Oxford Said yes

June 20, 1997

ONS, lawyers and businessmen this week lent their ears to the final act of Oxford University's business school drama, performed at the city's Sheldonian Theatre.

Some came to reject Wafic Said, some to praise him. But the praisers won out in the end. Oxford University's ruling council, Congregation, finally approved by 345 votes to 55 Said's Pounds 20 million donation towards a business school - albeit on a new site next to Oxford station.

It may have taken a long time, but how beautifully both sides went about it. While some could have been in commerce in another life - they were, after all, mainly men in suits of a certain age - in your average business meeting you do not get to wear gowns. Nor do you sit under the painted dome of the Sheldonian. Nor does the head of the organisation sit in a red robe atop a golden throne, sagely nodding and causing the tassel on his mortar board to wobble gently.

Business meetings rarely includes quite so many classical references and general erudition. Historian Colin Lucas, master of Balliol, proposed the motion by taking us through the history of the school, first mooted seven years ago and rejected by Congregation last November when the proposed site was Mansfield Road.

Oxford was well versed in the study of business and management in past centuries, he said. It was illogical not to study the subject in today's world. Equally, when the university produced lawyers, civil servants and doctors, it was illogical for it not to produce businessmen as well.

His seconder, Sir Crispin Tickell, warden of Green College, employed equal logic. There would be no third chance, he warned. It would not simply be a vote for the Oxford school, but would have implications for other donors.

Indeed, responded opposer Alexander Murray, a medieval historian from University College, darkly. By voting for the proposal, Oxford would be putting its academic autonomy under threat. His main worry was that Mr Said's representatives would have a veto on the appointment of a business director and would have a place on the board of the school. Dangerous too, was the threat of high salaries for business school staff, compared with other academics.

His seconder, John Finnis, professor of law and legal philosophy at University College, said the debate presented an odious dilemma. Either business studies was a sham academic affair so normal processes of academic autonomy did not apply, or the university's academic autonomy itself was a sham.

Rhetoric ran high, but the vote was resounding. Once planning permission has been approved for the new site, on Railtrack land now used as a car park, building should start early next year.

It may have taken a little longer than the usual business decision, but it has been a lot more colourful.

* Oxford University's Merton College has issued court proceedings seeking to stop a new building for the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies being built on college land. The college had agreed to lease a 1.6 acre site next to Magdalen deer park for the Pounds 20 million project.

Last week's change of mind appears to have followed opposition by academics to designs for the new centre, which combined Gothic and Islamic styles.

Negotiations are continuing.

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