Let’s be clear. The acceptance of donations from and granting of naming rights to prominent billionaires does more than just slap a relatively unknown name on a building and help some students out. It entrenches the donor as a legitimate actor, as someone to look up to, a paragon of philanthropic decency. When Stephen Schwarzman appears on TV and waxes fondly about the importance of the shiny new Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities in Oxford, nobody remembers his company, Blackstone, stands accused by the UN of contributing to the global housing crisis by buying up houses and massively increasing the rents tenants pay. Every time the figure of 150 million pounds donated to Oxford by Schwarzman is brought up (a pittance for a man whose net worth is 16.9 billion dollars), the praise and adulation drowns out the cries of those who have found themselves homeless as Blackstone ruthlessly seeks to increase its profits at the expense of those who simply want a place to live.
It’s no coincidence that Oxford is only the latest in a set of conquests for Schwarzmann. The global network of Schwarzman-named academic institutions include the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the Schwarzmann Scholars programme at Schwarzman College (in China), the Stephen A Schwarzman Building (formerly known as New York Public Library) and Yale’s Stephen A Schwarzman Centre. The money spent on these donations is priceless in comparison to what it grants a man like Schwarzman: an image and legacy of benevolence, kindness, and public service.
The problem is, men like Schwarzman don’t deserve such an image. Be it the ruthless housing practises of Blackstone, or the actions of the Sackler family’s company Purdue Pharma in promoting the opioid crisis in America (Oxford last year received 1 million dollars for its National Portrait Gallery from the Sacklers), often such figures have caused lasting social damage in their business practises that they should be made to answer for. In accepting these donations, Oxford allows such practises to be discounted due to the bolstered public image these billionaires crave and now receive, allowing such injurious systems of global capitalism to be perpetuated as they are forgotten or dismissed as, after all, they did help a couple of rich kids study in a nicer building.
The triviality of the argument for accepting these donations in the face of the harm such figures can cause is stark.
The triviality of the argument for accepting these donations in the face of the harm such figures can cause is stark. Is it the case that, without the Schwarzman Centre, Oxford would not be able to provide a world-class level of education and research? That the pretty architecture and instant coffee machines are in any way comparable to the destruction wrought by the money-hungry corporations run by an uncaring global elite? Or the squirrelling away of quantities of money in offshore tax havens orders of magnitude greater than the amount given in academic donations? The neoliberal narrative of the plutocratic movers and shakers who, in their great and unmatched wisdom, should not be interfered with, is heavily legitimised whenever a university accepts a donation from billionaires who, really, are sinners rather than saints.
Then there is the argument that if we would tax the rich and use their money for public good, what opposition can we have to accepting their voluntary donations. This fails to understand the unique qualities of a donation that work in the interests of billionaires. Taxes are an obligation, their payment solicits no adulation or applause, whereas donations create the aura of benevolence that can be so damaging when applied to those who don’t deserve it. The granting of naming rights forever associates figures such as Schwarzman with the noble pursuit of education, rather than his real legacy, the corrupt pursuit of profit at the expense of others. If Oxford, and indeed other universities, truly wish to create the better world they believe their research can, they should start with not playing into the hands of those who have helped make it worse.
Image credit – Financial Times