Dons veto business school

November 8, 1996

Dons at Oxford have rejected plans by the university management to establish a major business school on a greenfield site in the centre of the city.

The vote on Tuesday afternoon went 259 to 214 against releasing playing fields in Mansfield Road for a Pounds 40-million business school. The university Congregation promised in 1963 that the land should remain undeveloped in perpetuity.

The university has been offered Pounds 20 million by Wafic Said, a financier and construction magnate, to establish a business school provided the university can find another Pounds 20 million in matching funds and the school could be built on a central site. The university examined several locations and chose the Mansfield Road site.

Peter North, the vice chancellor, appealed to Congregation to reconsider its earlier decision that the land should never be developed. "I am told that this is the largest benefaction ever offered to a business school anywhere in the world," he told dons in the packed Sheldonian theatre.

He said: "A splendid opportunity is on offer, with Mr Said's farsighted generosity, of taking a major step forward in the university's development." Dr North said that the university's ethics committee had looked into the matter thoroughly - Mr Said helped British Aerospace win a multibillion pound arms contract with Saudi Arabia - and he was satisfied with its conclusions.

The ethics committee consists of the vice chancellor, the president of the university's development programme and four other representatives appointed by the university council. Three are appointed for three years. The junior member, who is president of the Oxford Students Union, serves for one year.

The present committee consists of Andrew Goudie, the president of the development programme, Colin Lucas, master of Balliol and vice chancellor designate, E. W. Nicholson, president of Oriel College, Ruth Deech, principal of St Anne's College and Barbary Cook, president of the students union.

Alexander Murray, a fellow in medieval history at University College who spoke against the proposal, said that he was trying to defend the historical values of the university. He said the plan had been developed in secrecy and launched in the depths of the summer recess, a favourite time for politicians to launch unpopular policies.

"This kind of dawn raid may or may not be appropriate in the City of London, but is not appropriate in this university," he said. "We are now told that in perpetuity means 30 years. If this is the way our functionaries use language can any one in this theatre ever think of a reason for trusting the vice chancellor again?" He added that the issue was "truth and the constitution and the dignity of the oldest university in the English-speaking world".

John Kay, a fellow of St Johns and director designate of the new school of management studies, said that the business school's job would be to show that there was no disjunction between business and intellectual values.

The school needed to be close to the centre of the university to facilitate the "easy intellectual exchange which is at the heart of a great university", he added.

Jessica Rawson, warden of Merton College, said the debate showed Oxford needed to be open on issues facing the university, such as more academic departments, a new business school or less green space.

The university council will now decide whether to put the matter to a postal vote of all 3,200 members of Congregation. After the vote, Mr Said said he would be reconsidering his benefaction to the university.

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