The high price of a chair at Oxford

Andrew Brown asks if Balliol College should accept a tainted professors hip
"Honour, without money, is just a disease," wrote Jean Racine, and the University of Oxford knows what he meant. It has been assiduously raising funds for years, from Americans, from Rupert Murdoch, and even from the grandchildren of Nazi industrialists. That is where the trouble started: three years ago, Dr Gert-Rudolf Flick offered a large sum, supposedly pounds 350,000 a year for five years, to establish a Flick Professorship of European Thought. For most newspaperreaders, the name Flick means only incredible wealth and divorce bills. In the tabloids, he is known as the "Muck" Flick, whose wife, Maya, successfully appealed against the scarcely credible stinginess of a pounds 9m divorce settlement. One can see how a woman who once gave pounds 500,000 to the Hammersmith hospital might feel insulted when asked to live on so little.

For students of the Holocaust, however, Flick was also the family name behind one of the largest industrial combines of Nazi Germany, in whose factories perhaps 30,000 enslaved labourers died. Dr Flick's grandfather, Friedrich, was sentenced to seven years for this after the war, of which he served three, without expressing remorse; and most of his fortune was confiscated. There remained enough, however, to provide the foundation for a new and even larger fortune, so that by the time he died in 1972 he was once more rich beyond imagination.

David Selbourne, the political philosopher, has urged Balliol, his "old college", to find the "moral courage" to renounce the gift. Yet the ethics committee of Oxford University has concluded that the money used to found the chair does not derive from objectionable practice.

They would, wouldn't they, retort the attackers of Balliol, and launch into ever more inventive parlour games. You would have thought it hard to improve on the Rupert Murdoch Professor of Communication Studies, Jean ("dropped") Aitchison, who has just completed delivering the Reith Lectures. But how about a Josef Stalin Chair of Minority Rights, or a Michael Howard Chair of Penal Policy?

What particularly offends the opponents of Mr Flick is exactly the factor that extracts the money from rich patrons in the first place: the fact that their names will live forever, gradually acquiring a lustre that obliterates all memories of the source of the fortune. But this is a process that has been going on for as long as there have been rich men and civilisation. All the great fortunes of the ancient world derived from slavery: Maecenas, who gave his name to a rich man's patronage of the arts, would hardly have satisfied a modern ethics committee.

The great 19th-century philanthropists - Carnegie, Rockefeller and even Ford - may now be remembered for the libraries and foundations, but they made their money off sweated labour in appalling conditions. At some stage, surely, the good that a man does by spending his fortune must outweigh the evil that his ancestors did in getting and defending it. Many of the great British fortunes of the 18th and 19th centuries were founded on the slave trade, or on the exploitation of India: we no longer hold their heirs responsible for this.

Christina Hardyment, editor of the Oxford Magazine, points out that almost all the colleges were themselves founded as acts of reparation by powerful men with a great deal on their consciences. In the Middle Ages, when religion and education were almost synonymous, to found a college was a more direct means of atonement than it may seem nowadays.

The Catholic tradition of endowing masses to be said for your soul simultaneously added to the splendour of the family name and confessed its need for forgiveness. Fr Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher at Blackfriars in Oxford, once said that All Souls, where Masses were to be said for the soldier at Agincourt, is "the largest war memorial in the world".

Perhaps Mr Flick's real problem is not that people are worried about the source of his money but about its destination. The establishment of a Chair of European Thought doesn't, somehow, seem to make up for the sufferings that may have gone into establishing the fortune that endowed it. But that is not because we have grown morally more exquisite than preceding generations; it is because we have lost faith in our culture.