November 16 2002A pledge of faith by a group of Sydney academics has many staff and students worried.
Aban Contractor, Gerard Noonan and Kelly Burke report.
IT WAS a call to arms. A full-page advertisement in a
student newspaper signed by 22 senior academics, including three august
professors heading major faculties at the university.
Every student, the advertisement said, should look to Jesus Christ
as one of the great figures of history. His claims to be the Son of God
bear up under the closest scrutiny. Underneath the inscription, the
cream of Australia's oldest university urged their student charges to
thoroughly investigate "this unique figure, Jesus".
The ad appeared in Sydney University's student newspaper Honi Soit
just days before the first anniversary of the September 11 attack on
the World Trade Centre. The United States was pressing for war against
Iraq and widespread anti-Muslim propaganda was cluttering the radio
Publication of the names, complete with full academic titles, sent
shockwaves through a number of the university's faculties, including
the prestigious law school in Sydney's law precinct.
Academics from education, veterinary science, mathematics, law,
biosciences, engineering, economics, business, English and ancient
history pledged their faith.
The dean of the law faculty, Ron McCallum, signed up.
So did the dean of the faculty of economics and business, Peter
Wolnizer, and the dean of the faculty of veterinary science, Reuben
While universities are expected to be a hotbed of debate where
academic freedom is vehemently defended, critics of the advertisement
claimed those who had signed had "crossed the line" and were
The objections flowed thick and fast, with opponents arguing that a
university was a secular institution and that those declaring their
faith held positions of power over others. They also had a duty to
teach and mentor impressionable students.
Behind the advertisement is the increasingly strident student group
absoluteGod, a campus movement claiming interdenominational membership
yet so overwhelmingly dominated by evangelical Anglicans that the list
of guest speakers for absoluteGod's September conference read like a
who's who of the Sydney Anglican diocese. Sydney's archbishop Peter
Jensen and the man he has just appointed as the new dean of Sydney, his
brother, the Rev Phillip Jensen, were the star attractions, along with
a US Christian academic, William Lane Craig, whose Australian visit was
arranged by the Anglican parish of St Barnabas, in Broadway.
The university's Anglican chaplain, Andrew Katay, says the
advertisement, which he helped finance, sought to dispel the myth that
Christianity was not intellectually credible.
"Hence publicising the fact that some of the most intellectually
credible people in the country are convinced Christians is valuable,"
The matter has been raised with the National Tertiary Education
Union. On November 8, a meeting of a university branch committee
discussed the issue but declined to comment.
It is also being investigated by the university's academic staffing
committee, which is focusing on the possible misuse of titles when
academics operated outside the university or publicly expressed their
Katay says he used phone, email or face-to-face meetings to persuade the senior academics to take part.
McCallum told the Herald
he had signed the advertisement as a private individual but he had no idea that his title would be used in the advertisement.
"I would not want to give an impression that I was using my office to put a point of view on this particular issue," he says.
"I don't think people should use their title to put forward
viewpoints. I signed it as a new dean. I'm regretful that my title was
used in these circumstances."
was able to contact another 10 of the 22
signatories. All said the use of their academic titles had not been an
issue to them. They each claimed they had received no personal
approaches from students complaining about the advertisement.
But the week after the advertisement appeared, one critic, arts/law student Sean Kelly, wrote to Honi Soit
questioning the ability of the academics involved to be tolerant.
"At a time when talk of religious war hangs in the air, and
non-Christians face very real aggression, this was an irresponsible
move, and one of which those academics involved should be ashamed."
A law student asked that his name be withheld in case it jeopardised the objective treatment he currently received.
"The ad is widely believed amongst students at the faculty of law to
have damaged both the objectivity and perceived racial and religious
tolerance of Sydney University," he wrote.
Campus clashes prompted by aggressive evangelising is not a new
phenomenon at Sydney universities. Two years ago, the University of
NSW's absoluteGod equivalent, Campus Bible Study - headed by Phillip
Jensen - commandeered the campus lawns, placing hundreds of white
crosses in the grass during orientation week.
They challenged other student groups who tried to move them. The
group at UNSW now numbers 900. At Sydney, the Bible-based Christian
group is 600 strong, according to Katay.The signatories
Dr Lindsay Campbell, Department of Crop Sciences.
Professor Ian Caterson, Boden Professor of Human Nutrition.
Associate Professor Lloyd Dawe, faculty of education.
Dr Grahame Feletti, faculty of veterinary science.
Dr Paul Hopwood, faculty of veterinary science.
Dr Lindsay Grimison, faculty of education.
Andrew Katay, Anglican chaplain.
Associate Professor W.M.C. Maxwell, faculty of veterinary science.
Professor Ron McCallum, dean, faculty of law.
Dr Mary Myerscough, school of mathematics and statistics.
Dr Peter B. New, school of molecular and microbial biosciences.
Professor Patrick Parkinson, faculty of law.
Professor Robert K. Prud'homme, head of the engineering biology program, Princeton University.
Dr Reuben Rose, dean, faculty of veterinary science.
Associate Professor Donald R. Rothwell, faculty of law.
Dr Andrew J. Ruys, school of aerospace, mechanical and mechatronic engineering.
Dr Adrian Smith, Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology.
Dr Diane Speed, English.
Dr Noel Weeks, ancient history.
Dr Paul Whiting, Evelyn McClouglian Children's Centre curriculum.
Stuart Wishart, visiting industry researcher.
Professor Peter Wolnizer, dean, faculty of economics and business.