Oxford alumnus Margaret Thatcher is at the centre of a new debate between University academics after plans to name a university building in her honour were revealed.
Billionaire Wafic Saïd, who recently donated £15 million towards the construction of a new facility at the Saïd business school, told the Spectator that he hoped to name the building after the former Prime Minister, calling her a “lioness.”
Whilst many Oxford academics have backed “The Thatcher Building” as a fitting tribute to the former Prime Minister, others have suggested that she is an inappropriate figure to honour.
The dispute follows the decision of congress in 1985 to not award Thatcher an honorary Oxford degree due to her cuts to education. She became the first Oxford educated Prime Minister since the Second World War to be refused the honour and no incumbent has been offered one since.
History Professor Robert Gildea emphasised that current Oxford academics should acknowledge the earlier decision of their peers, commenting, “As a young lecturer I voted against giving her an honorary degree because of her attack on higher education and I have not changed my mind since then.”
He added, “Far from being a benefactor, Mrs Thatcher started the attack on the funding of higher education and began the process of marketization and privatisation of universities that has continued over the last 30 years,” concluding, “To name a building after Thatcher would be to legitimate those policies which are destructive of a university system which seeks to uphold its autonomy and the values of disinterested research, teaching and learning.”
However Emeritus Fellow of All Souls Peter Pulzer, who led the opposition to Thatcher’s honorary degree in 1985 disputed this argument, telling Cherwell that he was “indifferent to the proposal.”Pulzer stated, “I thought, and still think, that the refusal of the degree in 1985 was justified as a protest against the policies of the government of which she was head.”
He continued, “But buildings are named after all sorts of people, some of whom are controversial.
“There’s a difference between a comment on policies at the time and a later memorial to someone who has left office. The new passage linking the two parts of the Bodleian is named after Gladstone. I’m an admirer of Gladstone, but many people hated him.”
Dr Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College, where Thatcher studied chemistry, told Cherwell that Somerville were “always glad to hear of plans to honour her.” She added, “We already have a Margaret Thatcher conference centre at Somerville, so the Saïd building would be far from the first building in Oxford to honour her.” Thatcher has been an Honorary Fellow at Somerville since before she became Prime Minister.
The student population has been equally as divided over the issue. Lincoln student Nathan Akehurst stated, “It comes at a time when Thatcher’s inheritors are busy packaging up and selling higher education, and the dons are absolutely right to attempt to force a Congregation vote. Honouring her with a building, especially when a Conservative-led government is in power continuing her legacy, is partisan and inappropriate.”
Brasenose student James Norman opposed the plans, remarking, “Margaret Thatcher’s ‘legacy’ is indubitably associated with a whole nexus of negative and offensive actions undertaken during her ministerial career contrary to the socially progressive and inclusive stance which Oxford has been attempting to align itself with in recent years.”
Thomas Adams, chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, said, “She is still a divisive figure and I understand why there has been opposition to these plans.
“If students who would be using the new building are strongly opposed to it, those concerns are of course valid. Student concerns should definitely be taken into account and if opposition is high enough they should seek a new name.”
Fergus Butler-Gaille also felt the plans were misguided, quipping, “It seems to me appropriate that such a vulgar and Mammon orientated institution as the Business school should appropriate the prophetess of monetarism for their ghastly new building.
“However there is the added problem that the majority of the opposition is led by morons who simply have a non-thought out, knee jerk reaction to ‘Thatcher’. As a consequence, I am torn between dislike for Mrs Thatcher and the profound dislike of stupid lefty JCR types opposing this for the sake of it.”
In contrast, History and Politics student James Johnson supported the suggestion, saying, “I believe the building should be named after Mrs Thatcher, the University should notice that Mrs Thatcher did a great deal for the country as well as making mistakes.
“Academics from across the spectrum are wrong to paint this as a ‘right v left’ issue. Instead, the naming of the building should be about recognising and applauding esteemed figures from the University, about celebrating the fact that Oxford University produced such a leading figure as Mrs T.”
He continued, “Mr Said has pumped £15 million into the project to profit the students of the University. Surely he should be allowed to choose the name of the institution?”
Wafic Saïd, 72, helped to broker the Al-Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, the UK’s biggest-ever export agreement. His £23 million gift in 1996 to establish the business school at Oxford was controversial and its opening in 2001 was marred by student protests.