Pecunia non olet

The Emperor Vespasian, a notorious tightwad, once introduced a tax on urine – it was used for washing togas, and other chemical purposes.  When his son Titus objected, he said, we are told by Suetonius, ‘Pecunia non olet’ – ‘money doesn’t stink’.  But does it?

The director of the London School of Economics, Sir Howard Davies, has just resigned because he accepted a donation of £1.5m for the university from a Gaddafi foundation, just shortly after Saif Gaddafi was awarded a PhD from the LSE.  As far as I know, no cause and effect has yet been proved, but it looks bad.

Universities have a long and dishonorable tradition of accepting money from rogues and ratbags, and the odd tyrant.  In a way, it’s the Robin Hood principle at work: there’s no point in robbing from the poor, but soliciting money from the rich means cosying up to some pretty shady characters.  Think Cecil Rhodes, whose generous donations to Oxford, and the formation of the Rhodes Scholarship scheme, were based on his crackpot theories of racial supremacy, and funded by what we might today call ‘blood diamonds’.

But when a dictator or a crook is outed, how do you wash your hands of the connection?  Do you, like Rhodes House, just adjust your criteria so that the scholarships can go to non-white and female recipients?  (There was a precedent in their earlier decision, in 1914, not to award any further scholarships to Germans, as required in Rhodes’ original bequest)  Or do you try to erase the memory of your institution’s lapse of judgment more thoroughly, by a few strategic resignations, or by eradicating the name or the connection entirely.

I encountered this problem when I spent a couple of months on study leave at Aberdeen University in the early 1990s.  During the slash-and-burn years of Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, Aberdeen University went through hard times, even though it shares with the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, a unique advantage over other British universities: its continued existence is guaranteed in the Act of Union that created the United Kingdom in 1707.  Nevertheless, times were hard, and the university administration was delighted to find a benefactor.

Ján Ludvík Hoch was born in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1923.  He arrived in Britain as a Jewish refugee in 1940, aged 17, and took the name Robert Maxwell.  During the 1950s, he began to make his first serious money when he established Pergamon Press to publish academic journals.  Science was booming in the period, universities were growing in size and number, and academic libraries subscribed to all the new journals that Maxwell, and Pergamon Press, set up.

Plaque at headquarters of Pergamon Press, Headington Hill

My husband, a retired mathematician, recalls how an older colleague of his was encouraged to set up a new journal, in a new sub-discipline of mathematics, with seed money from Pergamon.  Scholars needed to publish and they didn’t expect to be paid for their work, either writing or editing the content of journals; libraries needed to buy these new journals, despite their high cost, and once the library subscribed, it was hooked.  As any librarian will tell you, for an academic, cutting back on journal subscriptions is like giving up tobacco, even as costs inexplicably rose for journals that were produced almost entirely by volunteer labour.

Robert Maxwell’s publishing empire later spread well beyond Pergamon, but there is an irony that, having made his first millions from screwing the university sector, by the 1980s he was apparently eager to give something back.  He arrived at Aberdeen University like a white knight.  In 1990, he struck the first brick into the wall of the Robert Maxwell Conference Centre – using a sledgehammer.  At about the same time, Pergamon Press bought Aberdeen University Press.

Then, in 1991, Maxwell disappeared, presumed drowned, from his yacht in the Mediterranean, and in the aftermath, it soon became clear that Maxwell’s empire was a sham.  The workers’ entitlements were gone, and his sons subsequently went bankrupt.  Aberdeen University hastily removed the name from the Robert Maxwell Conference Centre.  The building remained, but it was too late to save Aberdeen University Press.

Not all benefactors are rogues or worse, but for every Colleen McCullough, a generous and unobtrusive benefactor of Macquarie University’s Classics Department, there are likely to be others with mixed motives, who just love the publicity and the public naming rights that go with it.  Maxwell wanted Aberdeen University Press, but he also wanted respectability, a Jewish refugee made good, his (reinvented) name on the side of a building.  In Australia at about the same time, Alan Bond did rather better: Bond University extricated itself from the canny old gaolbird, but kept his name.

Earlier benefactors, such as Cosimo di Medici who set up the Florentine Academy, hoped to use good works to buy their way into heaven after a life of hard graft.  Philanthropy is seldom entirely disinterested, and the academic world flirts with dodgy benefactors at its peril.

Warren Buffett recently said, of a later financial crisis, that it’s only when the tide goes out that you can see who’s been swimming naked.  So perhaps it’s appropriate that one theory has it that Robert Maxwell toppled overboard while taking a midnight pee.

Which brings us back to Vespasian.  To the present day, in both France and Italy, public urinals are named after Vespasian (vespasiennes or vespasiani).  Sometimes it’s better not to have your name remembered on a building.

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4 responses to “Pecunia non olet

  1. An interesting tale! The LSE/Saif al-Islam Gaddafi issue is continuing to make newspaper headlines, for example this story from the Guardian about the resignation of the research programme funded by the Gaddafi charity: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/31/saif-gaddafi-lse-academic

    Reading your post, I was wondering what rules universities should put in place to minimise the risk of compromising themselves when faced with the temptation of riches when funds are scarce?

    • Good question, but hard to come up with any rules. The most egregious issues come when there’s a close link between a gift and a direct benefit, as seems to be the case with Gaddhafi’s son. It’s harder when the benefit is intangible. But I’ve always been particularly uneasy with honorary doctorates or chairs, when the recipient fails to recognize the pointlessness of the honor by using the honorific – Dr or Professor. There are a few ‘Professors’ about in public life, though maybe I’d better not name them.

  2. Pingback: An axe, a rifle and a box of matches | Historians are Past Caring

  3. Reblogged this on Historians are Past Caring and commented:

    There has been a stoush going on in Sydney this week, because the Sydney Biennale has accepted funds from Transfield, and Transfield is one of the companies involved in running Australia’s highly controversial immigration facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. Since I’ve been too busy writing my book to write a blog post during the last week, I’m lazily re-blogging instead a post I wrote in 2011 that addressed the general issue of tainted money:

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