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‘Oxford Against Schwarzman’ anticipates billionaire’s arrival with new call to action

The ‘Oxford Against Schwarzman’ group has called their followers to act to oppose the University’s announcement of the construction of the Stephen A Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities – made possible by his historically large donation of £150 million.

The two page document published by the group indicts Schwarzman and the Blackstone Group, of which he is the CEO, as driving the “destruction of the environment”, “eliminating affordable housing”, and “supporting authoritarian regimes” worldwide.

They criticise Schwarzman for being what they call “a driving force behind Amazon deforestation” and supporting President Trump.

Group member Tom White told Cherwell: “Stephen Schwarzman has amassed his vast fortune through some of the most socially and ecologically damaging practices of modern capitalism. His decision to give a small proportion of that money to educational institutions in the US and UK is all about burnishing his ego and furthering his political influence, rather than any genuine commitment to the future of the humanities. Oxford risks severely damaging its reputation: why should anyone take seriously the University’s commitments on equality and diversity and its carbon emissions when it glorifies practices that lead to dispossession and exploitation, and that contribute to the climate emergency?

“The complete lack of transparency and accountability regarding the decision also make a mockery of the University’s claim to be one of the most democratically constituted universities in the world. As part of the ‘Oxford Against Schwarzman’ campaign, we’re calling for a new ethical framework for donations, including a democratically-elected deliberative body composed of faculty, students, staff, alumni and local representatives.”

Despite Oxford accepting the donation, the group’s demands in light of the centre being constructed includes a guarantee against jobs losses and a “new ethical framework for donations” to include an elected body charged with reviewing the University’s fundraising practices.

The group highlights Blackstone’s $7 billion investment in oil and gas, its “aggressive evictions” that UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha found to violate tenants’ human rights, and his support of Saudi business interests and the Koch brothers – known to push an aggressively right-wing agenda.

Their open letter, amassing over 100 signatures from academics, councillors, students and residents, also places emphasis on the attitudes and environment the construction of the centre may foster, against backdrop of staff contract insecurity and the “underrepresentation of working class and BAME students”.

“The “Schwarzman Centre” will be built with the proceeds of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world”.

When asked about Schwarzman’s reputation, vice chancellor Louise Richardson told the Guardian “Do you really think we should turn down the biggest gift in modern times, which will enable hundreds of academics, thousands of students to do cutting-edge work in the humanities?”.

The Oxford Against Schwarzman group claims that the decision to announce its future plans occurred when “academics were marking finals, and students were sitting exams”, but that further action needs to be taken – and is currently attempting to discuss their demands with the vice chancellor, firmly stating that “The University of Oxford needs investment in people not buildings”.

An Oxford University spokesperson said: “We have very clear policies when accepting gifts that they should not influence academic freedom or content and this gift is no exception. Mr Schwarzman has been approved by our rigorous due diligence procedures which consider ethical, legal, financial and reputational issues.

They added: “The idea of a humanities building has been in ongoing discussion and consultation for more than a decade but we did not have funding for the building until Mr Schwarzman’s gift. We had to maintain confidentiality about the donation until it was approved and signed, including by the University’s Council.”

They added: “The Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities will benefit teaching and research in the humanities at Oxford; its performing arts and exhibition venues will bring new audiences to the University; and it will build upon our world-class capabilities in the humanities to lead the study of the ethical implications of AI.

“The Centre is in its initial phase and we are consulting on the plans with humanities academics and students. We have started fundraising for projects associated with the Centre and we are keen to meet people interested in these opportunities.

“Professor Karen O’Brien, Oxford’s Head of Humanities, is overseeing the development of the building project and we are currently holding a tender process to appoint an architect before submitting a planning application in late 2020.

“Under the guidance of Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, the Institute for Ethics in AI is seeking industry and academic partnerships and will recruit a director and fellows early next year. We are meeting with other cultural institutions to plan a vibrant cultural programme and we will launch a programme of public events next year.”

A spokesperson for Blackstone told Cherwell: “This transformative project has been widely lauded for the significant benefits it will deliver to thousands of students, faculty, and scholars for many years to come.

“Steve was delighted to make this donation after the University got in touch. We also appreciate the opportunity to show how the claims made by the individuals in the letter referred to are false and wholly without merit.

“Claims that Blackstone and a Brazilian company we’re invested in, Hidrovias, are responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon through the development of an industrial road is a complete myth. Hidrovias does not own, control or have any interest—direct or indirect — in the road in question. In fact the firm has been recognized for their leading environmental & sustainability standards, winning a number of international awards.

“Furthermore Blackstone has been part of the solution to the global housing crisis, contributing to the availability of well-managed rental properties around the world. Since 2012, we have created over 64,000 new rental units globally and have invested over $3.5bn in renovations.

“The letter relies on inaccurate prior “reporting”, but not on basic fact checking, which is inaccurate and irresponsible.”

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Schwarzman has not spoken out in favour of Trump’s travel ban and the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

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