Tensions Grow in Australia Over Western Civ Courses

Criticism centers on source of funding and university governance.

April 18, 2019

Plans for lavishly funded “great books” courses are under a cloud amid academic revolts at two Australian universities.

The executive and the governing council of the University of Wollongong have closed ranks over Vice Chancellor Paul Wellings’s approval of a degree bankrolled by the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization, a philanthropic organization.

Meanwhile, proposals to offer Ramsay-funded majors at the University of Queensland have hit a snag, after the board of studies for UQ’s humanities and social sciences faculty unanimously rejected the draft curricula.

The developments at both institutions suggest that the conflicts over the planned courses -- opposed by many academics and students because of perceptions that they curtail academic autonomy and champion a “Western supremacist” perspective -- are increasingly becoming a test of university governance.

Wollongong avoided a staff and student backlash by negotiating with Ramsay in secret and announcing an agreement in December as a fait accompli. Wellings then bypassed Academic Senate scrutiny of the proposed course by approving it under “fast track” procedures, a move that the university says was necessary to meet publication deadlines for a 2020 course handbook.

In late March, the Academic Senate lodged a formal protest. Insiders said that the fast-track process was typically used to “tweak” existing courses and had never been used to endorse an entire new program.

This month the National Tertiary Education Union launched proceedings in the New South Wales Supreme Court, seeking to have the approval overturned. But last week, the university council sided with the executive.

“I am comfortable that the decisions taken by the vice chancellor have been in accordance with university policies and in the best interests of the institution,” Chancellor Jillian Broadbent said in a statement issued by the university.

That view is not shared by academics and students who protested prior to the meeting. Chloe Rafferty, president of the Wollongong Undergraduate Student Association, said that the university council should have recognized the position of the Academic Senate, “which is supposed to be the body that ensures our university has academic integrity.”

Rafferty said that she had been denied access to the council meeting to discuss a budget for the student union -- an address that she said had been planned for months -- with three security guards barring her entry. The university said that Rafferty had not registered her intention to attend the meeting -- a claim that she denied.

NTEU Wollongong's branch president, Georgine Clarsen, said that she had written to the university council members explaining why the union had taken legal action, enclosing copies of the court documentation, to ensure that the issue would not be “swept under the carpet.”

She said that the university’s governance unit had refused to confirm whether the information had been passed on to council members.

NTEU national president Alison Barnes said that the union had initiated legal proceedings because of the “gradual and persistent erosion of academic governance” at universities such as Wollongong.

The Supreme Court has the power to overturn Wollongong’s administrative decisions because the university was established under state legislation. The first hearing is set for April 23.

Meanwhile, UQ’s HASS board of studies has warned the faculty’s executive dean that “further consultation and refinement of the curriculum” for proposed Ramsay-funded courses is required.

Many of the faculty’s academics had earlier issued a petition opposing Ramsay-funded courses on academic freedom and institutional autonomy grounds. “There are incalculable reputational risks for the University of Queensland in linking itself to an external body that clearly has a specific political agenda,” the petition says.

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