Keele sale calls for change to law

January 8, 1999

The legal position over the sale of history of mathematics books left to Keele University should be fairly easy to establish.

If the donor, Charles W. Turner, left the books to the university on express condition that they were to be kept permanently by the university and, for example, always to be readily available to scholars, then any sale would indeed be a breach of trust, unless the university had received permission from the Charity Commissioners or the High Court. This is all fairly familiar territory after the fuss a few years ago over the sale by Royal Holloway of a number of valuable paintings. If, however, there were no strings (express, or even implied) attached to the bequest, Keele is legally free to sell the books, the ethics and morality of such a sale being entirely another issue. If the university itself is unable to give a clear answer to a simple question concerning the exact terms on which the bequest was made, then, presumably, the will of the gentleman concerned can be scrutinised since it is in the public domain.

Yet it would be very surprising if Keele had committed a breach of trust, since its council must surely have received appropriate legal advice. If there has been a breach, then potentially not only the university, but probably (the legal position is not totally clear) also the individual members of council, as those controlling Keele University as the charity holding the Turner collection under trust, would themselves be liable for any financial loss incurred by the trust - or indeed perhaps even by the university itself if it had been obliged to compensate the Turner trust for its breach as the trustee.

In the unlikely event that the university is in breach of trust, it would be a somewhat expensive operation to repurchase the same books, or similar ones, and once again then to be able to comply with the terms of the trust.It would, however, above all be an unfortunate public relations disaster for those lucky higher education institutions frequently in receipt of benefactions and legacies if it began to be thought that British universities were not capable of honouring the terms under which they receive such generosity, David Palfreyman. Bursar, New College, Oxford

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