ENDOWMENT AND MORALITY

In my own college I am regarded as a red revolutionary, especially where financial matters are concerned. And when, towards the end of my time on Finance Committee I suggested that we all ought to read a new book, The Ethical Investor,1 which had been thought up and published by the University of Yale, I was met with incredulous horror, and the Committee passed rapidly on to next business, before I could squander the college endowments on dud motoring shares in order to be able to stick up for consumer rights, or Rio-Tinto Zinc so as to ensure they did not make any money out of ruining Wales.

It is easy to sympathise with my colleagues. The world is a highly imperfect place, and there are many crusades which need undertaking but which, if undertaken, may well divert scarce resources from the college's proper activities. It is easy, and largely correct, to lay down as a guiding principle that the college as a landowner and stockholder, is in the position of a trustee under a simple duty to maximise its long-term gains so as to be able to exercise as much discretion as possible as a spender of money on education, religion and learning. It is largely correct. Our endowments were given us in order that we should have money to spend, not in order that we should preserve rural England or house the poor or develop a new and more humane form of industrial organisation, excellent though all these aims are; and if we fail to obtain a proper and full return on what has been entrusted to us we are not doing our duty by our founders and benefactors nor by our pupils and potential beneficiaries. In general, like all trustees, we ought to make as much money as we can, and then spend it as wisely as we know how.

Nevertheless there are limits to the maximising principle, imposed by morality and public opinion as well as law. Colleges, as landlords, have traditionally fought shy of the luscious rents that can be obtained from houses whose fame is not too stringently secured. There are many sharp practices, profitable and not forbidden by the law, which we none the less forbear to profit from. Nor, when we employ college servants, lab assistants or university administrators, do we deem it our duty to pay them the lowest wages they will accept in return for rendering to us the services we desire. Nor, again, when we feed and house our undergraduates do we try to give as little as we can get away with in return for the money we exact. Rather, we pride ourselves on being good employers, and giving good value for money.

We do not exist in order to pay our employees well or to ensure that young men should have full stomachs and plenty of baths, but since it is inherent in our performing our prime functions that we should also employ people and provide ourselves and our pupils with board and lodging we endeavour to do these secondary but essential functions well. The standard we set ourselves is not the minimum one enforced by the law but the higher, although not excessively exalted, standard of the responsible citizen. And the same should hold good of our activities as landlords and shareholders.

This is a point well argued in The Ethical Investor for American universities, and even more obviously applicable in England to Oxford and Cambridge, which have always known that academic values can be realised only in the life of a community with all the subsidiary and peripheral obligations that that invokes. Individually and corporately we spend our time not only in contemplating the true and writing it down in words after having checked our references, but also and necessarily as writers of testimonials and readers of schoolboy's scripts, Proctors and College Deans, Stewards of Common Room and Delegates of the Press; on the committee for the Married Graduate Block, and in receiving the report of last year's examiners in PPE, on the Finance Committee and in appointing governors of schools and parish priests, on the Faculty Board or in deciding whether to put up a new Dutch barn in Lincolnshire or whether to go into China Clay while the paper industry is depressed. And because we are, as academics, deeply involved with the world around us, we cannot avoid being answerable for our actions as they affect that world.

from Oxford Magazine, 9 February 1973, pp.8.9)


1. by John G. Simons, Charles W. Powers and Jon Gunnerman, University of Yale Press, $2.95.

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