Founding Dean of Blavatnik School defends controversial namesake

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Professor Ngaire Woods, Founding Dean of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, has defended Sir Leonard Blavatnik, the School’s namesake and Britain’s richest man, against allegations that he is a Trump donor and Oxford is “for sale”.

The claims were made by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times magazine last week. He wrote that
if, after Brexit, British universities lose EU research grants, “autocrat donors stand ready”, and Oxford “already has the Blavatnik School of Government, funded by the Ukraine-born tycoon who is a Trump donor … Foreigners have learnt the UK is for sale.”

In a letter to the FT, Woods responded that Blavatnik’s company Access Industries in fact donated to the Republican National Committee and the bipartisan Presidential Inaugural Committee, and not to Trump.

She also resisted Kuper’s suggestion that Oxford is for sale, calling it “shoddy”.

“For 900 years private benefactors have made possible the creation of one of the world’s top universities, as evidenced in the naming of its Sheldonian Theatre, Bodleian Library and Blavatnik School of Government. In each case the university has honoured generous gifts through naming, whilst maintaining absolute independence from the donor”, she wrote.

Blavatnik was born in Odessa, Ukraine to a Jewish family. His family moved to the US in 1978 after restrictions on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union were lifted, and he studied at Columbia and Harvard. He subsequently made his fortune in investments in the US and former Soviet Union.

Further questions

Despite the fact that his philanthropic donations have been described as some of the most generous the UK has ever seen, and have even earned him a knighthood, this is not the first time that Blavatnik, who is a UK and US national, has aroused controversy.

Last September Bo Rothstein, the Blavatnik chair of government and public policy, resigned over Blavatnik’s purported support for Trump. He told the Guardian that “I’m not going to give legitimacy and credibility to this person … In my book by donating to the inauguration of Donald Trump you are supporting Donald Trump.”

Moreover, questions have been raised over the tycoon’s involvement in a clash between the British oil firm BP and the consortium AAR, of which Blavatnik was a member.

The two had partnered to produce TNK-BP, which became one of the largest oil companies in Russia, with Blavatnik as one of its directors. However, the partnership ended disastrously: armed police raided the TNK-BP offices, more than 100 British BP managers had to leave Russia after the authorities refused to renew their visas, and the British chief executive of TNK-BP left after what BP described as an “orchestrated campaign of harassment”.

US diplomats accused at least one of AAR’s three members – Aaron Khan – of being involved in a state-sponsored campaign against BP to force them out of Russia. Blavatnik’s lawyers have denied that he, or any member of AAR, played any role in such a plot

Two years ago, critics including Pavel Litvinov, one of the eight 1968 Red Square protesters, and Vladimir Bukovsky, the internationally famous Soviet dissident, wrote to Oxford University concerning the Blavatnik School, urging it to “stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”.

Blavatnik strenuously denies any close connection to Putin, saying he has not met with him since 2000. Last year his lawyers succeeded in forcing the Guardian to remove a reference to him as a “Putin pal” from a headline.