First wash your hands

May 3, 1996

British academics are novices when it comes to rattling the tin at the door of big business, while Americans think nothing of pocketing seven-figure cheques. Last year, Harvard received a single donation of $70 million (Pounds 30 million), nearly as much as Oxford and Cambridge attracted over the whole year.

British universities are unlikely ever to match the Ivy League's pulling power. Our ancient universities and indeed the major civics may have been founded by wealthy benefactors, but this munificent philanthropic mentality seems to have died out. Attempts are being made to revive it but the findings of a report by fundraising specialist Oxford Philanthropic suggest that British universities are still barely scratching the surface (page 5). Given that the British Museum has raised Pounds 22 million in 18 months, even Oxbridge could be doing better.

British academics have long thought that there is something unbecoming about fundraising, although this is changing fast. But there is still much angst about the sources of philanthropic money. In the 1920s, an entire American university, Duke, was endowed by the country's wealthiest tobacco magnate. Now Cambridge may turn down Pounds 1.6 million from tobacco giant BAT Industries for a professorship in international relations (front page).

Ethical considerations are important, but not many companies will sign a big cheque if the price is a portfolio of bad publicity. As the master of Pembroke College Cambridge, Sir Roger Tomkys, puts it, in the business world "there are very few squeaky clean maiden aunts". If fundraising is to take off over here there are issues that need sorting out urgently.

Oxford Philanthropic is aware that its first survey of this field is sketchy. The THES hopes to be working with it in future years to try to make it better. Meanwhile, the sooner the big issues are debated openly the better.

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