More than 100 academics from the University of Sydney have signed an open letter opposing any push to introduce a western civilisation degree funded by the John Howard-backed Ramsay Centre.
The university has confirmed it is in conversations with the Ramsay Centre about the possibility of running the degree following the Australian National University’s decision to pull out of negotiations.
Published on Friday, the letter states the academics’ strong opposition to the Ramsay Centre proposal, describing it as “European supremacism writ large”.
They argue that the “cultural and intellectual legacies” of the west are already “intensively studied” at the university, and that the late Paul Ramsay’s $3.3bn bequest could have been made to existing humanities programs.
“The fact he chose not to do so shows that his intention was more than simply fostering university study of Western intellectual and cultural traditions, within the standing norms of academic independence,” the letter states.
On Friday a University of Sydney spokeswoman confirmed that the vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, had been in discussions with the Ramsay Centre about “the possibility of financial support for teaching at the university”.
She said the university would make a decision “independent of the current noise”.
“The vice-chancellor has informed the university’s academic board that we are in conversations with the Ramsay Centre about the possibility of financial support for teaching at the university,” she said.
“He assured them that any program attracting such support would need to go through the usual processes for course development and approval and the university cannot do anything that threatens its academic freedom or integrity,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
“However, the University of Sydney needs to make its own assessment of the opportunities and risks independent of the current noise.”.
The ANU vice-chancellor, Brian Schmidt, has cited the Ramsay Centre’s “unprecedented” demands for influence over the program and a fear of a loss of “academic autonomy” for pulling out of negotiations.
The letter from the academics echoes that fear, pointing to comments from the former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard – who are both on the board of the Ramsay Centre – as evidence of the program’s “conservative, culturally essentialist, and Eurocentric vision”.
“We are a university, not a training institute for a future political ‘cadre’,” the letter states.
The lucrative donation has proved tempting for universities already looking to increase donation revenue as the federal government tightens university spending.
But the academics’ argued that the investment of such significant resources into one degree would “establish a structural discrimination” within the university where students interested in studying the west would receive “generous scholarships and [be] offered educational opportunities” not open to other degrees.
“The Ramsay program represents, quite simply, European supremacism writ large: it signals that the study of the European cultural tradition warrants better educational circumstances than that of others,” the letter states. “The profoundly dangerous implications of this bias do not, we believe, need further comment.”
ANU’s decision to reject the Ramsay Centre donation prompted a political backlash from some conservatives.
On Thursday the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said he would contact the university’s vice-chancellor, Brian Schmidt, to seek an explanation for his decision to withdraw from the negotiations.
“Look, I’m surprised by the decision of the ANU,” he said on Thursday.
“I’m going to speak to the vice-chancellor about it myself and just get his account of it. But I do, I find it very hard to understand why that proposal from the Ramsay Foundation would not have been accepted with enthusiasm.”