Controversy concerning the School of Government’s name has reared its head again.
In response to a piece in the Financial Times, Professor Ngair Woods has defended the record of Leonard Blavatnik, the UK’s richest man, and asserted that Oxford is “not for sale”. The original piece expressed concern that “autocrat donors” like Blavatnik will soon rush to fill the gap left by the loss of EU funding after Brexit. Defensive statements from beneficiaries of Blavatnik’s £75m will not stop the criticism. Simon Kuper’s article is only the most recent in a number of pieces since the founding of the school. In 2015, a group of academics, activists and Russian dissidents signed a public letter entitled ‘Oxford University must stop selling its reputation to Vladimir Putin’s associates’. It highlighted the Russian state-sponsored harassment of BP, under Blavatnik’s directorship of TNKBP.
Professor Bo Rothstein resigned last year from the school after Blavatnik donated $1m to Donald Trump’s inauguration. Woods states of Blavatnik: “He is not a Trump donor.” But according to Rothstein: “$1m is a sizeable amount of money. In my book by donating to the inauguration of Donald Trump you are supporting Donald Trump.” Woods states that Blavatnik also “has a history of donating to both Democrat and Republican candidates”, as if the admission that he mercenarily buys government influence is a positive message for a School of Government.
Wafic Saïd is also associated with political cronyism. Before donating £70m to the Saïd Business School, Saïd donated hundreds of thousands to the Thatcher government. Additionally, he aided Thatcher’s government with the 1985 al-Yamamah arms deal through his close connections with Saudi royals. He has been accused of employing Mark Thatcher as a back-channel to donating sums of up to £12m to his mother. Banned from political donation due to his tax residency in Monaco, Saïd’s daughter has since donated tens of thousands to the Tories. According to The Guardian, there was resistance from the academic community to the naming of the Saïd school.
The Sackler Library is similarly controversial. By massively understating OxyContin’s addictive effects, the Sacklers’ company Purdue pleaded guilty to marketing their drug “with the intent to defraud or mislead” in 2006, by massively understating its addictive
effects. In 2010 and 2011, oxycodone overdoses killed more Americans than any other drug – more than heroin.
Oxycontin has been at the forefront of a prescription opioid crisis that had, by 2016, caused around 200,000 deaths. A recent Cherwell article quoted medical students and SU representatives at Oxford opposed to accepting this blood money from the Sacklers.
And so the tradition continues. Despite these three buildings being founded in the past 25 years, the rich have always used Oxford as a means to sanctify their image in times of unpopularity.
During the Rhodes Must Fall debate, rhetoric suggested that Rhodes and Codrington are only criticised in 21st century dialogue, and were universally admired in their own eras.
While I want to be very clear in not equating white supremacy or slavery with the acts of Blavatnik, Saïd or the Sacklers, they were met with similar controversy in their time. Codrington’s donation followed a number of scandals, in which he was taken to court for abusing his power as governor, and his reputation as a soldier was heavily damaged. Oriel’s own website describes opposition to the Rhodes statue as early as 1906, quoting one alumnus who stated: “I am not in love with the ‘Imperial’ spirit.” The RMF campaign didn’t succeed in removing Rhodes, but it would perhaps be even more successful if it prevented the Rhodes statues of the future.
There will be those that argue such donations are worth the research that can be funded and those that claim it does not matter whose name is on a building. But donations only substituted 6% of the university’s funding in 2016 and symbolically, supporting these figures does matter. It promotes a message of money over morals that puts conscientious potential applicants off applying. It glorifies cronyism, arms dealing, tax evasion and more for students that will become many of the next generation of leading world figures, and for students of the future.
In a hundred years Oxford’s opposition to his vanity project will be forgotten, but Blavatnik’s bad name will still be immortalised.