Money looks cleaner for a growth of ivy

Should universities take money from controversial sources to fund professorships? Oxford and Cambridge have been at the centre of rows involving money from tobacco, arms dealers and latterly from Baroness Thatcher. Is it any different from their ancestors taking money from Henry VIII, asks David Walker.
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Universities are miraculous places. They take wads of used fivers, crumpled and discoloured, which have been earned by arms-dealers, hated politicians, City slickers and media magnates whose stock-in-trade is predatory pricing and hardline right-wingery. But once the loot arrives on campus, the money suddenly gets sanitised. Base coin is turned into the pure gold of research and scholarship. The Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, Norwich Union and Wafic Said professors leap from their chairs untainted, saying never mind the provenance, feel the publications list.

That is, I admit, a tendentious way of putting the issue of named chairs paid for from controversial sources, yet it pretty fairly sums up the attitude universities take. The existence of an ethical problem is not admitted, at least publicly. In private, however, many professors are deeply perturbed.

At Oxford, where controversy has raged fiercely over certain recent donations (though not, surprisingly, Rupert Murdoch's extensive gifts in the field of media and English language), dons put their faith in a high-level ethics committee to monitor endowments.

At Cambridge, where the foundation established to propagate Margaret Thatcher's ideas has been generous, there is said to be "continual consideration" of gifts as part of the normal processes of running the university. That line is followed elsewhere. For example at Nottingham, where some 30 of its 200 professors hold "named" chairs, "we obviously look at the standing of a sponsor and arrangements offered in order to preserve our autonomy and independence".

Those two are, of course, the key words. Modern universities are avaricious. They employ professional fund-raisers to go out and beat the business and philanthropic bushes in pursuit of capital. Not every pound comes with a certificate of health attached; some philanthropic foundations have their own agenda and world views. Does accepting money from "interested" sources subvert a university's autonomy?

If there is a question about paid-for professorships, it is much more evident at the top end of the academic range. South Bank University - this is typical of the new universities - does not have endowed chairs and is not seeking money for that purpose.

Oxford and Cambridge, by contrast, have centuries of experience of laundering. Once ivy has grown on money it looks a lot more respectable. If once you took money from the bloody hands of Henry VIII or his henchman Thomas Cromwell, then endowments from latter-day business or political chieftains look less compromising. KPMG is not, as far as we know, into serial execution.

London, Nottingham and the other civics also have long experience with specific endowments: pharmaceutical innovator Jesse Boot endowed a chair 60 years ago. But that was in chemistry and it is hard to see how in pure science money, however it was earned, can damage the pursuit of knowledge. It is in technology and applied social science - especially business - that recently conflicts of interest have loomed. The decision by Essex University to accept an endowed chair in psychoanalysis from the Jungians' professional association (the Society for Analytical Psychology) raises another kind of issue - should universities demarcate the boundaries of official science for sponsors' sake. Essex followed on the heels of Edinburgh, where money from the Arthur Koestler Foundation was used to establish a chair in parapsychology, though Edinburgh are keen to emphasise its occupant does kosher research.

The problem is not confined to what might be understood as right-of-centre pressures. The University of York has a chair in housing policy endowed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: would that generous and liberal-minded (and resolutely non-partisan) organisation stand idly by if the holder of the chair suddenly declared in favour of privatising the entire council housing stock?

Universities may employ moral philosophers but their own debate about themselves is curiously stunted. Controversy has flared recently, for example at Cambridge, over taking money from tobacco companies - but the university's hand was forced by the decision of the Cancer Research Campaign (a major research contractor and endower of chairs) to blow the whistle.

Perhaps the sprawling nature of Cambridge University and its arcane procedures for raising issues explains why there has been scant reaction so far about the plan to establish the Margaret Thatcher professorship of Enterprise Studies within the Judge Institute of Management. (Or perhaps Cambridge dons are closet Tories.) The Foundation's intention is "to make Cambridge a repository of the knowledge and conditions which enable enterprise to flourish". But is "enterprise" a neutral concept, or does it carry with it a political perspective?

Sandra Dawson, director of the institute (itself the product of a substantial endowment from a successful entrepreneur, Paul Judge) says "enterprise studies" is now seen as vital to the development of new world markets including those of China and the Soviet Union, not to mention the UK's. The chair will be filled by usual university procedures and its occupant will have complete academic freedom. Ms Dawson adds, "one wouldn't expect a professor to peddle any prejudice".

For the university at large Dr David Livesey, secretary of the General Board, says there is a "long and honourable tradition of particular benefactions for particular purposes". Mrs Thatcher was not the first prime minister to have a chair: Cambridge also has the Churchill chair in operations research and the Arthur Balfour professorship in genetics. "I am not aware that after the event there has been any suggestion that teaching or research have in any way been - to use your word - `tainted'."

And yet some universities have had problems of precisely that kind. Do sponsors of chairs really expect nothing in return for their investment beyond the kudos of having a professorship bearing their name?

A professor at a big southern university contrasts his experience of funding through learned societies with his former existence at the beck and call of a leading carmaker when he was a sponsored professor of engineering. He has evidence from a survey of colleagues in other university technology departments which suggests his dogsbody existence was far from atypical. The problem as he saw it was that the company treated him as a cheap consultant. He was forbidden from any contact with other carmakers or suppliers; executives tried to prevent him publishing before they had effected patents on his work; they wanted to know about his students; they exploited his databases. And despite all that he received only a university salary, no car (not even one from the carmaker) and no secretarial support. He was, he admits, ethically compromised.

To be fair, that story may not reflect experience in all industrial sectors or all sponsorship. At the University of Southampton for example, there are "general" endowments, such as the Lucas professorship of aerospace engineering and the Roll chair in economics, where no specific conditions apply. By contrast, Southampton's British Gas professorship of environmental technology is intended as a short-run affair, its five-year term intended to cover a project in Khazakstan.

At Nottingham, said a spokesman, "we have been doing this sort of thing for 20 years, and in the vast majority of cases there has been no pressure to follow the company line on something, whether a particular type of product or diet".

Imperial College, London - with some 40 endowed chairs - makes a sharp distinction between corporate sponsorship of chairs and the provision by academics of specific services to companies based, say, on consultancy contracts. These are monitored closely by deputy rector John Wakeham. Companies would, he says, be consulted over who gets appointed to a named chair and they might conceivably be allowed a veto.

"What we don't allow is any dictation of the work to be done by a professor. The company might specify work in electrical engineering or physics or even communications in electrical engineering but they cannot say they want something specific."

Imperial would also refuse sponsorship from a company with an interest in seeing work done in an area of public policy - if only because its own reputation would suffer if any allegation of bias were to be made.

No one suggested that Oxford's two recent controversial endowments would lead to bias in the academic work. The problem was the moral standing of the source. Dr Gert-Rudolf Flick offered the university pounds 350,000 to establish a professorship in European thought: his grandfather was a Nazi industrialist convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal of using slave labour to make his fortune. Dr Flick withdrew amid embarrassment after allegations that two generations had not sanitised his money.

Wafic Said, an Arab businessman, became embroiled in controversy not because Oxford was not desperate to get his pounds 20m but because the Said Business School was originally going to be built on a particularly precious Oxonian green space. Allegations that Mr Said had made some of his money from the arms trade were less provoking than his indirect responsibility for an assault on the playing fields.

The Said School - headed by Professor John Kay - is now to be built in a less salubrious part of Oxford, out beyond the railway station.