedes that their role likely raised the hackles of some of her colleagues.

And yet, she adds, the former prime ministers “will neither be the architects of the curriculum nor the teachers in the classroom, and they aren’t qualified to be”.

The Australian National University withdrew from negotiations with the Ramsay Centre at a late stage earlier this year, citing academic freedom concerns, and the University of Queensland is also considering the Ramsay proposal.

Jagose says the University of Sydney has sent a revised memorandum of understanding to the Ramsay Centre for a “bachelor of Western tradition” degree course, revised from an earlier “bachelor of Western civilisation” course — choosing a more neutral descriptive title that will still be widely understood, she says, without the implicit assumption that the only civilisation worth studying was the Western version.

The original MOU draft was changed and strengthened after wide consultation and includes “the force of academic freedom as an inalienable value”, she says.

To those who wonder why such a seemingly progressive academic remains open to the Ramsay proposal, she points out that she studied Latin and English literature for her undergraduate degree, and she has read “her share of dead white men” — as the Western literary canon is sometimes described.

The study of these classic texts, she adds, often provides the foundation for further research in various progressive fields including feminism studies and lesbian and gay studies.

Jagose says that alongside the “very visible, organised, open-letter-style opposition to the notion” for the course, there was an undercurrent of quiet support or at least neutrality at the University of Sydney.

“Some colleagues are passionately and politically opposed to any kind of engagement with the Ramsay Centre of any order,” she acknowledges.

“But as a dean, I have to take a broad, institutional view, as opposed to a partisan political view.”

Careful consideration is essential, she says, because a bequest the size of the Ramsay funding has implications for future University of Sydney arts students in the decades to come, even though “I will be long gone, as will all of the actors in this overheated moment”.

She adds that she has faith in the university’s strength and resolution, and she thinks any attempt to undermine academic freedom at the institution is doomed to failure.

“Colleagues who are opposed to the notion of a program in the Western tradition have a sense that I don’t share that the Ramsay Centre is infinitely powerful, and that the university is excruciat­ingly vulnerable,” she says. Meanwhile, she adds, it should be understood that the Ramsay proposal difficulties are not unprecedented in the history of university donations.

“In the donor space, we’re often having incredibly fraught, diplomatic and sometimes explosive negotiations with potential donors around how a letter of agreement will be reached, (and) what will be the conditions under which the university will accept sometimes spectacularly large sums of money,” Jagose says.

The arts dean is reluctant to predict whether the Ramsay proposal is likely to succeed at the University of Sydney, saying that so far it seemed a “bit 50-50”.

“There are so many co-ordinates I don’t have a grasp of,” she concludes.

“I’m not familiar with how the Ramsay Centre board might think about this.”