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How to fund a university

If you’re a humanities student, like me, then you’ll probably be quite excited about the new Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. It’s a brand-new, interdisciplinary space in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and a beautiful building to boot. I hope it will put pride back into the humanities at Oxford. It’s an expensive building too. 

The issues surrounding college funding are all too painfully clear. Older colleges have large endowments and the wealthiest alumni. This means they can splurge on swanky new accommodation buildings, sports facilities, and study centres. But this article is about the faculties, institutes, and research groups that sit above the college level and belong to the University itself. In particular, it’s about the people and organisations that seem so keen to invest in the UK’s educational capital. And where better to start than with the man who gave this University its largest donation since the Renaissance? 

Mr Schwarzman is a well-known American billionaire philanthropist. He has previously donated to the New York Public Library (now housed principally in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building). He has also bankrolled MIT (the Schwarzman College of Computing). In 2016, he launched a scholarship for Chinese masters students (the Schwarzman Scholars). See a pattern? 

Schwarzman gives such large donations that his recipients are obliged to take his name – establishing an inextricable link between the man himself and his donees. Accepting Schwarzman’s money amounts to a tacit endorsement (or at least a happy tolerance) of his personal history. This would probably be fine if Schwarzman was like Japanese social educator and writer Eiji Uehiro who gave us the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. It would probably be fine if he was like IT consultant James Martin who gave us the Martin School in the Social Sciences Division. 

Unfortunately, the man behind Oxford’s new humanities space is more controversial. He is the CEO and founder of private equity group Blackstone, which was singled out by a UN Special Rapporteur as having created the global housing crisis. He described Obama’s proposals to make hedge fund managers pay more taxes as “like when Hitler invaded Poland”. Donald Trump considers him a close friend. He put his financial might behind rabid right-wingers who went on to refuse to certify the 2020 Election results. 

And all this is before we consider the ethics of whether anyone should be as rich as Schwarzman is. His 40 billion dollars comes with a social, political, and (obviously) economic power that should really be the preserve of banks, charities, and government. Instead, he can wield such huge influence that the University of Oxford – whose previous plans for a humanities centre were a decade behind schedule – is left with little choice but to accept. The world’s number one ranked university in thrall to one man. 

Schwarzman is not the only one. The Saïd Business School, Dickson Poon China Centre, Ertegun House – even the Ashmolean (Elias Ashmole) and the Radcliffe Camera (John Radcliffe) – all testify to the power of one individual, many of whom have attracted controversies. At least these donors are transparent. More opaque arrangements include the subtle hand of Elon Musk behind the now-defunct Future of Humanity Institute, that of Exxon Mobil in the Nuffield Department, and mining group Rio Tinto’s role in the Blavatnik Centre – yet another eponymous institute!  

Some will argue that this criticism is highly impractical. After all, universities need funding. This is especially true of those like Oxford which belong to the global elite of institutions that do ground-breaking work every day. Nobody would begrudge Cancer Research UK helping fund new clinicians or even AstraZeneca in delivering the Covid-19 vaccine. Oxford cannot be picky with funding, the argument goes, in an age where government support waxes and wanes

But surely we can do better. The University must be more than a collection of ever grander institutes massaging the egos of various (usually male) billionaires. The future of funding doesn’t mean cutting all ties with rich philanthropists – that isn’t possible. However, universities can at least be aware of the ethical and reputational risks they take when relying so obviously on individuals and their commercial ventures. 

A better future would be one where Oxford drew more astutely on the wealth its colleges have in reserve. One where innovation was promoted by paying tutors a decent wage rather than launching more architectural vanity projects. Where the University worked in smaller collaborations with charities, other universities, and groups of benefactors. Where an incoming Labour government sees the value of Oxbridge to the British economy and keeps funding flows stable. So of course I’m excited about the Schwarzman Centre – but there is undoubtedly a future where Oxford can hold its head much higher.

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