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Billionaire’s Oxford donation sparks protest

Students, staff and councillors have raised concern with the University over its receipt of £150 million from Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder and chair of the controversial Blackstone Group.

Oxford plans to use the donation to build the ‘Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities’. The open letter, signed by a forty-two locals, students, staff, councillors and activist groups, academics and councillors, warns that the Centre will “be built with the proceeds of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world.”

Schwarzman, who is estimated to be worth $12.5 billion, is a long-time supporter of Donald Trump. Blackstone, a private equity firm, has faced criticism for its unethical investments in a wide variety of areas. Senior executives at the firm earn millions of pounds per month.

An investigation by The Intercept recently revealed that Blackstone has played a role in the deforestation of the Amazon. Hidrovias, a company owned largely by Blackstone, is one of the chief beneficiaries of a controversial highway built through the heart of the Amazon rainforest to reach its shipping terminal at Miritituba. Blackstone denies allegations of complicity in the deforestation, pointing out that the road in question is owned and operated by the Brazilian government.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing this year blamed Blackstone for exacerbating in America’s housing crisis. Blackstone’s full response to the allegations can be found here.

In the UK, Blackstone has attracted controversy for its role in privatised NHS services. One elderly care provider, Southern Cross, was bought by Blackstone in 2004, which earned huge profits by investing heavily in the housing market. Three years later, as the housing market bubble was about to burst, Blackstone sold its shares in Southern Cross. The company was left unable to repay its debts and eventually collapsed.

A spokesman for Blackstone told Cherwell: “Blackstone has not controlled Southern Cross since its IPO in July 2006. It was a full five years later that it ran into financial difficulties. During Blackstone’s ownership, the company experienced growth and profitability and was healthy at the time of its IPO, evidenced by the strong share price performance in the year after listing, and was viewed as one of the highest quality operators in the sector.”

Another NHS care provider acquired by Blackstone, Independent Clinical Services, was found to have used a loophole to avoid paying up to £3 million in tax in 2012 alone.

Blackstone told Cherwell that they act in full compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations, including proper disclosure to tax authorities. “The allegations that were put to us are false and unsupported by the facts,” a spokesman said in response to this article.

“It is through association with universities like MIT, Yale, and now Oxford, that Schwarzman seeks to legitimise these practices,” the open letter states. “Recent controversies surrounding donations by the Sackler Family and Jeffrey Epstein have shown how institutions that have ignored the concerns of their members have gone on, deservedly, to suffer significant damage to their reputations. We believe that Oxford is leaving itself open to such future damage.”

The signatories are demanding that the University release the details of its due-diligence tests for this particular donation, and how the decision was made to accept Schwarzman’s money.

A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “Mr Schwarzman has been approved by our rigorous due diligence procedures which consider ethical, legal, financial and reputational issues. You can find out more about the University’s Committee to Review Donations, which approved Mr Schwarzman, here. We have very clear policies when accepting gifts that they should not influence academic freedom or content and this gift is no exception.”

Common Ground, one of the petition’s signatories, told Cherwell that they want the University to reject the donation outright. “It is about time universities started showing due diligence regarding their funding,” they said. “The fact that it is considered so unthinkable by the Vice-Chancellor to turn down such a large sum of money demonstrates the extent to which ethical considerations and due diligence have been obscured by the number of zeros in Schwarzman’s donation.”

The spokesperson for Common Ground called on the University to consult students, staff and locals on a new framework for vetting donations: “The prestige afforded by institutions like Oxford give these figures a respectability that can’t be bought through their controversial business practices alone.

“Oxford has a close relationship with power in the UK. Association with Oxford is an association with power. Wafic Saïd, known for his use of bribery in brokering the al-Yamamah arms deal, is the subject of honorary dinners at Somerville College. This level of social acceptance can rarely be bought.”

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities will occupy the empty plot adjacent to the Radcliffe Observatory. The website for the Centre states: “The building, made possible by a landmark £150 million gift from philanthropist and businessman Stephen A. Schwarzman, demonstrates the essential role of the humanities in helping society confront and answer fundamental questions of the 21st century.”

Oxford has attracted controversy in the past for its receipt of donations earned through unethical business practices. Earlier this year, the Said Business School was gifted £15 million from billionaire arms dealer Wafic Saïd. Saïd has for decades played a key role in facilitating the arms trade between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The weapons sold through Saïd are currently being used to attack Yemen in what the UN has called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

In 2018, during the height of the opioid epidemic which has since killed over 70,000 Americans, Oxford decided not to reconsider its acceptance of regular donations from the Sackler family, who have been heavily implicated in fomenting the crisis. Donations only stopped in March of this year, at the initiative of the Sackler family.

A spokesperson for Blackstone told Cherwell: “At Blackstone, we invest on behalf of institutional investors around the world, including retirement systems which represent more than 31 million pensioners in the United States and millions more internationally. Responsible and sustainable investing is a central element of the firm’s culture and is reflected in the work that we do. From the day of our founding, Blackstone has dedicated itself to being a responsible corporate citizen. Our commitment to corporate responsibility is embedded into every investment decision we make.”

You can read the full text of the open letter here.

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