Linacre College has proposed changes to its governance statutes which would see the creation of a Board of Trustees with duties including the management of charitable donations. The board would be comprised of up to seven members of the Governing Body, a junior research fellow, the President of the common room and up to three independent trustees “currently unconnected to the College (but who may include emeriti, alumni or those with professional expertise relevant to the business of the College)”.
Linacre College website states that “The Trustee Board has responsibility for ensuring the College is properly run and fit for purpose.” Other new statutes should regulate the ‘Powers of the College’, ‘Application of Income and Assets’, ‘Conflicts of Interest and Loyalty’ and ‘Meetings and Decisions of the Governing Body’.
The current statutes were created in 1986 and are “out of date”, according to an announcement in the Oxford Gazette. The new statues have been updated to “to enable the College to meet the high governance standards expected of a major modern educational charity”, a website announcement reads.
These changes come after the college signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the 31st of October 2021 with SOVICO Group represented by its chairwoman Madam Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao to receive a donation of £155 million. The donation has proved controversial with Oxford University Campaign for Climate Justice, who criticised SOVICO’s association with the Russian oil company Zarubezhneft. As part of the Memorandum with Linacre, Madam Thao has committed the SOVICO Group to carbon net zero by 2050. SOVICO’s other commercial involvements include offshore oil and gas exploration, as well as Vietjet Air, Vietnam’s first privately-owned airline.
The deal has courted further controversy relating to the college’s application to the Privy Council to change its name to ‘Thao College’. Head of Alumni Relations and Development at Linacre Lisa Smårs acknowledged that she had received emails expressing “sadness, or even anger” when the proposed name change was announced in 2021. Writing on the college website, Smårs said that “however important our name is to us, I believe that the values we represent are of far greater importance”, citing other colleges that had been renamed following donations.
Concerns were raised by Julian Lewis MP that Thao was “extremely close to the Vietnamese Communist Government” during a debate on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in the Commons. On 13th June 2022, then Education minister Michelle Donelan announced she was ‘actively investigating’ the deal between Linacre College and SOVICO, but Donelan has since resigned.
Of the total £155 million donation to the college from SOVICO, £40 million has been earmarked for the college endowment fund. Under the new governance statutes, investments, including parts of the endowment, could be managed externally by ‘a financial expert’, according to a draft of the new statute book, available on Linacre College Website.