The site in the Radcliffe Observatory where the new Centre is set to be constructed. Photo: Ed Nix.
Current Affairs

Architect selected for controversial Schwarzman Centre

The University of Oxford has announced that Hopkins Architects will design the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. The £150m building will be constructed in the Radcliffe Observatory in Jericho in north Oxford. Head of Humanities, Professor Karen O’Brien said that the university was “impressed by Hopkins’ track record in creating world-class arts and educational institutions, designing beautiful buildings in sensitive historic settings, and their commitment to creating environmentally sustainable buildings.”

It is hoped that the building will offer Oxford humanities state-of-the-art academic, exhibition, and performance spaces, a dedicated hub for engagement with schools, as well as a new humanities library. Hopkins Architects’ previous designs include Harvard University’s Smith Campus Centre, Yale University’s Kroon Hall, Glyndebourne Opera House, and the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome.

The project has generated much controversy, having been named after businessman Stephen A. Schwarzman following his £150m donation to the university. Schwarzman is considered a long-time friend and ally of US President Donald Trump. He was a major Trump donor and previously served as the chair of the president’s Strategic and Policy forum.

The Blackstone Group, which Schwarzman cofounded and currently runs as its CEO, is one of the world’s largest private equity firms and has also been controversial. Two firms owned by the group have been accused of partial responsibility for the burning of the Amazon rainforest, a Blackstone-owned NHS care provider has been accused of tax avoidance, and a hotel chain owned by the group was found to have given guest lists to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the United States without being served a warrant. UN officials have also criticised the group’s business practices for playing a part in the global housing crisis.

In September 2019, a letter signed by dozens of Oxford academics, staff, students, and local residents accused the Schwarzman Centre of being “built with the proceeds of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world”. It also accused Schwarzman of seeking to “legitimise” his practices through “association with universities like MIT, Yale and now Oxford.”

Commenting on the latest decision, the University said that “our aim is to create a building which becomes a treasured resource for the whole of Oxford, where anyone can come to enjoy high-quality performances, exhibitions and lectures”.

Responding to the University’s latest announcement, the Oxford against Schwarzman campaign said that “the irony of this should be lost on no one. The ‘Schwarzman Centre’ is being funded by the profits of environmental destruction,” adding that the Centre was a “piece of corporate whitewashing of exploitative and oppressive practices.”

At Student Council in the third week of this Hilary Term, the Student Union (OUSU) called for greater transparency around the Centre. In response, the University refused to release the full details of its vetting process for donations, citing the privacy expected by donors and raising concerns that it would damage their relationship with current and future donors. However, they stated that the University’s Committee to Review Donations had reviewed whether the donation was acceptable under University guidelines, which include legal, ethical, and reputational factors.

OUSU also expressed concern over Schwarzman’s ongoing influence on the Centre. Schwarzman will make two nominations (mutually agreed with the University) to each of the ten-member advisory councils to the Humanities Cultural Programme and the Institute for Ethics in AI. The University said that these councils of external experts would meet twice a year to offer high-level advice but would not make funding or policy decisions.

Oxford University has called the Humanities Cultural Programme “one of the founding stones” for the Centre. It is an active programme of public events to share research with as wide an audience as possible.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Ethics in AI will bring together humanities experts, technical developers, and users of AI in academia, business, and government to respond to the ethical questions raised by the rise of artificial intelligence. It’s first priorities including finding an Institute Director and running a seminar series to discuss ethical issues in AI.

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities is scheduled to open in Autumn 2024.

Additional reporting from Leo Nasskau.