LEADING ARTICLE : The Flick fiasco

Tuesday 16 April 1996 23:02
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The University of Oxford is a world-class educational institution. At its best it is a civilised and civilising place. But sometimes it behaves stupidly. That is the only judgement to be made of its mishandling of the Flick endowment to pay for a chair in European thought. The affair has exposed Oxford's creaking bureaucracy, which operated in this case with little logic and less consistency.

It has never been easy to spot the strict tests Oxford has applied to its donors. The Rhodes scholarships, which are a central feature of Oxford life, are founded upon the fortune Cecil Rhodes made in southern Africa by methods no well-meaning liberal would endorse. Oxford's fund-raising campaign in America took money from all quarters.

The opponents of the Flick endowment say none of that counts because this case is different. Dr Gert-Rudolf Flick's grandfather was a Nazi war criminal who made a fortune exploiting slave labour during the Second World War. Oxford might have rejected it but it took the money. Once criticism emerged, it might have defended the endowment by arguing that the origins of the money mattered far less than what was done with it. Instead Oxford delayed and wrung its hands. Dr Flick has decided to take his pounds 350,000 elsewhere.

It is Oxford's loss. The university emerges from the affair with no credit. The vice-chancellor, Peter North, is leading an inquiry into the way the university is run. The Flick affair should tell him just how urgent reform is.

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