Current Affairs

Humanities Centre architects offer answers as students censure Schwarzman

Representatives from Hopkins Architects visited Oxford twice in the past fortnight to speak about their plans for the new Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. Hopkins Architects were recently appointed to design the new £150m centre.

This week was their second visit, in which they spoke to academic, administrative, and management staff along with students from Oxford University. They unveiled drawings for the interior and exterior of the new centre, which will be located near Somerville College in Jericho. 

Vast in size, the building will be home to seven faculties, six libraries, and two lecture theatres each with over a capacity of 100. It will also boast a concert hall with a capacity of 500, a television studio, a rooftop garden, and a large assembly hall with a glass roof in the centre of the building. 

Tried in education

Hopkins Architects, though describing themselves as ‘generalists,’ highlighted their work at other universities. In the United States, they worked on structures at Brown University, Rice University, Harvard, and Yale. In Britain, they have designed wings of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and worked on a project at the University of Nottingham. 

At both their first and second visit, the architects and senior University staff, took questions about the project from the audience. 

These included questions on the accessibility of the building, its maintenance costs, and its architectural style. One academic pointed out that the drawings of the interior of the building – with Greek-inspired columns set next to more contemporary designs – displayed a style remarkably out of step with the rest of the modernist architecture of Oxford. 

A vague indication of a floor plan shown at the Humanities Centre ‘town hall’ meetings in July 2019.

Environmental credibility or hypocrisy?

By far the most pressing concern from students was that of the environmental effects of the building and of the environmental impact of its principal donor. 

At the March 3rd session, the Oxford University Students Union VP for Charities and Communities asked how the building would affect the City’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Ernest Fasanya, Director at Hopkins, and Andrew Barnett, Principal at Hopkins, responded by extolling their company’s environmental credibility, saying that that Hopkins had been leading on designing carbon efficient buildings since the 1990s and that their recent development at Yale was “the greenest educational building in the United States.” Hopkins declined to comment.

At an early February event, however, one student asked how this boast was “compatible with constructing a building for a man credited with driving deforestation in the Amazon.” The Intercept accused Blackstone, where Mr Schwarzman is the CEO, of endorsing the BR-163 highway through the Amazon to export grain and soybeans in 2019. An Oxford University employee intervened, saying that this was “not the appropriate forum” for such questions. 

The Amazon allegations relate to Hidrovias do Brasil, a logistics firm in which Blackstone is a minority investor. Directly, Blackstone owns 9% of Hidrovias, but Blackstone also owns 40% of Pátria Investimentos, where Blackstone has multiple board seats; Pátria owns 56% of Hidrovias. Blackstone told The Oxford Blue: “Claims that Hidrovias … built a road that caused deforestation in the Amazon are blatantly wrong and irresponsible. Hidrovias does not own, control, or have any interest in the road in question. The accusation that they are burning the rainforest to develop it is a complete myth.” However, on March 15th, 2019, Hidrovias agreed to pay for a feasibility study contemplating the paving of 50km of road. In its 2018 earnings release, Hidrovias partially blamed “problems faced by the BR-163 road conditions” for a 19% fall in its earnings.

Mr Schwarzman himself has spoken publicly about the threats from climate change and the need for the business community to take action to address it. Blackstone also noted the work their businesses did to support renewable energy sources, “including recent investments in a leading solar power company (Altus Power America) and a developer of battery storage solutions (such as Toronto-based NRStor), which will play a critical role in achieving renewable targets.”

The New York Public Library, constructed in 1911, was renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in 2008.

Vanity project?

Schwarzman, born in 1947, is CEO of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm he co-established in 1985. Students have criticised the firm for investing in practices which deforest the Amazon, and which promote fracking and oil pipelines. Oxford Against Schwarzman (OAS), a student group opposed to the donation, said that Blackstone has at least $7 bn invested in fossil fuels and has backed a number of pipeline projects and fracking ventures. Further criticised is his support for the President of the United States, Donald Trump, although Blackstone pointed out that Mr Schwarzman had worked with the past three Presidents of the U.S. on “initiatives ranging from Veteran hiring to recovery from the financial crisis,” adding that “with the current Administration, (Mr Schwarzman) led a bi-partisan group of business leaders to provide perspectives on the economy and helped advance U.S. interests in various global trade discussions.”

OAS have criticised the philanthropic donations of Schwarzman and other billionaires, portraying their gifts to institutions as ways of legitimising their behaviour. They have pressed the University to reconsider accepting the donation. Oxford University told The Oxford Blue that “we are confident in our donor review processes, which consider the ethical, legal and reputational aspects of a gift before we accept it.

One student asked how many times Mr Schwarzman’s name would appear on the building, saying that Schwarzman has previously donated $100m to the New York Public Library, where his name appears at least 5 times. Karen O’Brien, host and Head of Humanities at Oxford University, said: “there’ll certainly be the presence of his name on the building, but to be honest, we haven’t determined that, and to be honest we’re not representing this as being named all over the place.”

Condemned by the UN

At the meeting, another student highlighted the UN’s condemnation of the billionaire. “Last year, the UN wrote to Stephen Schwarzman, accusing him of violating his tenants’ human rights through Blackstone’s practices, including forced evictions and forced rent hikes. What kind of message does this building project send to the victims of those practices?”

Prof. O’Brien again intervened, arguing that this was an inappropriate forum, and that any such questions should be sent by email to Blackstone, and not put to the architects. Oxford University said: “we are always happy to answer questions about the Centre and we keep an FAQ on our website updated regularly, … (but) the architect is clearly not the right person to ask (questions about the gift). We are very happy to discuss these issues in another forum,” adding that “(we) previously held two open forums for all staff and students to ask general questions.” However, these ‘town hall’ meetings were held on July 2nd and July 18th, during the Long Vacation.

Blackstone said that they have “been part of the solution to the global housing crisis, contributing … significant capital and expertise to the sector.

“Since 2012, we have created over 64,000 new rental housing units globally and have invested over $3.5 bn in renovations. Specifically in the UK, our investment in Sage Housing is supporting the development of thousands of affordable homes, with the goal of eventually adding more than 20,000 affordable units.” Blackstone has also recently bought the UK-based student housing provider iQ for £4.7bn.

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

Ethics, reputation, and money

Such an answer will be cold comfort to those querying the ethics of Oxford’s acceptance of the billionaire’s £150m donation. One of the donation guidelines of the University states that they will not accept donations which “originates from or is associated with unethical activity.” Oxford Against Schwarzman argue that this issue has not been considered enough by the University, who they claim have ignored their concerns. In their view, the University is declining scrutiny through correspondence and in person.

OAS have 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.” They also criticised Blackstone for engaging in tax avoidance, citing an NHS care provider wholly owned by Blackstone, Independent Clinical Services (ICS). In an article to which Blackstone declined to comment, The Independent found that ICS potentially avoided £3m in tax in the UK in 2012. Blackstone sold the company in 2014 after buying it in 2010.

Oxford Against Schwarzman released an open letter against the Centre in September 2019. In it, they claim that “the ‘Schwarzman Centre’ will be built with the proceeds of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world.” 103 members of the university have signed it, including professors, lecturers, fellows, students and alumna. JCRs at The Queen’s College and Pembroke College, as well as the JCR Presidents at Lincoln and Trinity, have also signed. A number of Oxford city councillors and student societies have endorsed the letter too, such as Oxford University Labour Club and Common Ground Oxford.

Oxford University Students’ Union passed a motion requesting the full details of the vetting process for Schwarzman’s donation. The University responded that all donations are considered by the University’s Committee to Review Donations, and that this donation had passed the relevant thresholds of various guidelines which include ethical and reputational matters. “The University has very clear policies when accepting gifts that they should not influence academic activity or appointments and this gift is no exception. The donor will have no role in the selection of academic staff or students.” Oxford University also told The Oxford Blue that they offered a meeting to OAS with the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for External Affairs and Development and the Head of Humanities.

Blackstone, where Mr Schwarzman is the CEO, told The Oxford Blue: “Mr Schwarzman (is) proud to support the creation of the new Centre which was a major unmet need for the university and will benefit Oxford students, faculty, and the community for years to come.”

The building is scheduled to open in Autumn 2024.

Additional reporting from Leo Nasskau.