“What kind of question is that?”: The University of Sydney, the Ramsay Centre proposal and the scorched earth of Indigenous teaching and research on campus

Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal and that truth might not be entirely relative.

Even in Australian universities there is still a cadre of teachers for whom history can’t be re-written, facts are facts, and great books are still well worth reading

Tony Abbott, Quadrant, May 2018

In my experience over the past 10 years, many international students and academics who visit or come to study or work at the University of Sydney have been struck by the lack of things Aboriginal on campus; artworks, people, programs or events. As one enters the main gate from Parramatta Road, Broadway, you will find something like three tombstones with the names of the original Sydney tribes on them. To me this is indicative of the state of affairs in Indigenous teaching and research on campus – a fitting symbol, a portent, a dark joke? 

Those newcomers who express surprise at this lack of things Indigenous on campus – asking what is happening? How can we learn more? How can we get involved? How can we meet Aboriginal students and staff? or similar questions – are often met with silence or extremely inadequate uninformed responses. This in itself reflects benign neglect or intentional downgrading of Indigenous Australians and their involvement in the University.

In light of this, it comes as no surprise then that the University of Sydney is seriously considering the establishment of a Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. In retrospect, the scorched earth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teaching, research and student support programs paved the way for it.

For evidence of the scorched earth approach, we need only begin with the summary abolition of the Koori Centre, in 2012. The Koori Centre at the University of Sydney was built out of some of the first initiatives in Aboriginal higher education in Australia beginning in the 1970s. The plan that was touted to replace the services of the centre, that is, to have ‘mini Koori Centres’ in each Faculty instead of the one central focus on campus, never materialised. 

Protest against the closure of the Koori Centre

The abolition of the Koori Centre has far reaching ramifications for the Aboriginal people of NSW. The Whitlam government established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1973 that began to develop preschools in Aboriginal communities across Australia. The training program for Aboriginal Education Workers (AEWs) in NSW Aboriginal preschools was developed at the University of Sydney from 1975. Many of these AEWs then entered the Aboriginal teacher training program out of the Koori Centre from 1989. Graduates of these programs went on to provide significant leadership in Aboriginal education in schools. Some were instrumental in founding Aboriginal student support centres in other universities. It is the children and grandchildren of early students such as these who are also achieving in many areas of their lives today. This needs to be celebrated. The University of Sydney has missed a great opportunity to forge connections and further build on the strengths of the Koori Centre over time. More than that, the opportunity has been entirely obliterated!

With the abolition of the Koori Centre, the remaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff were relocated in the Faculty of Education and Social Work and the Faculty of Arts. They have worked hard to maintain the Indigenous Studies Major and the Bachelor of Education (Indigenous Studies) degree that now no longer exists.

In 2013, when visiting the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, I was made aware that there had been a celebration of 25 years of Indigenous teacher education with a highly publicised national event. At the University of Sydney, the Bachelor of Education (Indigenous Studies) degree was abolished with the Koori Centre, and the last cohort of students in the program graduated in 2018. The more than thirty years of Aboriginal teacher education at the University was referenced in the ceremony. 

The contrast is striking – a huge celebration in Canada, scorched earth in Australia.  Will we as Aboriginal people ever be able to celebrate these hard-won achievements of the past, and then build on them? The undermining of the Koori Centre is only one of so many examples of important Indigenous programs in Australia having the rug pulled from under them.

Whatever the rationale, the abolition of the Koori Centre was a retrograde, nihilistic step that has resulted in more than 90% of the existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teaching and research staff leaving the University. Many were gladly snapped up by other universities. There was no across campus conversation about the Koori Centre’s closure as there has been for the development of a Ramsay Centre. Yet the need for such a conversation remains.

Ramsay Centre protagonists and Aboriginal politics

The connections between the Ramsay Centre proposal and an Aboriginal scorched earth policy are important. I have written elsewhere of the futility of hopes for a benign settler colonial state when it comes to its relationship to Aboriginal people whereby Aboriginal people exist in a state of exception to the modern democratic state. Could this analysis be applied to the University of Sydney approach to Indigenous programs and policies? While many of us have looked on in shock at poor high-level appointments and vaingloriously conceived policies, programs and initiatives that were bound to produce poor results, the question remains, what was the context that brought this about?

My realisation that no settler colonial government initiative works in Aboriginal affairs and that highly promoted ill-conceived policies only seem to bury us deeper into a dystopian universe, came about through a critical analysis of policy and programs implemented during what has come to be called the Howard years 1996 – 2007.

These years saw the rise of the conservative white male politicians who are now involved in the Ramsay Centre push for the study of western civilisation. They are also stridently at war with Aboriginal people as outspoken and unapologetic protagonists in the culture wars. This war was waged publicly during the term of John Howard’s Prime Ministership, giving heart to the far right, accommodating the rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation, and causing huge division and conflict in Australian society. John Howard is Chairman of the Board of the Ramsay Centre and, though not a historian himself, has repudiated the idea of genocide in Australia’s colonial past. Howard is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney. 

In 2007 he worked with the then Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, to continue the genocidal intent of the settler colonial regime by introducing the immensely retrograde and widely criticised Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER).

Tony Abbott, a University of Sydney alumnus, and (self-appointed) special envoy to Aboriginal communities is recognised as the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the fox in the henhouse or the Trojan horse (to use appropriate allusions from our ubiquitous, shared legacy of western civilisation) – across the whole of Aboriginal Australia. An old boy of the Jesuit Riverview School (as was his friend, the late Paul Ramsay founder of the Ramsay Centre initiative), Abbott had aspirations to become the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation. He was not successful because they were seeking a person with higher academic credentials, but he remains a Board Member. In an article for Quadrant magazine he has made it clear that he has little time for “Asian, indigenous and sustainability perspectives” and revealed that the Ramsay Centre scheme is not just about teaching about western civilisation but about being in favour of it (his emphasis). This is strident anti-intellectualism at its finest.

Bad racist jokes and western civilisation

In 2014 Aboriginal staff and students at the University of Sydney were confronted with the evidence of open unabridged racism and misogyny from a high-level member of staff. Professor of Literature, Barry Spurr, had referred to Aboriginal people as ‘human rubbish tips,’ labelled the then Prime Minister an ‘Abo lover’ and vilified various notable Aboriginal achievers and (all) women, including the University’s then Chancellor. Spurr also trashed the world famous Aboriginal musician, the late Gurrumul Yunupingu, who became Australian of the Year, and the premier sportsman Adam Goodes, who has tackled racism in the Australian Football League. 

An Aboriginal colleague spoke to me in tears about the distress she felt having ‘my family labelled as garbage.’ Racism produces an injury. Barry Spurr resigned after a huge public outcry. At no time did the University executive meet with the Aboriginal staff to reassure them of the University’s position on racism nor attempt to heal the injury caused by this incident.

It is not just the Spurr emails that were – and remain –  of concern but the fact that these were sent on his official University of Sydney account over a two-year period to approximately a dozen senior academics and officials within the University.  Thus Spurr was not the only one who entertained these vile thoughts and words. There are others. Seemingly no recipient was offended or asked him to desist over this two-year period before the emails were leaked to the online magazine New Matilda. It was the Students’ Association and a minority of protesting staff that called for his dismissal.

Even more telling is that Spurr had been appointed by the Abbott government to advise the National Curriculum Review in the area of literature, indicating a close connection to Tony Abbott, others in his government and on the Ramsay Centre board. This review had been set up to alter the National School Curriculum introduced in 2011 by the Gillard Labor government. Spurr’s input was indistinguishable from that of the right wing of the culture wars, and in in fact was central to it. The advice he delivered was that the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers to Australia’s literary tradition has been “minimal” and that the focus of the curriculum should be on western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage. He advised that less Aboriginal and Torres Strait literature should be taught in schools>

One could legitimately ask the question, is this a cabal of rightwing racist men who organize to attack women and Aboriginal people across a range of contexts? And, is it the case that the rightwing warriors of the culture wars are more likely to be telling bad racist and misogynistic jokes?

Quadrant magazine made concrete the connection between Spurr and the defence of western civilisation, such as is evident in the Ramsay Centre proposal and Abbott’s observations, when it published Michael Warren Davis’ opinion piece. This is an attempt to defend Spurr from so-called persecution. The quotes below encapsulate the rationale for the development of a Ramsay Centre on any campus:

This situation (the disclosure of Spurr’s racist emails and subsequent protests) is a double travesty. It’s a tremendous setback for those of us who believe Western civilisation is overall a very good thing, that its novels and verses ought to be shared with our children, and that no one should feel ashamed or guilty for the colour of their skin—even if it’s white. We’re seeing a university, built by Judeo-Christian European-Australians, proffering itself as a forum for anti-Semitic,* anti-Christian and anti-white bigotry.

There would be no University of Sydney without men like the hacked and hounded professor (Spurr), and there would be no Australia without the Western civilisation he defends. 

Let us be very clear, nobody is talking about removing books from small children. Nor should it be assumed that the University does not already teach a wide range of courses, across many disciplines, that introduce students to the western heritage and its own long history of internal critique (which arguably commences with Shakespeare). On the contrary, Spurr was targeted because he wrote and shared racist and misogynist opinion in emails, not because he defended western civilisation, nor because of the colour of his skin. Further, those attacking him were not being anti-Semitic, anti-Christian or anti-white – they were appalled by his racism and misogyny. And men like Professor Spurr are not responsible for the University. The University belongs to the diversity of people that have made up its community over time. Similarly, ‘Australia’ as a nation state is built on the lives and experiences of a diversity of peoples over time. 

However, it is the case that the University is a bastion of western civilisation and values. which, while paying lip service to diversity, does not promote the real cultural change required to bring about inclusion. The idea that it has become a den of leftist sympathisers with immigrant groups, Aboriginal people and women is far from the reality, but it is clever politics. 

The muddled thinking in the misconceived defence of Barry Spurr is the same as that which lends itself to the rationale for a Ramsay Centre for the Study of Western Civilisation on any Australian campus. It is anti-intellectual, wrong and dangerous. It is the case that much of the existing university curriculum focusses on western civilisation and its antecedents and this is a trumped-up defence.

Awkward questions…. Inadequate responses

The University of Sydney has been superseded and left far behind in developments within Indigenous higher education. The recent announcement of a total of $30m in government grants to the University of Technology Sydney (UTS)  toward the development of a new college for Indigenous students is evidence of this. UTS, just up the road from the University of Sydney, has several thriving Indigenous initiatives on campus: student support, community connection and research through the Jumbunna Indigenous Centre, Indigenous Studies developed and taught by Indigenous academics in innovative programs, Deans who support Indigenous research initiatives, community events on campus, and a Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges that was established within the last five years.

I am reminded that when I worked on the development of the National Aboriginal Education Policy (NAEP) in 1989-90 there was a realisation that there would be a rationalisation of university initiatives.  Some would more quickly and readily develop a critical mass of successful programs, students, graduates and research initiatives and outstrip others. The UTS has proved this, and in a comparatively short time frame.

The loss of the Koori Centre at the University of Sydney is an overwhelming blow but there are other examples of lack of will or benign neglect. For example, December 2009 saw the first Indigenous Knowledge Symposium held in Australia hosted by the fledgling Indigenous Knowledges Research Network (IKRN) on campus and the Faculty of Arts. Into the Academy: Indigenous knowledges, protocols, ethics, philosophies and methodologies in higher education was opened by the then Chancellor, Marie Bashir, and was oversubscribed with more than 140 people attending from 27 Australian universities and seven international universities. 

Community leaders invited from the local Aboriginal community in Redfern were heard to remark that this was their first time on campus – a most important milestone. The symposium was designed as a beginning of discussion about the decolonisation of the disciplines, of research and pedagogy, and a celebration of connectedness between academics of all backgrounds working in this area. Celebrated academics, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and Canada gave keynotes, launched a book, opened an exhibition and delivered papers on subjects such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?.’

The momentum was allowed to fizzle. There was no further investment in progressing the implementation of Indigenous knowledge into academic programs or even the continuing employment of Aboriginal academics who had made this symposium the great success that it was. Decolonising the curriculum must be a very threatening concept to those who hold dear the status quo and the power and prestige afforded by the academy. 

Gumbula with his wife, Pamela Ganambarr, at the launch of his Makarr-garma exhibition at the University of Sydney in 2009 (The Conversation)

One example is the failure to support an important Aboriginal intellectual Dr Joseph Gumbula from Elcho Island who showcased his knowledge as part of this event. The opening of his exhibition in the Macleay Museum was the beating heart of this almost three-day Indigenous knowledge experience on campus. In Yolngu Dr Gumbula worked with the artefacts of his ancestors collected by Europeans and placed in museums, bringing them to life in a work he called ‘Everything is telling me who I am.’ He was reclaiming and contextualising these items with stories, song and ceremony. However, although Dr Gumbula was successful in applying for his third Australian Research Council grant, the University declined to extend his contract of employment and the grant was transferred to the Australian National University. He returned to Elcho Island and died in 2015.

Why is such a travesty able to happen? 

In 2012, an international student who attended a seminar given by a celebrated international anthropologist, who had worked for several decades with Aboriginal people in Australia, asked a question that unwittingly revealed an academic conceit. The western academy continues to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, without attribution. The anthropologist argued for the animate landscape, that is one that is not material but a living entity, such as water courses with personalities and emotions. Indigenous scholars know this as a central belief in our philosophies over millennia; we are on a living Earth. It has not been understood or appreciated in western discourse. The student excitedly asked, ‘Have you drawn on Indigenous knowledge theory in your work?.’

At this, a hush came over the room. The student knew she had somehow transgressed and the whole room was against her.  That sense was affirmed when one of the professors from the department hosting the seminar said, ‘What kind of question is that?’

This response speaks volumes as it is a refusal to acknowledge that Aboriginal people hold knowledge, have value and that we know what it takes to live successfully on this continent. It is racist, colonialist and overwhelmingly white. This is the University of Sydney. Mini Koori Centres in each Faculty on campus? Indeed not! Whoever had that notion had little idea how entrenched and intractable adherence to ideas of the supremacy of western civilisation are at the University of Sydney. Clearly, the University of Sydney has no need for an additional ‘Ramsay Centre for the Study of Western Civilisation.’

* Recruiting Jews in this way is cynical in the extreme, given that anti-Semitism originated within Europe! 

Back to the Symposium

Dr Victoria Grieves-Williams, Honorary Indigenous Research Fellow at the University of Sydney is the lead CI on the ARC DI project Children Born of War: Australia and the War in the Pacific 1941 - 1945. She is an Aboriginal person; an historian engaged in intersectionality and interdisciplinary ways to progress critical Indigenous theory. She has published on Aboriginal philosophy and Indigenous wellbeing, Aboriginal history, environmental humanities and the relationship of Aboriginal people to the Australian state.

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