Temple of learning needs no new gods

August 2, 1996

Who would refuse a Pounds 20 million gift for a new management school? Oxford University's Alexander Murray would

A proposal is afoot to build a school of management studies on a playing field near the centre of Oxford. Members of Congregation - the university parliament - are invited to approve the project in November. The scheme is the outcome of negotiations between H. M. Drucker, former head of the university's fundraising office, and Wafic Said, a benefactor who has offered Pounds 20 million towards the new school, to be named in his honour.

The new school makes a lot of sense for management studies. Templeton College, sited two miles by road from the heart of the university, was recently founded to take resident students in the discipline. A purpose-built faculty would allow the discipline to develop new courses and to benefit from proximity to existing areas of excellence. The backers of the school say it could become "one of the major centres for management research in Europe by the turn of the century".

There are many in the university who nevertheless view the project with misgivings. The first problem is money. One condition of Said's gift is that the university match the Pounds 20 million, of which Pounds 2 million is acceptable in the form of a building site the rest, Pounds 18 million, as endowment. All the money is to be locked in a trust exclusively for the use of the management school and constitutionally independent of the university. Views vary on the likelihood of reaching the Pounds 18 million but sceptics point out that there are already three major building projects soaking up funds and that independently of any management school the university needs Pounds 79 million for various projects, for which it has raised only Pounds 20 million.

A second misgiving concerns urban grass. The playing field in question, next to Mansfield College, forms the end of a green wedge that drives from the outskirts of Oxford almost to the heart of the city. Historically, this particular bit of green was released by Merton College to the university in the 1960s on an understanding that it would be a playing field for university staff. But covenants were not always written down in those days and the backers of the plan say 30 years is a long time.

Both cases will no doubt be argued by experts in finance and planning. But as a run-of-the-mill history tutor of 16 years' service, I want to raise a third misgiving - about this thing we call education, and the current fashionable insistence that it be shown to be "useful".

It seems to me that our modern universities are in a crisis. Ironically, it is a crisis precisely in management, but of a kind on which the proposed school of management is unlikely to offer any help. In the past 40 years machines have taken over physical work. We all have to be intellectuals now. Merely by exploding in size, higher education has shattered the funding assumptions that shaped our old institutions. Everyone has got used to skimping and begging, and having to put educational priorities in order by the day. But this has coincided with a conspicuous lack of reflection on what education is about.

One result of our unpreparedness for all this decision-making has been a tendency for education to be designed by fundraisers. Nobody suggests that those who pay pipers should not have a say in calling their tunes. But if the payers write the tune, or try to play it themselves, we may all be heading for an educational cacophony neither beautiful, nor in any sense useful.

Which returns me to those misgivings about the new management school. I want there to be management studies, I am sure they are useful, but not at the heart of this university. For me the question is at bottom one of a culture and its erosion. If I say I don't want to put the managerial newcomer on a par with humanities and natural sciences the distinction is one of values. I find myself turning to the biblical Book of Ruth, in which that exclusive people, the ancient Jews, took someone to themselves from another tribe. They did so only after she had shown she served the same God. We do not use that language any more. But let me translate it as "gods" and define those I want to serve, as factotum of this ancient institution. I want to serve truth, above all things, to demand no more than a reasonable salary, to seek cooperation with colleagues rather than competition, and to serve the young in the best traditions of the "clergy" whose heirs we are. Those happen to be the gods I want to believe in. And I am uneasy to admit, into the heart of this particular chosen people, a tribe whose very discipline, I suspect, urges them to worship others.

Alexander Murray is a fellow of University College, Oxford.

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