How to get a chair at a noble seat of learning

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Commercial sponsorship might appear to be at odds with Oxford and Cambridge's reputations as noble seats of learning, dedicated to stretching the intellect rather than swelling the coffers, but neither is a stranger to market forces.

Balliol College, Oxford, founded in 1263, is named after John Balliol, a wealthy baron of the day who kidnapped the Bishop of Durham in a skirmish over land ownership. He escaped punishment for this misdemeanour by agreeing to pay for 16 scholars at Oxford, and the college was founded on his endowment after his death by his widow Dervorguilla. Another dubious gift, came three centuries later, when Cardinal Wolsey suppressed 29 monasteries in order to raise the revenue for Oxford's Christ Church College.

Even if Oxbridge sponsorship is now more politically sound, the brazen intrusion of corporate monikers has, in some cases, made it seem more overtly mercenary. In Oxford, Manchester College was recently renamed Kellogg College after receiving a gift from Britain's biggest food brand of pounds 4.7m. Nissan funds the Institute of Japanese Studies at St Antony's College, while Tokyo Electric power makes provision for the Fellowship in Japanese Studies at Pembroke. In 1989, Fiat donated pounds 700,000 for a Professorship in Italian Studies. And, not to be left behind, the media barons moved in: Oxford boasts a Rupert Murdoch Chair of Communications at Worcester College, and a Robert Maxwell Fellowship in Politics at Balliol.

There are philanthropic individuals to be found, too. In 1974, racehorse owner David Robinson donated pounds 10m to Cambridge to found a new college bearing his name. In 1989, theatreland mogul Cameron Mackintosh put up pounds 2m for a Professorship of Drama (first incumbent being Stephen Sondheim). Sir Isaac Wolfson, who set up the Wolfson Foundation in 1955 for the advancement of health, education, had colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge named after him thanks to his magnanimity. Viscount Nuffield, too, used part of his vast fortune to benefit hospitals and charities and to endow an Oxford college.

So, whatever the fears of some Cambridge dons about accepting BAT's money, it's not all depressing. And we have not yet reached the absurd heights of American academia, where the University of Southern California is the proud keeper of the Barbra Streisand Chair in Intimacy and Human Sexuality.