The "dreaming spires" mirage of Oxford University--made real for many by the TV series "Brideshead Revisited"--is of a place wallowing in wealth. Refectory tables groan with antique silver; rubicund dons guzzle vintage port from crystal goblets; dandified undergraduates squander family fortunes on expensive cars and rakehell jaunts to London.
All of those things still happen occasionally at Oxford, but the university, as an institution, is far from rich. In fact it is hard up--down on its uppers and ready to extend a dignified begging-bowl.
Its 35 colleges--jealously autonomous institutions--have their separate endowments and some own great tracts of land and farms. But the university, the bonding element of the colleges, depends on state funds for at least half its budget (the rest comes from gifts and benefactions), and Margaret Thatcher's government has dramatically cut them back--about 25% since 1981.
No Spare Funds
As a result, some professorial chairs and lectureships are vacant. The library system is scarcely able to keep up with demands made upon it. And no spare funds are available for two institutes under slow construction. If the university were to do nothing, says Sir Patrick Neill, Oxford's urbane vice chancellor, it would have no capital resources left within four years.
So this most-enduring of British institutions has decided to do what some American universities have been doing for decades: try to tap private sources for money. It's looking to America for a good bit of the help. And logically enough, it's appointed an American as chief fund-raiser.
He is Henry Drucker, a 45-year-old native of Rutherford, N.J., who as chair of an academic committee helped steer Edinburgh University in Scotland through the first Thatcher cuts in 1981. When the Oxford job was advertised, he applied and was selected.
"The first thing I had to do," he says, "was to convince Oxford that it needed to think of a major fund-raising campaign of the dimensions of the American university campaigns. The standard British 'appeal,' as they call it, for patching holes in roofs was inadequate.
"The opportunities for Oxford, because of its international reputation, were so great that it could do much more than that. The dimension of our problem is that we compete for staff and other intellectual resources with Stanford and UCLA and other American universities. Stanford at present is trying to raise $1 billion-- that's the dimension of the problem."
These days, Neill and Drucker are often in the field--a kind of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of fund-raising, their financial target not yet firmly set.
In July, they were in Tokyo. "What we believe is that corporations will want their up-and-coming executives to have an understanding of how the West works, how the Western mind operates, and will be interested in the growth, the history of ideas, Western philosophy and modern politics," Neill says.
In February, Neill is going to Australia for a meeting of Commonwealth vice chancellors. "It so happens that there will be a big reunion of the Rhodes Scholars in Canberra in connection with the Bicentennial celebrations of the foundation of Australia," he notes with satisfaction. "So it's quite good timing."
And then there is the big thrust in America, including a visit to Los Angeles and a luncheon speech by Neill 10 days ago to a group consisting largely of Oxford graduates. There are 7,000 Oxonians in this country, and the Rhodes Scholars, especially, are a power base for the campaign. But Drucker emphasizes, "We are not only going to graduates of Oxford for money. We are hoping to capitalize on the respect for Oxford around the world--every bit as much among those who are not Oxford graduates as among those who are."
Drucker emphasizes that he takes a diffident second place to the 61-year-old Neill in the work of propaganda on Oxford's behalf. So it has fallen to the cool, reserved--many would say "typical"--Englishman to spearhead (he would wince at the word) a campaign which has to compete with the showmanship and panache of American fund-raisers.
He is a tall, patrician figure with the slightly austere manner of a head prefect, a quiet line in gentleman's suiting and a fastidious Oxford accent. In Who's Who he gives as his hobbies "music and forestry." (He was not delighted with the piped-in music in the lobby of his hotel, the Bel Age: "It cheapens the music--little chunks of the Archduke Trio as you go out.") But he is not a dull dog.
He seasoned his L.A. speech to the Oxford graduates with a subtle, at times withering, irony and with those Oxford anecdotes that are common currency, almost shibboleths, wherever two or three Oxonians are gathered together.
He recalled, for instance, a story about former Prime Minister and then-Oxford Chancellor Harold Macmillan, "a most brilliant, witty speaker." At his 90th birthday party, Macmillan got up and made a speech.