“A beacon for the future”

The University yesterday announced the “most generous gift for humanities students in the University’s 900-year history” which will be used to provide full funding for up to 35 graduates each year.

The funds, which will ultimately total over £26m, have been donated by Mica Ertegun, widow of the founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, who died in 2006. Mrs Ertegun, who is Romanian-born and lives in New York City, is one of the world’s foremost interior designers.

The announcement was made at a press conference at the British Academy in London, with a panel formed of the Chancellor, Lord Patten, Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, Mrs Ertegun, Lord Melvyn Bragg and Harvey Goldsmith, Britain’s foremost concert promoter. Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones, who was a friend of Mr Ertegun, also attended the press conference and praised the scholarship.

The Chancellor called the announcement “something very rare indeed in scope and vision” and the Vice-Chancellor hailed the donation as a “beacon and model for the future” which will join the “flagships of Rhodes and Clarendon scholarships”.

The first students will start their courses this year, with an initial intake of 15 students from all over the world. The Vice-Chancellor revealed that “over 1,000 people have already applied for the initial cohort.”

The programme will be funded in perpetuity, with the intake of students rising to 35 annually in the coming years. The endowment will also fund the salary of a full-time Ertegun Senior Scholar in Residence, who will mentor and advise graduate students.

While integrating into the collegiate system for study and accommodation, the students will also use the five-storey Ertegun House, on St. Giles, for “intellectual discussion and cultural activities”, fitted with state-of-the-art equipment by Harvey Goldsmith, who was a friend of the late Ahmet Ertegun. The Vice-Chancellor said the House would be similar in function to Rhodes House on South Parks Road.

Graduates will have to win a place through the normal postgraduate system, before applying to the Ertegun Scholarships Selection Committee made up of the head of Oxford’s Division of Humanities and one representative from each of ten Oxford humanities faculties. A Board of Ertegun Overseers will provide advice for the programme and help ensure the University keeps a clear vision of the programme.

Lord Patten said: “This kind of support for postgraduates is vital for the future of research and human understanding, and vital for the future of great universities like Oxford. It allows us to ensure that the very best minds are supporting the University’s research endeavour now and will be the acting edge researchers of the future.”

He also added that postgraduate funding was a “crisis just down the road. I hope that the government will recognise this, as not all universities will be blessed with such generosity.”

Mrs Ertegun said: “In these times, when there is so much strife in the world, I believe it is tremendously important to support those things that endure across time.” She added that she was “very proud” of the programme, continuing: “My dream is that, one day, Ertegun Scholars will be leaders in every field – as historians and philosophers, as archaeologists and literary scholars, as writers and composers, as statesmen and theologians.”

The Vice-Chancellor commented: “At a time when, in the UK, government support for the humanities is under intense pressure, vision and generosity like this is going to be what saves the field for future generations”, adding that he was “immensely grateful to Mrs Ertegun and Americans for Oxford Inc [the University’s primary charitable organization in North America]”.

The panel at the conference stressed the importance of donations such as Mrs Ertegun’s for the continuing excellence of Oxford and of the humanities in general, whilst the Chancellor pointed out that Oxford is “built on a million and one acts of generous philanthropy”.

The Vice-Chancellor called funding for graduates “one of the greatest challenges in higher education today, which is especially tough in the humanities”. Last week it was revealed that Oxford is seeking £90m in private donations to secure humanities teaching posts.

Lord Bragg said funding for humanities, was “as important as sciences”, and said that the donation “couldn’t have been timed better, both in what it is and what it flags up [about the state of humanities funding].”

The Vice-Chancellor, who was previously Provost of Yale University, pointed out that Oxford faces stiff competition from other global universities, especially in the US. “Students will go elsewhere unless Oxford is competitive in the global market. We must not take anything for granted.”

Cara Laskaris, a third-year Music student at Magdalen, holds one of the initial scholarships. “I get fully funded for tuition, accommodation and a small maintenance grant for all my three years. This new scheme is a brilliant idea, and I’m really thrilled. It’s just what the humanities need at this time, and I’d definitely recommend considering applying for one!”

Victor Willi, a graduate ambassador from St. Antony’s College studying for a DPhil in Egyptian Studies, said: “At the moment I am self-funded and it’s difficult to get scholarships and grants. I am Swiss-American, so it’s particularly difficult – but this scholarship is open to those from any country.

“It’s not just important for the money but also in the signal it sends. There is a need for funding, and we must not lose sight of humanities. It’s true that it is less tangible than science, but that doesn’t mean it is not important.”