Round Table invitees confused by Oxford 'link'

Critics say ORT does not make its lack of academic connection clear, writes Melanie Newman

March 12, 2009

Last month, Louisiana State University announced that Carole Jurkiewicz, a healthcare management professor, would be presenting a paper "at a University of Oxford round table to be held at St Anne's College in July".

"I am honoured to have been selected to speak at this prestigious international forum," she told the university's website.

Martha Bagley, an attorney in Massachusetts, was quoted on the website of her firm, Bagley and Taranto, as saying that she became "a member of the University of Oxford Round Table in recognition of (my) study and writing on women's rights".

Sylvia Burgess, associate vice-president of academic affairs at Cameron University, Oklahoma, cites her membership of "Oxford Round Table, Oxford University" on her CV.

Such is the perceived prestige of an invitation to an ORT event that Dhavan Shah, professor of journalism, mass communication and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted on his CV that he had declined to attend one of its events.

There are hundreds of online articles referring to the Oxford Round Table "at Oxford University" and it would be easy to assume that the ORT was either part of the University of Oxford or had strong academic links with it.

In fact, as a University of Oxford spokeswoman told Times Higher Education: "The ORT is unconnected to the University of Oxford and arranges its conferences through the colleges."

This lack of a formal link was certainly a surprise to Louisiana State University's Professor Jurkiewicz. "I sincerely appreciate your bringing this to my attention," she told Times Higher Education.

"Certainly given budgetary restraints that we all face, my conference funds would be best targeted towards a more appropriate venue," she said.

The ORT has been criticised by academics in the US for failing to make it sufficiently clear that it has no formal links with the institution.

A discussion thread about the ORT on the website of US publication The Chronicle of Higher Education has been running since 2006 and has 1,700 postings.

A number of posters have suggested that some institutions have contributed towards the US$2,940 (£2,086) cost of attending five-day ORT events because they did not understand the organisation's relationship with Oxford.

The homepage of the ORT website, which features photographs of University of Oxford buildings, includes a link to a disclaimer. It says the organisation "does not have a formal academical (sic) connection" with the university, but has a "special relationship" with Harris Manchester, Lincoln, Pembroke and St Anne's colleges. The ORT rents conference space from them and has an office at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

An ORT spokeswoman said the disclaimer and an "academic independence statement" stating that the ORT is not "in any way under the aegis, restraint or sanction of the University of Oxford" are "brought to the attention of all persons who are invited to any session of the ORT".

She said the organisation used meeting rooms, lodging and dining facilities in Oxford colleges under contract, and often acted on information provided by the university's conference marketing office.

"This is an important source of revenue for the university ... and the colleges," she said.

Critics suggest 'bulk selling' tactics

Critics on the Chronicle forum also questioned the firm's selection process for invitees. The ORT declined to comment on how many invitations were sent out before each event.

In some cases, it appears that institutions may misreport the links between the ORT and Oxford without consulting the academics invited.

A press release from Clearwater Christian College in the US announcing that an employee had been invited to attend an ORT event in July 2009 began: "The University of Oxford. The oldest English-speaking university in existence ... It is into this great legacy that Catherine Anthony, associate professor of English and literature, has been invited."

Professor Anthony told Times Higher Education: "I did not write the article and was not consulted before it was published. I am fully aware that (Oxford's) connection to the ORT is nebulous. I also know that many such invitations were sent out. I have no illusions that being invited is more than it is."

In 2006, Sloan Mahone, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford, was sued for libel by the ORT after she criticised it on the Chronicle website.

The ORT brought the case in Kentucky, where it is registered, but the action was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The firm then threatened legal action in the UK and asked Dr Mahone to sign a statement saying that she was "penitent and ashamed" for making the criticisms. After Dr Mahone instructed lawyers to defend her, the ORT dropped the action.

Round and round last month carried a story about King Adamtey I, traditional ruler of the Se State in Ghana, becoming the first African king to join the Knights of Malta, the Catholic order that can trace its origins to the Crusades. It noted he was "a member of the prestigious University of Oxford Round Table".

Dowling College in New York State announced that Thomas Kelly, associate professor in its School of Education, "has been invited by Oxford ... as one of 35 international participants in a 'by invitation only' round table". Dr Kelly said he was unaware there was no academic link between the ORT and the university, adding: "I received ... literature from the (ORT) and it may have been included in that."

Kentucky's Mid-Continent University announced in a 2008 newsletter that its president "has been invited to Oxford University, England, to study at the prestigious (ORT)". President Robert Imhoff was quoted as saying: "To have a chair at Oxford is almost beyond imagination." Dr Imhoff told Times Higher Education: "I was ... impressed with the leadership of the group. I am now aware of no academic relationship with Oxford."

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