Len Blavatnik's links to Putin (above) have come under scrutinyGlobal Panorama

The University of Oxford has been encouraged to reject a £75 million donation from Len Blavatnik, Britain’s richest man, who is also a donor to the University of Cambridge.

The signatories of a letter to the Guardian said Oxford “should stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates,” and accused the university of having “failed to investigate” Blavatnik’s alleged connection to what they deemed a “state-sponsored” campaign of harassment against BP in Russia.

It encourages Oxford to reconsider their acceptance of a £75 million donation that Blavatnik – born in the USSR but now a British citizen residing in Kensington – gave in 2010 to build the Blavatnik School of Government (BSG). The donation was among the largest in Oxford’s history.

The letter goes on to say: “We insist that [the University of Oxford] should stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates. It should carry out a new and independent due-diligence investigation with clearly defined ethical norms. Until then, politicians and other prominent public figures who endorsed the BSG or the joint awards with Alfa should withdraw their support.”

Blavatnik has also donated to Cambridge, giving a “multi-million pound” contribution earlier this year to provide funding for Israeli postdoctoral scientists to study at the university, via the Blavatnik Family Foundation, which he heads. The money funds “Blavatnik Fellowships”, the Fellows of which receive a £30,000 annual stipend for up to two years.

The creation of the Fellowship was criticised by the Cambridge University Palestine Society.

There was no mention of the University of Cambridge in the letter to the Guardian, nor any suggestion that the university’s fundraising procedures are at fault.
Blavatnik, who topped the Sunday Times Rich List in April with a personal fortune of £13.17 billion, was named along with fellow billionaire oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven. All three are members of Access-Alfa-Renova (AAR) consortium, which the letter said has “long been accused of being behind a campaign of state-sponsored harassment against BP”. The letter describes AAR as having “close ties with the Kremlin”. Blavatnik, Fridman and Aven, along with two others, held a collective 50 per cent stake as joint partners with BP in TNK-BP, which was Russia’s third-biggest oil company. 

The letter refers to a series of events in which BP staff were subjected to what company officials called “an orchestrated campaign of harassment”, which peaked in 2008 with a police raid on the TNK-BP headquarters, and the Russian government refusing to issues visas to 148 BP managers.

One of the letter’s signatories is Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, a writer and activist, and a former socially responsible investment officer for CUSU.

Speaking to Varsity, he said: “The letter aims to raise concerns about the relationship of Oxford University to particular companies and individuals, but it also hopes to ignite a broader debate around the ethics of university philanthropy.

“The signatories share a belief that universities should not be washing machines for the reputations of questionable individuals or institutions.

“We recognise that private donations can bring vital financial assistance to universities, but there is a moral price to philanthropy that has to be considered.”

A spokesman for Oxford said that the university “has a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving. The Committee to Review Donations conducts appropriate due diligence based on publicly available information. The University is confident in this process and in its outcomes.

“The University is a world leader for research and education at a time of growing global competition. Generous philanthropic donations help make this possible, supporting outstanding teaching and research discoveries of worldwide benefit.”

Blavatnik, who describes himself as a “major American industrialist”, is well-known as the owner of Warner Music Group, whose acts include Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Madonna and Wiz Khalifa. Born in 1957, he studied at Moscow State University before emigrating to the US in 1978, becoming a citizen in 1984.

He donates large amount of money philanthropically, including in 2013 giving $50m to Harvard and $10m to Yale to aid research into disease.

The University of Cambridge has come under criticism in the past for some of the donations it has accepted, including a £3.7 million donation made in 2012 by the Chong Hua Foundation as an endowment for a professorship.

In 2014, it was claimed that the donation was masterminded by Wen Ruchun, daughter of former Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, despite the university claiming that the donation had no links with the Chinese government.

“Universities lend prestige to those they engage with,” said Voskoboynik. “From tobacco executives to fossil fuel companies to governments with atrocious human rights records, there is a long history of universities accepting funding from institutions eager to cleanse their reputations.

“The problem is not one of specific dodgy donations. It is the absence of a rigorous, democratic and transparent system which can assess the ethicality of university investments, donations, awards and research relationships.”