Questions About BP Gift to Cambridge

Will there be "reputational damage" for being associated with the oil company?

June 24, 2010

The University of Cambridge could suffer "reputational damage" over its relationship with BP following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an academic has warned.

Gillian Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge, also raised concerns the energy giant could already be "engrafted into the academic fabric of the institution."

Professor Evans was responding to the announcement – made in a notice from the university’s General Board – that the BP Foundation had given Cambridge a donation of more than £4 million (or nearly $6 million). The university proposes to use the gift to set up a professorship in earth sciences named after geophysicist Dan McKenzie.

Speaking during a university “discussion” which allows academics to comment on proposals from the board, Professor Evans said there was a danger of the post "blurring altogether the boundary between commerce and academe."

She referred to plans allowing BP to nominate one of the fund managers and to suggest a name for the professorship’s board of electors. Professor Evans said lines may already be blurred by the existence of the BP Institute, a Cambridge research center set up in 2000 with an endowment from the oil corporation.

Pointing to the ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, she said: "There may be reputational damage in store for the university. That would be bad enough in any case, even if the connection was merely financial, but it is surely much worse if BP is engrafted into the academic fabric of the institution."

She added: "This BP proposal is for a much larger part of the camel of commerce to enter the tent than I believe is safe for the protection of academic freedom, the protection of reputation and the protection of the university’s charitable status."

James Jackson, head of the Cambridge earth sciences department, says in a statement that research independence for the proposed post was “guaranteed” and BP’s involvement would be “wholly beneficial”.

He said: "There is no desire, intention [on either side] or practical possibility that BP should control or interfere with the new professor’s activities."

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