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The Ramsay Centre fiasco highlights the dangers of universities ceding academic independence in return for private money, in the manner of billionaire philanthropy in the United States. By Mike Seccombe.

Academic independence threatened by US-style philanthropy

The first problem encountered by the heads of George Mason University, when they moved in early 2016 to rename their law faculty after a recently deceased Supreme Court justice, was the initialism.

The college, in the US state of Virginia, first proposed to name it the Antonin Scalia School of Law, but the pronunciation of the acronym ASSOL was deemed problematic. This was quickly fixed by a rearrangement of words: the Antonin Scalia Law School.

But there was a bigger issue, too, relating to why the university had decided to name the school after the conservative justice.

Money, it seems, was the motivating factor. A great deal of money.

Ten million dollars came from the Charles Koch Foundation, one of the many vehicles by which the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch support right-wing political and economic causes. Another $US20 million came from an anonymous donor, via another group associated with the Kochs, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, self-described as “a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order”.

The gift, to support three scholarship programs, was the largest to date received by the university, but it was small change for the Koch brothers, whose combined personal wealth, according to the most recent Forbes estimate, is some $US103 billion.

The Kochs style themselves as libertarians, but while they pay lip service to socially liberal issues such as legalising drugs, abortion and other general matters of personal freedom, their real focus is on getting government out of the way of business. Given that their business is largely in the oil, energy and petrochemical area, this means bankrolling those politicians and others opposed to action on climate change in particular and environmental public health and social welfare initiatives in general.

Not only do the Koch brothers spend huge amounts of their own money, they also act as aggregators for money from other rich conservatives, via an umbrella group called FreedomWorks. In early 2015, The Washington Post cited sources within the secretive group saying it had amassed a war chest of $US889 million, to be doled out through 17 different front organisations for the upcoming US elections.

Ironically, having helped get Donald Trump elected, FreedomWorks is now campaigning against his tariff policy, but let us not digress.

Over several decades, the Kochs have spent many hundreds of millions of their own money, not only on attempts to directly influence elections, but indirectly to manipulate civil society. If you delve into the funding of just about any think tank, foundation or community group in America promoting anti-environment, anti-welfare, radical neoliberal policies – and a growing number of such groups elsewhere – you will find Koch money. The Tea Party movement, through which social conservatives and evangelical Christians were harnessed to the advancement of libertarian policies such as reducing government spending, and cutting taxes and entitlements, was heavily funded by the Kochs.

The brothers have “weaponised philanthropy”, says Jane Mayer, investigative reporter for The New Yorker and author of the 2016 bestseller Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

Which brings us back to George Mason University. To cut a long story short, a student-led group called Transparent GMU sought access to the terms under which the money was given. When they were denied, the students took legal action.

Eventually Transparent GMU gained access to documents relating to a whole string of donations involving the Kochs – who gave a total of $US16.8 million to the university, not just for the Scalia school – and others going back a decade, showing donors had bought influence in the selection of faculty, students and the curriculum, and had even manipulated the law school’s judicial law clerk program to place “conservative” law students associated with the Federalist Society in judges’ chambers.

It was only in April 2018 that George Mason’s president finally admitted the university had fallen short of acceptable academic standards and should not have given the donors a say in “faculty selection and evaluation”. He promised to rewrite the agreements.

Alas, though, such mea culpas are rare and strings-attached donations to American universities are increasingly common, or at least more commonly exposed by watchdogs and journalists.

According to those who keep track of donors, the Kochs alone distributed some $US150 million between 2005 and 2015.

As investigative journalist Dave Levinthal, of the nonpartisan, non-profit Center for Public Integrity, noted a few years ago, thanks to Koch funding students can learn about the “role of government institutions in a capitalistic society” at South Carolina’s College of Charleston, or dive into the “integrated study of philosophy, politics and economics” at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or philosophise about the “moral imperatives of free markets and individual liberty” at Troy University in Alabama. There are scores of other examples.

In a 2015 exposé, published in The Atlantic, Levinthal quoted a Koch lieutenant, Kevin Gentry, saying it was all part of a plan to inculcate radical right-wing views and then promote people into future positions of power.

“The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline,” said Gentry.

So, why should we in Australia care about any of this?

Because the ideas and tactics of American politics inevitably infect Australian politics. In fact, we have just seen a particularly obvious example of that in the attempt by John Howard and Tony Abbott to bring the Koch model of strings-attached philanthropy to Australian universities.

As Saturday Paper readers would be aware, on June 1, the Australian National University announced it was withdrawing from negotiations to create a degree program with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, funded by a foundation set up by the late billionaire Paul Ramsay, with Howard and Abbott on its board. This followed Abbott boasting in print that the purpose of the exercise was to promote the idea of the superiority of Western civilisation, and to advance an “explicitly right-wing” agenda.

As we wrote two weeks ago, the university’s withdrawal from negotiations was not simply about Abbott’s injudicious piece in Quadrant, but about the university’s reluctant decision that the Ramsay Centre’s demands about curriculum and staffing would undermine academic independence and integrity.

Since then various hard-right political and media figures – particularly in The Australian – have continued to claim the knockback was evidence of a leftist, anti-Western bias on the part of the university.

This week, ANU chancellor Gareth Evans and vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt sought to debunk this “false narrative” and gave greater detail of the Ramsay demands to The Australian. There were no concerns over the substance of the course, they explained, only about its governance.

“We were willing to accept the Ramsay Centre having a voice in curriculum design and staff appointments. But only a voice, not a controlling influence,” they wrote.

“From the outset, however, the centre has been locked in to an extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach to the proposed program, unprecedented in our experience, embodied in a draft memorandum of understanding of about 30 pages, with another 40 pages of detailed annexures.

“It has insisted on a partnership management committee to oversee every aspect of the curriculum and its implementation, with equal numbers from both the Ramsay Centre and ANU, meaning an effective Ramsay veto.”

Further, Evans and Schmidt said the Ramsay Centre had insisted representatives of the management committee should be allowed to sit in on classes and “undertake ‘health checks’ on the courses and the teachers”.

In response, Ramsay’s chief executive, Simon Haines, wrote an opinion piece denying the centre wanted a veto, and also cavilling at the use of the term “health checks”. But he did not refute Ramsay’s wish to monitor instruction.

Instead, Haines accused the ANU of rewriting history and said Ramsay had been open to further discussion of the name and curriculum before the university pulled out.

Clearly, the argument is not about to die. Equally clearly the Ramsay Centre is facing difficulty getting other universities – it originally proposed to endow three courses, and negotiations have been ongoing with Sydney University – to come on board.

To some extent, the Ramsay dispute is but part of a wider, increasingly public debate about the potential negative impact of outside money in universities’ independence. One example is the criticism made by John Fitzgerald, an emeritus professor in the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology – also made via the op-ed page of The Australian – about Chinese influence through the Confucius Centres established at various universities.

“In this case,” he wrote, “a donor in China assigns a teacher to each program and sets clear limits on what can be said and done in the classroom.

“In effect, a number of Australian universities that are keen to expand their Chinese language and studies offerings have undermined their academic integrity, autonomy and freedom by ceding control over staffing and content to a donor.”

There have long been concerns about funding given to academics from vested interests, hoping to lend a veneer of respectability to their products. It’s a practice at least as old as the tobacco industry bankrolling bogus research more than 50 years ago. In 2014, Dr Ken Harvey, a long-time campaigner against medical “quackery”, quit his position as adjunct associate professor in the School of Public Health at La Trobe University over its acceptance of $15 million from vitamin company Swisse Wellness to research its products.

But philanthropy directed to specifically political ends takes Australia in a whole new direction. And given its rapid growth in America, we will likely see more of it in this country.

Dr Janice Dudley, a specialist in higher education funding with the School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University, suggests funding cuts to universities will only increase the pressure to accept outside money.

“Despite what the government says … the actual amount of funding available for students is being squeezed all the time,” she says.

“Universities are always interested in funding from outside, especially for centres of excellence and centres that specialise in particular areas. And some universities are more jealous of their academic reputations than others. And some universities are more desperate for funds than others.”

In the Ramsay case, Dudley notes, the donors were targeting a big “sandstone” institution, which can afford to take a stand for academic freedom. It would be harder for other universities, particularly regional ones, which have been particularly hard hit by the Turnbull government’s latest funding freeze.

She sees the ANU decision, and the publicity surrounding it, as a positive thing.

“It was about the attempt to control the curriculum and impose, it appears, a veto on appointments. So, I’m delighted. I think this particular incident has made people more aware and could serve as an early warning.”

Indeed. We know the Ramsay Centre conducted research in America while formulating its model – they confirmed this in discussion for The Saturday Paper’s story on the centre two weeks ago. We also know there are extensive links between conservative political operatives and their associated think tanks in this country and their counterparts in the US.

For example, in the mid-1990s Liberal Party pollsters borrowed the Republicans’ favoured dodgy tactic of “push polling” – a practice where damaging, and often untrue, information is seeded among electors, under the guise of opinion surveys. More recently the party has sought access to a piece of Republican campaigning software called i360, developed by a company owned – you guessed it – by the Kochs.

Frequently, young Liberal political operatives are sent off to the US to learn campaign techniques. In fairness, Labor readily exploits similar arrangements with US Democrats.

And the personal contacts are legion. Conservative politicians – Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, George Christensen to name but a few – are regular attendees and speakers at events organised by radical right-wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, The Heartland Institute and the Alliance Defending Freedom. All these organisations, incidentally, receive Koch money and push an anti-science, anti-government, extreme-right agenda.

But let us return to the issue du jour, the right-wing concern with education.

It’s not hard to understand why. Put bluntly, the right knows it benefits from ignorance. Though it governs for the economic elite, it relies heavily on those at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum to gain office. In order to harvest those votes, it is necessary to find populist issues – think race, border security, religion, abortion et cetera – that can push the politically unastute into voting against their own economic interests.

To say this is not to express an opinion, but to state an empirical truth.

Let’s go to examples. Within two weeks of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Nate Silver – the closest thing to a rock star among statisticians – assembled the hard data to show ignorance was to blame for the shock result.

His finding that education or the lack of it decided the election was, Silver wrote on his FiveThirtyEight blog, so obvious that “it just jumps off the page”.

Silver reached his conclusion by taking a list of the voting tallies in all 981 US counties with a population of 50,000 or more. He then sorted them by educational attainment. Among the 50 best-educated places – where on average 51.4 per cent of voters had completed at least a four-year college degree – 39 went for Hillary Clinton. And even among those who voted for the Republicans, almost all did so by decreased margins.

“Hillary Clinton improved on President Obama’s 2012 performance in 48 of the country’s 50 most well-educated counties,” Silver reported. “And on average, she improved on Obama’s margin of victory in these counties by almost nine percentage points, even though Obama had done pretty well in them to begin with.”

Those counties, he noted, were diverse in their characteristics – cities and college towns, some overwhelmingly white and others ethnically diverse, and of varying income levels, although most were middle to high income.

And at the other end of the educational spectrum, in the 50 counties where just 13.3 per cent of residents, on average, had the benefit of higher education, the results were reversed. All but nine went to Trump, and Clinton lost ground relative to Obama by 11 points.

The particular appeal of right-wing populism for voters without access to quality education could hardly have been better demonstrated than by the Trump victory.

Voting patterns in Australia, as I have previously reported, show a similar, though less pronounced pattern – the better educated a person is, the more likely they are to hold progressive views and to vote accordingly.

On the political right, this is seen as evidence of a planned takeover, what John Howard has called the “long march” of the left towards “dominance in Australia’s universities”.

More plausibly though, it is evidence that education inoculates against the populist distractions. People armed with the tools of critical analysis are more likely to accept, for example, the empirical evidence that climate change is real, that same-sex couples are equally capable of child-rearing, that women are as capable as men.  And, most concerningly for the radical right, they are more likely to question the prevailing economic model.

And no wonder they worry. Despite their best efforts the young and well-educated are just not buying their ideology.

They have very good reasons, says Janice Dudley, that have nothing to do with the alleged “Marxist indoctrination” of teachers like her.

“These young people have known nothing but neoliberalism, and they can assess it through their lived experience,” she says.

“They work very hard, they’ve got huge university debts, they’re finding it hard to get a job in some cases, wages are stagnant, they have no idea if they’ll ever be able to get into the housing market… Their lived experience suggests the system isn’t working.”

Last week, the right-wing Centre for Independent Studies released the findings of polling it commissioned into the political attitudes of young people, in a media release under the headline: “Ill-informed Millennials prefer socialism to capitalism”.

The report found 58 per cent of those under the age of 38 had a favourable view of socialism. The authors blamed the school and university systems for having failed to “educate Millennials … on the 20th century’s failed experimentation with the ideology”. They referenced the horrors inflicted by the likes of Stalin and Mao.

But the data itself did not justify the hysterical analysis. What the survey respondents actually said was that capitalism had failed them, and they believed government should “exercise more control of the economy”.

The CIS concluded the leftward shift of younger people – identified in polling in this country, the US and Britain – was simply “a matter of ignorance”.

Actually, it’s a matter of reality.

As Stephen Colbert said during his speech to the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, “We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Competing schools of bought". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.