Oxford University, one of the world’s most prestigious, has recently become enmeshed in a controversy that calls its moral and ethical standards into question.
The issue is far from the only such problem facing Oxford in these increasingly sensitive times. The university has been involved in its fair share of those 21st-century concerns confronting academia the world over: demands for constraints on free speech, the decolonization of curricula, the “no-platforming” of controversial figures, calls to remove statues of historical figures associated however remotely with slavery or colonialism, and intolerance of opinions – especially those surrounding gender – not in accord with the current left-wing view of the world.
On November 5, the Daily Telegraph reported that Professor Lawence Goldman, a senior Oxford don, was accusing his university of “vast hypocrisy.” Goldman is emeritus fellow in history and a former vice-master of Oxford’s St Peter’s College.
“The university has gone off the scale in wokery,” he said, “but they go ahead and take money from a fund established by proven and known fascists. Its moral compass is just not working anymore. There has been a total moral failure.”
Goldman was referring to donations of over £12 million offered by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust, and accepted by the university, St Peter’s College and Lady Margaret Hall. The £6 million donation to Oxford University will fund an Alexander Mosley Professor of Biophysics, while the £5 million donation to St Peter’s College, which had previously accepted over £1 million from the same source, will be used to build a new block of student accommodation to be called Alexander Mosley House. Lady Margaret Hall was given £260,000 to fund its foundation year.
To Britain’s Jewish community, the name Mosley is instantly and inescapably associated with Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist movement of the 1930s, outrageously revived in the shadow of the Holocaust in the 1950s with the enthusiastic assistance of his son, Max Mosley.
It was Sir Oswald Mosley who in 1936 marched his neo-Nazi army of Blackshirts into the Jewish area of east London. It sparked the famous Battle of Cable Street, when a huge crowd composed largely of Jewish and Irish workers barred the way declaring: “They shall not pass.” Nor did they.
The Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust was set up by Max Mosley in the name of his son, an alumnus of St Peter’s College who later gained a PhD, and who died in 2009 of a suspected drug overdose. Although details of the trust’s original funding source are obscure, it is generally accepted that the money came from the fortune left by Oswald Mosley to his son, Max.
Goldman’s revelations sparked a blaze of comment in the media. It immediately came to light that Oxford was not the only respected academic institution to have pocketed large donations from the Mosley Trust. Imperial College London had received £2.5 million over the past five years, while University College London (UCL) had accepted £500,000.
On discovering this, Lord Young, who chaired UCL’s council for a decade, said he was “appalled” to learn about the donations.
“I do not think this would have happened during my time at UCL,” he said. “When I chaired council…we were, I hope, much more sensitive about the implications of taking this [sort of] money. If Oswald Mosley had got his way, we would have had the death camps in this country. Max Mosley supported his father in the Sixties. There is no ambiguity about the name. You can say it’s only a name but it’s within living memory.”
It was not long before Jewish voices were raised in opposition to Oxford’s decision. In a letter to Oxford’s vice-chancellor and the master of St Peter’s College, a coalition of Jewish charities condemned Oxford’s decision to accept contributions from “a notorious fascist family that has caused immense pain to the Jewish community.”
Urging the university to drop the Mosley name from a professorship, they said they were at a loss to understand how a Jewish student would feel comfortable being taught by a professor bearing the Mosley family name. The charities signing the letter included the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Holocaust Education Trust and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They urged Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Prof. Louise Richardson, and Prof. Judith Buchanan, master of St Peter’s College, to confirm that neither the professorship nor the block of student flats will “honor” the Mosley family.
Jewish student groups were also quick to condemn the University of Oxford for accepting millions from Max Mosley, son of the notorious fascist, and being associated with his political activities. “The Mosley family name is synonymous with fascism and antisemitism in Britain,” the Union of Jewish Students and the Oxford Jewish Society said in a joint statement. “The university’s decision to dedicate a professorship to this name serves to commemorate and revere the Mosley legacy.” The groups urged university administrators to reflect on the impact the donations would have.
St Peter’s had planned to call the student block Alexander Mosley House. It now appears the college will consult with students over the name. The university has so far issued no statement about the planned professorship.
Other public figures had joined in the chorus of condemnation. Britain’s Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi, chanced to be visiting Auschwitz when the story broke, and he was interviewed by the media. He said that Oxford’s leadership must attempt to repair its relationship with Jewish students by “making sure they consult and explain the decision-making process” to them. “Let me be very clear,” he added. “Antisemitism is not simply a historic debate. It is a present danger and a scourge that exists, sadly, on our campuses.”
Lord Grade, a former BBC chairman, said the decision by St Peter’s College to accept money from the Mosley family trust disqualifies it from removing any statues. Its students had recently voted in favor of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement seeking the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of Oxford’s most generous philanthropists, because of his involvement with colonialism and racism.
“They attempt to justify taking money from a family of committed racists and fascists on the grounds of the good works that the money will enable,” wrote Grade. “If that argument is accepted, there can be no reason to ‘cancel’ visible, historic associations with descendants of those who profited from the slave trade and benefited the university.” He added that St Peter’s College was displaying “venal hypocrisy,” and deserved all the “ridicule coming their way.”
Lord Mann, the UK government’s antisemitism tsar, said: “If Oxford is trying to rehabilitate the Mosley family name in any way, they can expect a very hostile response. Anything that glorifies the Mosley name is a problem.”
Oxford University and the two colleges have defended accepting the money from the Mosley trust on the grounds that it was cleared by an independent committee that reviewed donations in a “robust” manner, taking “legal, ethical and reputational issues into consideration.”
The guidelines for accepting donations to the university require the committee to judge potential gifts against a range of criteria, including whether the proposed donation would do serious harm to the reputation of the university, or seriously harm the university’s relationship with other benefactors or stakeholders. The criteria that the committee have to consider have aroused no criticism; at issue is their judgment in reaching the decision they did.
Pressure on the university to return the money mounts. “I find it distressing that Oxford University is so keen to go on about diversity and inclusion, but is prepared to take the shilling from such sources,” said Robert Halfon, who chairs the House of Commons education select committee. “It seems that wokeness goes out the window. I suspect students will be asking for the money to be returned.”
Goldman has said that the donations would be better going “to the communities who were terrorized and beaten up by Mosley and his thugs twice in the 20th century. If the Mosley family trust wants to atone, if they want to do good in the world, surely they should be building… old age homes for elderly Jews who were beaten up in Golders Green and northwest London.”
He said he had spent months attempting to persuade St Peter’s College to refuse the £5 million Mosley donation. He wrote to its master, as well as the university’s vice-chancellor, urging them to reconsider. In June, he wrote to all the fellows on the college’s governing body, imploring them to vote against it. He warned that taking funds from the “most infamous fascist dynasty in the English-speaking world” would be a “disaster” for the college.
As yet there is no resolution of the issue. The country waits to see if Oxford University, its esteemed seat of learning, can rediscover its moral compass.