On Praising Famous Men

With sonorous tones on the annual Founder’s Day in my school, the Reverend Sub-Dean clad in his academicals would slowly recite the long list of those who had contributed of their substance over the years. The Very Reverend Dean kept sober vigil from his stall. The roster was long because the annals were long, and the names were gratefully recited from the least to the greatest, ever mindful that Our Lord himself said that the last shall be first. In schools, however, the essence of that sequence does not apply to philanthropy. The first were announced as “Benefactors,” and the second group was made up of “Munificent Benefactors.” Finally and funereally, there were the “Most Munificent Benefactors.” They were not many but they were weighty: among them, John Jacob Astor, Eugene Augustus Hoffman, John Pierpont Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, shades from long before Silicon Valley. The rituals included a reading of Wisdom 44—“Let us now praise famous men, and the fathers that begat us”—and concluded with the hymn “For All the Saints,” the inference being that if these men had not officially been raised to the altars, they deserved a place in the hearts of us who adjourned to a very fine banquet which their bounty had made possible.

This meandering nostalgia kicked into high gear the other day when I read of an Oxford University politics professor who resigned from his academic post when the university accepted a benefaction from a Ukrainian-born Jewish billionaire, Sir Leonard Blavatnik. Sir Leonard’s gift of nearly $100,000,000 toward a school of government was one of the largest gifts ever given to the university in more than nine-hundred-years. The professor’s complaint was that Blavatnik was a Trumper. At least, he had given a petty million dollars to defray the costs of President Trump’s inauguration. In fact, he made no donation to the Trump presidential campaign: the money was given to a bipartisan congressional committee responsible for organizing inauguration events. Among his achievements, the immigrant Blavatnik is the richest man in the United Kingdom, excluding the Royals whose ephemeral holdings are known only to the King of Heaven. Out of his $22 billion, his grant to Oxford is scarcely a tithe, although by any human standard it makes him a Most Munificent Benefactor, and a still living one at that. But his generosity is an irritating pebble in the shoe of Professor Bo Rothstein. And as solons have said, academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so small.

In our days of selective indignation, inconsistency is very much dismissed as a hobgoblin.  Feelings drown facts, and so those who—to use a nice neologism—indulge “virtue signaling” express no complaint against benefactions from blatantly compromised sources. For example, the University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies have received without objection more than £105 million in donations from the Saudi royal family, the Malaysian government and even the bin Laden dynasty, among others. In 1997, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies received £20 million from the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. In 2005 the university received £1.5 million from the United Arab Emirates’ Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahayan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation. Sheik Zayed’s previous endeavors included establishing an anti-Israeli think tank; and even Cambridge—“the other place” in Oxonienese—welcomed £1.2 million from the Zayed foundation. Acceptance of benefactions to universities from the Iranian regime have a more lurid history, but on the whole it implicates self-styled social progressives in camaraderie with ethno-religious legal systems that subjugate women and toss from rooftops people whose sexual appetites they disdain.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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On the other hand, histrionic “identity politics” in our schools were vivid in recent demands of Rhodes Scholars from Africa to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from his Oxford niche. The Chancellor, Lord Patten, rejected their petition and one scholar supposedly of Oriel College, reminded them that they would not be in Oxford spouting their nonsense had it not been for riches that Rhodes left which, in ways he himself did not foresee, enabled Bantus and other tribesmen to rise from fragile huts in hope of becoming noble leaders of a great continent.

Much, or most, of this is the consequence of the abandonment of universities to ideology. This should not surprise those who predicted that the usurpation of reason by the tyrants of subjectivism would have dire consequences. Even to say this may induce the sensitive collegiate “snowflakes,” formed by professors who are the flotsam of the Woodstock Generation, to withdraw catatonically into “safe spaces” funded by subterfuge from the endowments of venerable benefactors munificent and most munificent.

If academic politics are small enough to be ludicrous, they remain pungent. The University of Oxford never gave an honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher, one of their own and a hard working recipient of an honest degree, and whose acuity forced state-supported universities to move from elegant passivity to American-styed fundraising—allowing British universities both ancient and modern to discover reluctantly their immense potential. The same Oxford gave an honorary degree to the university dropout President Clinton, whose insouciant peregrinations in Moscow and elsewhere meant that he, as Dr. Spooner might have said, “Tasted a whole worm.”

Since we are indulging in nostalgia, I reflect upon Dartmouth College, whose northernmost location in New England enabled that alma mater to keep giving degrees throughout the Revolution. Her loyalties also were compromised by the fact that she had been chartered and beneficed by King George III, who disdained the audacity of the Continental Army. In recent days, exactly parallel to the peacock strutting of Professor Rothstein (author of the line “I’ve never had so much applause in my life”), a Dartmouth professor appeared on various television programs condoning the riotous violence of the masked “Antifa” anti-Fascist Fascists. Professor Mark Bray is the author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and visiting professor at the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth. Gender research in the cold forests of New England must have its challenges but it evidently is remunerative. His call for censorship and violence was supported by a petition signed by one hundred faculty members, all of whom are at least remote beneficiaries of munificent benefactors including a king, despite their varying degrees of contempt for capitalism.

Now, the president of any so-called “Ivy League” institution risks his very highly paid, if increasingly insignificant, place on the national scene, if he contradicts the spirit of the age. Nonetheless, even President Philip Hanlon drew the line between sanity and its opposite:

As an institution, we condemn anything but civil discourse in the exchange of opinions and ideas. Dartmouth embraces free speech and open inquiry in all matters, and all on our campus enjoy the freedom to speak, write, listen and debate in pursuit of better learning and understanding; however, the endorsement of violence in any form is contrary to Dartmouth values.

President Hanlon brings to mind Miss Millicent Fritton, Alastair Sim’s character in the St. Trinian’s films that began in 1954. St. Trinian’s is a boarding school for young ladies given to delinquency and presided over by a beclouded late-Edwardian headmistress. As the anarchic students bet on horses and turn their chemistry class into a distillery, she tries to make the best of a bad thing while muttering about her African violets. That image is the lot of all academic officials trying to protect their comfortably feathered nests from epistemologically and morally deprived cuckoos who style themselves intellectuals.

As a sideline observer, and one who confesses to having received degrees from the aforementioned schools, (and I will not deny that I dearly love them), my one instinct is to prompt those who neglect the heritage of their benefactors, albeit weak in the many ways that men are weak, to cease living off their munificent and even most munificent endowments, and to chart their own course which, if history gives witness, is the straight and narrow path to oblivion. As for now, in my reveries, I join my voice to those Deans and Sub-Deans who praised famous men.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Oxford.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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