Stephen Schwarzman didn’t become a billionaire by wasting money. The Blackstone Group LP co-founder had better make sure that Oxford University doesn’t squander his record 150 million-pound ($189 million) gift to construct a new building.
Predictably, the donation has been met with online criticism of the donor for making money from private equity and for not giving the cash to more worthy causes. Oxford has also been attacked for accepting the bounty. This is misplaced. Fortunes aren’t made by squirreling away pennies in savings accounts. Would the critics prefer Schwarzman spent it on himself?
The gift, which will allow Oxford to gather most of its arts faculties in one place as well as house a new center for the study of ethics in artificial intelligence, is a welcome endorsement of the value of humanities in modern education, as the university says. It also shows that Oxford can raise serious money privately, something it may have to do more of.
Oxford has in recent years undertaken several large building projects that were delivered successfully. It is accustomed to seeing that large donations are well spent. But this benefaction is on another scale.
There must be concerns. The use of proceeds here isn’t an obvious priority. The university’s arts faculties already have homes, but this project will give them a new shared one, with additional resources such as a theater and broadcast studio. That’s clearly an ideal setup. Collaboration and good ideas come when people bump into each other. What’s more, the facilities should enable Oxford to better compete for post-doctoral and academic expertise globally. Other U.K. universities, already at a resource disadvantage, can only look on with increasing despair.
While the ethics of anything is a cause worthy of financial support, only a handful of new academic posts are being created. The University is having to launch a separate fundraising program to beef out the faculty.
And it’s debatable whether this new facility will make the slightest difference to recruiting undergraduates. This highlights an important strategic question for Oxford. Does it wish to be a top center for research, or the world-leading university for undergraduate teaching? It is a myth that there is a causal relationship between the two.
The big risk here is that Schwarzman’s gift is squandered by the uniquely dysfunctional governance of the university. The institution has three power bases – the central university, the faculties and the individual (and autonomous) colleges to which students and academics are attached. Straddling these are various committees, often with shared functions. It is a structure that is inimical to good decision-making, or often any decision at all.
The creation of Oxford’s business school two decades ago was hampered by internal wrangling such as whether it could offer academics more than the standard university pay scale allowed to lure top talent from the likes of Harvard and Insead. Oxford has seen some reforms since then, but the fundamental framework persists.
The scope for paralysis is high with so many departments involved and the project at such an early stage. This being Oxford, the likelihood is that no single individual will have full power over how the money is spent. One committee, though, will oversee the project, chaired by David Prout, the former boss of Britain’s HS2 high-speed rail project. Hopefully, this panel will be able to make decisions like a corporate board.
Schwarzman’s building will go up one day and will be a welcome addition. But the drama is likely to be as much in its construction as in its spaces for the performing arts.
(Updates to add recent building projects in fourth paragraph and committee chairman in penultimate paragraph.)
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Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.
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