I opposed John Howard’s decision in 2006, when he was prime minister, to provide an endowment of $25 million to the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
The USSC received additional support from the NSW government and the taxpayer-subsidised University of Sydney. Certainly there were financial contributions from business and individuals, channelled through the American Australian Association. However, the main funding has come from taxpayers.
My position turned on my view that any such centre based at a university would soon reflect the political ethos of that particular campus. It is well known that the social science departments at Australian universities are replete with what Americans term liberals and what Australians refer to as left-liberals or leftists.
In other words, the social science areas of most Australian — and most American — tertiary institutions are similar to the ABC. Namely, they are conservative-free zones where academics tend to agree with one another in a leftist kind of way. Any conservatives are reluctant to state their views in the public debate.
And so it came to pass with the USSC.
In November 2008 the USSC boasted on its website that its US “election day special” had become a celebration of Barack Obama’s victory over Republican John McCain. It was understandable that a group of young students might celebrate the election of the first African-American US president. But it was inexcusable for the USSC academic staff effectively to sponsor the event.
There was also a sense of irony here. Howard, who was politically closer to McCain than Obama, had provided a substantial amount of taxpayers’ money to an outfit that turned into an Obama fan club.
Step forward eight years and little has changed. Simon Jackman, chief executive of the USSC, appeared on Sky News’ Paul Murray Live soon after it was confirmed that Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
Panellist Mark Latham asked Jackman whether he could name any one of the 30 academics at the USSC who was pro-Trump. The reply was unambiguous: “No, no, I can’t actually, no.” Indeed, the USSC’s Brendon O’Connor wrote an article in Fairfax Media before the election in which he argued that Trump had all the attributes of the “ugly American”.
Again, it’s understandable that most academics at the centre at Sydney University would support Clinton and oppose Trump. But 100 per cent anti-Trump is a very big number. Moreover, O’Connor’s criticism was just unprofessional abuse.
There is an additional problem here that goes beyond balance and pluralism. Barracking tends to distort judgment. The fact is that not one member of the USSC team — led by Jackman, James Brown, David Smith and O’Connor — believed that Trump could defeat Clinton. Not one.
This demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of contemporary America by academics who justify their taxpayer-subsidised salaries on the basis of their claimed expertise. In the latter part of last year, it was obvious that Trump and the Republicans had a path to victory — namely, hold what Mitt Romney won against Obama in 2012 (who was a much stronger candidate than Clinton in 2016) and win Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. As we now know, Trump did this and more, also winning Michigan and Wisconsin. As Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said after the election, the biggest fake news of the campaign were the reports that Trump could not win.
On Tuesday Fairfax Media revealed that there was a civil war of sorts within the USSC. Tom Switzer (who, for a brief period, thought Trump could win) has resigned from the centre, alleging improper interference from Brown over the expression of his views on Australian politics. Rows within small university departments are scarcely surprising. What is interesting is that Jackman and his colleagues have asked for more. Another $15m, no less. This is in addition to earlier top-ups it received from the commonwealth of $11m, along with $4m from the NSW government. This would make the total federal payment to the USSC a staggering $50m. And the taxpayer has ended up with a centre dominated by left-liberals who happen not to be able to accurately interpret contemporary American society.
The evident failure of the USSC should serve as a reminder to Howard, who has become chairman of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Health and media entrepreneur Paul Ramsay left an estate of $3 billion. Money from this bequest will fund the Ramsay Centre, reportedly to the tune of $25m a year.
Simon Haines, an English literature specialist based in Hong Kong, has been appointed as inaugural executive director of the Ramsay Centre. In an interview with higher education editor Julie Hare in The Australian on March 8, Professor Haines said the centre would help fund a bachelor of arts (Western civilisation) degree at two or three universities in NSW and the ACT.
However, according to Haines, the Ramsay Centre “will not interfere with the universities’ management of their own teaching programs”.
So the Ramsay Centre will hand over money to several tertiary institutions that will manage the BA (Western civilisation) course and appoint the academics who will teach the subject.
You do not have to be Nostradamus to see that if the Ramsay Centre is set up along these lines, its degree course will be taught by left-liberals and leftists. In short, it will go the way of the USSC.
Haines (born 1955) is a fine academic and a conservative. Yet in four decades he has never stood up in the public debate in defence of Western civilisation or any other cause. He once told me his public quietude was because if he proclaimed his conservative views his academic career would suffer.
That’s a fair assessment. Yet it is also a warning to conservatives not to waste money funding courses that will be taught by the left or by conservatives who are intimidated by their leftist colleagues. Ramsay deserves a better legacy than this.