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University refused St Benet’s £40m lifeline…but why?

The University of Oxford blocked a £40 million rescue offer to keep St Benet’s Hall open this summer. Instead it closed on 7th October 2022.  

John Barry, a businessman, offered to donate the multi-million pound sum to save St Benet’s Hall. He is the CEO of Prospect Capital, an $8.4 million investment company. 

The money was enough to sort out the College’s existing financial issues, grant the hall an endowment, introduce scholarships for poorer students, and give everyone a pay rise. 

The university’s statement confirmed this donation was refused owing to concerns over “ongoing financial uncertainty.” 

An Oxford University spokesman, similarly, said, “The university did not feel that the offers provided sufficient assurance of the long-term sustainability and independence of the hall.” 

Oxford’s vice chancellor wrote that attempts to save St Benet’s failed due to unease over “financial sustainability” and concerns “donors sought to influence aspects of the student experiences, nature and ethos of the hall.” 

The College’s independence was a pressing fear in negotiations. Those involved asked “How do we ensure this board will stay independent?” 

The university also refused to countenance the original board in negotiations. Instead Master, Richard Cooper, set up a new board to ensure no undue influence. However even this proposal was rejected at a University Council meeting on 9th May. Richard Cooper was “shocked” by this move. 

However Barry has countered claims he sought influence over the running of the college. He did not want to influence any “governance issues and issues having to do with education, teaching and scholarship.” He was “prepared to provide funding on terms that should have been acceptable to St Benet’s leadership and to the leadership of the university. These terms did not involve ‘control’ by me or ‘undue influence’ of any type.” He only asked for the names of the future board members to whom he was handing over £40 million. 

Barry Cooper confirmed, “To this day, I have been given no reason for the rejection of my offer.” He was given a statement concerning an “absence of adequate finance” when he questioned the decision. 

Oxford donations are reviewed by a whole committee. However one source involved in this investigation told the Spectator Barry passed “with flying colours”. 

Henry Woudhuysen was head of the committee which represents colleges to the university. He thought the Barry proposal “was more than appropriate, something that would really benefit the university.” 

A spokesman for the university told Barry Cooper: “The university did not feel that the offers provided sufficient assurance of the long-term sustainability and independence of the Hall.” Yet the university refused to explain why it felt the Barry was a threat to the Hall’s independence. 

Learning this, a student from St Benet’s, commented: “I don’t understand why the University would wait for Benet’s to pursue potential options for donors if it would end up rejecting these options anyway. I almost seems like they delayed starting the reallocation process in order to appear credible in giving the Hall a chance to be saved.”

Robert George, a Princeton professor and well-known public intellectual in the US, was in conversation with Barry, involved trying to save Benet’s. However, when he came to Oxford in March to be involved in negotiations rumours were spreading that he was an employee of John Barry so potentially compromised. He reflected there were simply a lot of people in Oxford “who would like to see Benet’s fail.” 

One St Benet’s fellow told the Spectator, “Increasingly the people who put themselves forward for Oxford’s committees dislike traditional Oxford and religious halls. These people tend to be more aggressively secular.” Jonathan Price, a fellow of St Cross College and Pusey House commented Oxford’s secularisation aligns with “centralisation and modernisation.” 

Albert Hawkins, reallocated to LMH, commented: “It is a great pity that a wonderfully diverse PPH, full of people from many different backgrounds and cultures, had to close – unnecessarily as it turns out. It sends a terrible message to would-be donors that the university can afford to decline major gifts. It is noted that new students were being allocated to Benet’s when the university knew that Benet’s was facing a degree of financial difficulty.”

Alexander Stafford, a former alumni, now Tory MP, commented, “The closure of the hall feels akin to losing a friend. It nourished me, forming who I am as a person. It is hard to believe the hall will no longer be there waiting for me. It was a truly wonderful place.” 

He finds the refused saving of the college “remarkable.” Mr Stafford feels “the university should have permitted the Hall to continue operating with its newly secured financial support. There needs to be a thorough and urgent examination of the reasons why this was not allowed to happen.” 

This decision also impacted many staff, academics and administrators, who lost their jobs. 

St Benet’s has sold its buildings to St Hilda’s College. Its two buildings were in central Oxford and thought to be worth millions of pounds.  

Editors note: This article was updated on Friday 14th October to correct an error that appeared in the print edition which suggested that it was St Benet’s Hall, rather than the University, which blocked the donation.

Image Credit: Janet McKnight/CC BY 2.0

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