Blog: Battle for the Warburg

With a court judgment imminent, Chris Cobb reflects on the legal tussle over the future of the institute

October 25, 2014

When I joined the University of London, a little over three years ago, I remember colleagues being slightly coy about discussing the Warburg Institute. The refrain was “Don’t Mention the War…burg”. It appeared that they wanted to delay inducting me to the absurdity of the situation.

An important and intrinsic institute of the university had effectively taken the university to court because it disagreed with the way its costs had been attributed.

The University of London has many anachronisms but this one had to beat them all.

While the origins of the case were in budget apportionment, the dispute had developed and expanded and was now considering ownership of assets between the university and the institute. How? Well the institute has its own 1944 trust deed that appointed the university as trustee.

By design then, the university’s trustees are trustees of both the Warburg trust and the university’s own charitable objects. The legal process consequently placed the trustees in the ridiculous position of challenging themselves to court, one charity pitted against the other, the premise being that the Warburg’s interests should be given precedence over the university’s other responsibilities (which include approximately 100 other trusts).

For over 70 years the relationship had been harmonious. The institute’s library grew five-fold in size and was re-housed in purpose-built premises. Research and reputation went from strength to strength. However, external funding declined and belt tightening became necessary.

The university adopted sector best practice to apportion costs more transparently and introduced service charges related to volumes of staffing and space.

Unfortunately, this had a disproportionate impact on the Warburg, whose unique classification system and open-stack configuration was space hungry.

The institute, however, felt that its funding should be preserved and differentiated from the university’s other activities, referring back to the 1944 trust deed.

The language used in the deed is equivocal, particularly when viewed through a 21st century lens. Acrimony ensued. Letters were exchanged. Supporters were recruited. Sides became entrenched.

Then there was a change of cast members, with new leadership on both sides. This heralded a thawing of relations, helped by increased subsidisation from the university.

But it was too late to stop the legal process. The university’s stewardship of the Warburg trust deed had been referred to the Charity Commission, the Charity Commission referred it to the Attorney General and the Attorney General brought proceedings to clarify the situation and asked the university to act as the claimant.

The outcome of the court case is now imminent. What is already known is that there will be no winners or losers. Legal fees have been eye watering, diverting valuable resources that could otherwise have been used to fund research and teaching. The irony is that the legal fees dwarf the budget savings that the Warburg were originally asked to find.

Following the court’s ruling, my expectation is that there will be no obvious change in the day to day management of the Warburg except to end the planning blight and the distraction that the court case has created.

Among other things the court will determine who owns the additions to the library since the 1944 transfer and who owns the extremely valuable (publicly funded) building in which the library is housed. Both questions are paradoxical as the university has never suggested breaking up or merging the collection or moving it from its premises.

Contrary to some headlines, so long as the university remains the Warburg’s trustee (as its originators intended), the institute’s future is not in doubt nor is its fate going to be determined by the court. Despite this, a petition has been set up (and signed by 22,000 people) against a change that hasn’t even been mooted.

If the concern of the 22,000 Warburg petitioners is as strong as the university’s desire to ensure the institute’s financial sustainability in London then we can all be confident that it has a bright future. Indeed, as I write, the university has commissioned an international search for a new director who will work to ensure that the Warburg Institute is restored to its rightful position as one of the world’s preeminent centres for humanities research.

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