Cash for colleges

October 25, 1996

Oxford University's academics will soon vote on whether to release a plot of land for a Pounds 20 million business school funded by Syrian entrepreneur Wafic Said. Valentine Cunningham explains why he will vote against.

On Bonfire Day, November 5, Oxford University's resident academics will turn out in force to the regular meeting of Congregation, the university's ancient and sometimes awkwardly democratic parliament, to debate whether to release a playing field as a site for a business school. An innocent seeming agendum. But it is not. Hackles are raised as they have not been, perhaps, since Margaret Thatcher was denied an honorary doctorate in 1985.

Fur is flying, not to mention reams of paper. Oxford's main administrative committees, the General Board of the Faculties and the Hebdomadal Council, both backing the project with all the weight of the great and powerful that they can muster, are jittery. At least one college, closely involved in the debate as previous owners of the site in question, feels deeply let down. And this local difficulty also raises large questions of some moment for our current anxious, even neurotic, gaderene rush in Britain to secure private sponsorship for university activities.

The local details are simply stated. Wafic Rida Said, a rich, Syrian-born entrepreneur with Saudi nationality and a manifest fondness for British culture, who is already a generous benefactor of Oxford University's programmes, has put up Pounds 20 million for a splendid building (with a bit over for salaries) that will house the new Wafic Rida Said business school - provided that the university lets the new Wafic Rida Said Business School Foundation have a particular 2.1 acres of open ground to build the school on, and can come up with Pounds 20 million of its own for administration and teaching costs.

Which is fine, outsiders will no doubt think; lucky old you, we wish we had donors of such munificence. And Mr Said's cash is indeed the largest private donation to come Oxford's way since Lord Nuffield was raining his money down in the 1930s for medical facilities. But for insiders there are sharp worries. Is the university wise, for example, to be wagering such a lot of its own money on the scheme? Suppose too few new donors come forward and the money has to be diverted from some other activity (though through the generosity of other benefactors the shortfall now stands at only Pounds 10 million or so)?

And what about management studies? Are they not just a phoney academic subject, a shallow contemporary shibboleth promoting a noxious cant that helped get Britain's education and health services into their current wasteful plights?

And just what is the source of all the cash on offer? Mr Said, a friend of the Saudi Royal Family and of the Thatchers made his money in construction and development and helped British Aerospace win a Pounds 20 billion arms contract with Saudi Arabia, although he insists he took no commission. Sir Charles Powell, most loyal of Mrs Thatcher's bag-carriers, her old foreign affairs and defence adviser, is one of the Said Foundation's trustees.

And why choose, and insist on, this particular site? It was part of a larger area strong-armed out of the ownership of Merton College in the early 1960s by a university then desperate for scientific building space, and only sold, with great reluctance by the college, on an understanding that the green bits left over would be kept in perpetuity as empty park. Alas for perpetuity: Merton failed to get the understanding in writing.

So here is a pretty farrago indeed. And not untypical of the kind of messes into which universities on the hunt for benefactions seem to be increasingly plunged - look, for example, at the recent row in Oxford over the accepting of Frick family money, a fortune boosted by slave labour in Frick factories in the Third Reich, or the even more recent debate in Cambridge over cash put up by tobacco interests. But the fact is that neither the sort of difficult particulars on view here, nor the serious issues of principle they generate are new. They just look it because of their recent and vivid Thatcher-era colouring. It was indeed the policies of the Thatcher years that diligently promoted the virtues of American-style benefaction for arts and education and that have bid fair to turn British theatrical shows, science labs and professors into mobile billboards for the corporate world. Who would have dreamed just a few years ago that there would have been a whole caste of university fundraisers with tariffs in their pockets all ready for the enquiring corporation wanting its name over a lecture room door or the individual seeking a kind of onomastic immortality?

In present-day Oxford you can get your name on an honorary fellowship, or a seminar room, a bedroom, a shower cubicle or, for all I know, a towel rail in exchange for cash. You can name any professorship you like for Pounds 1.6 million all in. A mere lectureship is now a snip at Pounds 1.2 million. It cost Cecil and Ida Green about Pounds 1 million to secure the recently founded medical Green College in their name. A bargain indeed. A Mr Harris, a carpet manufacturer, has just had Manchester College, Oxford, renamed Harris Manchester for Pounds 5 million or so. These current low prices are very tempting. Mr Robinson of Robinson Rentals had to stump up around Pounds 20 million to found Robinson College, Cambridge. And the Kellogg Foundation came up with around Pounds 30 million over the years, before Oxford's external studies department was renamed Kellogg College. But that was the past. A couple of sheikhs with a handful of oil wells could probably afford the whole lot now.

Oxford University was, like others, undoubtedly compelled to get into the business of energetic fund-raising - find new sponsors or fade away was the exhortation it had to take in - but the present enthusiasm for this new role is all our own. So our current academic scene has become a field of corporate naming, a semiotic of trade names, a map of corporate logos, a loud tribute to the power of capitalistic imperialism and of rich individuals to cut a wide swathe and leave a massive trace. The Andrew Mellon professor of American government, the Nissan professor of modern Japanese studies, the Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud professor for the study of the contemporary Arab world, the Drue Heinz professor of American literature, the Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communications, the BP professor of information engineering. And so on and on.

And I do feel the benefit. It is hard not to feel it is more comfortable like this, as I give my lecture in the lovely Gulbenkian lecture theatre, consult a book in the Bodleian, courtesy of the Fundatio Fordianae (as the notice on the Bodley stairs tells me).

Though the funding dial is now turned up louder than ever, the words and music are very old indeed. For Oxford has always relied on private money. It has always been for sale. Nobody could fault Methodist movie-maker J. Arthur Rank's benefaction (the Rank Foundation professorship in electro-optic engineering). But there is room, if your politics are green, for concern about money coming from makers of polluting machines such as Nissan and Ford and Rolls-Royce. And what about British Nuclear Fuels, and the late Antonin Besse who founded St Antony's College on the proceeds, it used to be rumoured, of French brothels: or, heaven forfend, the Rhodes Trust? For every pious benefactor, like the Anglo-Catholic ladies who clubbed together to found a college in John Keble's memory, there is some brigand like John Balliol with a college to his name.

Ancient, Christian Oxford was delighted to collude in the fantasy of the wealthy evil-doer that his soul might scrape into paradise if his illgotten gains were disposed at the last to purchase the masses and prayers of a college of pious fellows. Today it is the faith that the proceeds from murky commerce can be washed clean by translation into what all the world accounts very good versions of material possessions - aesthetic objects, books and pictures, especially when these are collected in some library or gallery and donated for the public good. This is the essence of the American cultural benefaction industry. No one now recalls the time when Pierpont Morgan or Mellon or Ford were freebooting robber barons of industry. Their names live on, enskied and sainted in cultural bricks and mortar and assemblies of wonderful works of art. Thus will the name of Wafic Said live on too, a stone's throw from Bodley and the New College of St Mary of Winchester in Oxford, with nary a cad to mutter about defence exports to desert kingdoms. If the Oxford management gets its way, that is. Oxford has no detectible history of standing in the way of this old cycle of sanctification. The scruples of Cambridge over accepting Mr Robinson's TV rentals profits were greeted in Oxford with disbelief. Balliol saw no reason to bother the university's ethical committee with the Frick donation. And of course he who has paid the piper has always tended to call the tune. It would be unnatural perhaps to expect benefactors to be disinterested. They have usually been open about their wish for fellowships for their kin in perpetuity, or for closed scholarships for men like them from Staffordshire or Eton. It is a funny old fact that the children of prominent donors do have this way of turning up in Oxford as students. Provided the price is right no unreasonable demand has ever met much resistance. And now, in the harshest of financial times, the academic beggar is hardly likely to start turning into a chooser.

But is it too late to change? Anybody's habit of making pacts with Mephistopheles can be broken. Faustus could have repented. Throwing in the towel of discrimination is a counsel of despair. And it is a weasel word, too that says you cannot tell a good source from a bad or less good one because all business is wicked or every corporation is in a daisy chain of multinational associations with inevitable nasty bits in it somewhere.

But what about the notion being touted by advocates of this big Oxford step into business scholarship that our traditions of fine scholarliness will be able to clean up the mammon of unrighteousness, and that our MBA will get its students on to high moral ground, have them thinking politics and humanity and ideals as well as economics. That is just the old laundering fallacy writ large. And its credibility slumps lower as the proposed foundation is bludgeoned through with a mere shrug about ratting on the gentleman's agreement about the old Merton field. There is nothing new about that, just the managerial ruthlessness of the usual Gradgrind and Bounderby kind. It shows Oxford still up to its oldest game of doing almost anything for money. Which is why I will be voting against on the fifth.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English and fellow of Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford.

John Kay, Oxford's new director of management studies, is profiled overleaf.

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