Courtesy of Financial Times
Almost a hundred University of Oxford faculty members, alumni and students signed a letter criticizing a major donation to the school from Stephen Schwarzman ’69, echoing a controversy at home when the business mogul endowed a student life hub in 2015.
In June, the University of Oxford named its new humanities center after Schwarzman, following a $188 million gift from The Blackstone Group’s founder. In the letter, members of the university community criticized Oxford administrators for receiving what they believed to be “money amassed through some of the most socially and ecologically destructive practices of the twenty-first century.” The letter also claimed that the recent donation does not reflect investment priorities for the university and criticized Oxford for “already cleaving to Schwarzman’s preferences.”
“The ‘Schwarzman Centre’ will be built with the proceeds of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world,” the letter stated. “Why is a public institution that claims to value the pursuit of truth, and a Humanities Division that claims to value the critical examination of representation and symbolism, willing to disregard Blackstone’s and Schwarzman’s record?”
While 94 Oxford community members — including 23 faculty members, 29 students and 19 alumni — have signed the letter as of Monday evening, their demands to the Oxford administration remain unclear.
In the letter, the signees accused The Blackstone Group of contributing to the global housing crisis and deforestation in the Amazon. Independent Clinical Services, a company owned by Blackstone, was founded to have evaded £3 million in taxes in 2012 alone, the letter said. On March 22, an independent special rapporteur to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a letter to Schwarzman alleging his company’s practices have “a grave impact on the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing for millions of people across the world.”
In an email to the News, Blackstone spokesman Thomas Clements called the letter’s allegations “blatantly wrong and irresponsible” and said his employer has spearheaded efforts to ameliorate environmental damage and the housing crisis.
The controversy surrounding Schwarzman’s gift to the British university comes amid a renewed debate about the ethics of philanthropy and the implications behind the names of buildings.
In addition to his $150 million gift to Yale for a student life hub in 2015, Schwarzman donated $350 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018 for the Schwarzman College of Computing. Following his donations, many students and faculty members at both institutions demanded their school administrators change the namesake and return the gifts of a donor who they believed to have a controversial history.
Concerns in the recent letter from Oxford community members resonated with those previously raised by Yale and MIT faculty members. According to a News survey from 2017, just 14 percent of faculty viewed the construction of the Schwarzman Center at Yale favorably.
In an email to the News, Oxford spokesman Matt Pickles said the university accepted Schwarzman’s donation after “rigorous due diligence procedures” that took “ethical, legal, financial and reputational issues” into consideration. Prior to the June announcement, Oxford’s Committee to Review Donations approved Schwarzman’s gift according to its procedures, Pickles explained.
“Naming buildings after philanthropists has a long tradition in Oxford,” Pickles told the News in June. “For example, the iconic Sheldonian Theatre, which was built in the 1660s, is named after its main financial backer Gilbert Sheldon.”
Still, Oxford’s geography professor Danny Dorling argued that Oxford’s acceptance of Schwarzman’s donation is an implicit approval of Blackstone’s holdings and actions. By taking money from the Blackstone founder, the university is suggesting to students that “if they are greedy and nasty, they could also be ‘rewarded’ by having their donation accepted,” Dorling said.
In an email to the News, Clements added there is “absolutely no basis for [Dorling’s] slanderous statement” and emphasized Blackstone’s philanthropic efforts.
For her part, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson called Schwarzman’s gift “an investment in excellence, an investment in Oxford, an investment in the UK [and] an investment in the belief that understanding what it means to be human is as critical today as it ever was.”
Pickles added that the center will benefit teaching and research in the humanities at Oxford and augment the University’s “world-class capabilities in the humanities.”
When asked about the controversy following his gift to MIT in February, Schwarzman said that philanthropy in higher education regularly encounters “small groups of naysayers.” On Monday, Clements added that a school community’s receptiveness inevitably impacts a donor’s appetite to give. According to a Guardian report, Richardson approached Schwarzman with a proposal about funding a humanities center in 2017.
“This in no way invalidates the initiatives, nor does it mean that minority views shouldn’t be aired,” Schwarzman told the News in February. “It is important to remember that these projects are supported by the administrations and trustees of these institutions — groups which not only have the long-term perspective to understand the profound impact of these gifts, but also the responsibility for stewardship of their respective institutions.”
In an interview with the News in 2017, University President Peter Salovey said there is “a great danger” in creating “political litmus tests around charitable giving.”
“I might be able to imagine some extreme that would be problematic, but even in saying that, there’s the danger of the slippery slope,” Salovey said. “We should be thankful that a Yale alumnus is willing both to be generous to our University, as well as serve our country, whether that service is to someone with whom we agree strongly or disagree strongly.”
Twenty-five percent of all Oxford students pursue studies in the humanities.
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