The standing committee of the Oxford Union has passed a Memorandum of Understanding giving OLDUT, the charitable trust which owns the Union buildings, more control over the invitation of guest speakers.
The Union will now be required to notify OLDUT trustees of all proposed guest speakers in advance.
OLDUT (The Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust) has owned the Union buildings since the 1970s, an arrangement which protects the student-run society against potential mismanagement. The existence of the trust means that even if the Union fails financially, its buildings cannot be lost.
Calls for this change began after Dr Zakir Naik, a controversial Muslim scholar and preacher, was invited to speak arlier this year.
Dr Naik had been placed under an exclusion order by home secretary, Theresa May in 2010, and was thus banned from entering Britain. He addressed the Union via video link in February.
A spokesperson for the Oxford Union told Cherwell that this invitation led to some awkward questions for OLDUT, saying that “in March this year, the OLDUT trustees were approached by the Charities Commission following the Union’s invitation to Dr Naik. It was assumed that the trustees had direct involvement with the invitation, and consequently, some trustees were asked to justify this.”
The spokesperson added that the memorandum passed this week was designed to “ensure that the trustees are not asked again, at short notice, to justify Union invites of which they are not aware.”
In a letter sent in early July to the Union President, the Chair of OLDUT acknowledged that the Oxford Union has always been free to invite speakers of its own choosing, and claimed that “the OLDUT Trustees do not wish to interfere in that process, e.g. by ‘vetting’ the choice of speakers”.
However, he also argued that OLDUT’s status as a charitable organistaion must not be compromised, warning that trustees may in future require advance sight of a guest speaker’s speech.
He added, “If the Chair of Trustees, having consulted fellow Trustees, has any concern about a possible effect on OLDUT’s charitable status given its educational objectives, this will be discussed with the Oxford Union Society”.
Incoming President Izzy Westbury suggested this week that the memorandum will not affect speaker invitations. She said, “It’s a run-of-the-mill review document. We have our OLDUT trustee meetings at the end of the academic year to discuss this sort of thing, so it’s pretty normal.”
However, a former member of the secretary’s committee expressed reservations about the change, saying, “OLDUT plays an important part in the running of the Union, but it will be a shame if this memorandum leads to fewer controversial figures being invited – the Union has a long history of discussing contentious issues, and that’s what makes it such an exciting forum for debate.”