OWe are assured by officials at Linacre College, Oxford that heaps of due diligence that means it’s fine for this proudly enduring establishment to rebrand itself, in return for £155m, after a Russian-educated Vietnamese airline billionaire, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao. The Ministry of Education is now also satisfied.
But still, you can’t help but wonder: did anyone Google “bikini airline”, as this donor’s Vietjet is widely known, and somehow missed the contribution of women’s calendars and aerial burlesque to his wealth? “We don’t mind people associating the airline with the bikini image,” Thao said. said. “If it makes people happy, then we’re happy.”
Assuming the university is also happy with the bikini money, did its investigations extend to human rights abuses in Vietnam, where Thao chairs a company described (by MP Julian Lewis) as “extremely close” to the government – and did she find this information compatible with Linacre’s statements? transformation into Thao College, the academic version of his personalized license plate?
If so, that’s fabulous news for anyone with a spare £155million who has ever imagined being an Oxford college but concluded that a perceived association with abject sexism, repression politics or contributions to the climate emergency could make investing in a Johnson peerage simpler. Oxford colleges, like Linacre defensively pointed out, have sometimes been renamed – but perhaps not after philanthropists who use degrading images of young women to boost their profits. As the sale of Linacre also illustrates, it would be a shame if recent squabbles over people and objects to colonial associations were confused, by donors with enough money to appease cultural sacrifice, with an unwavering attachment to the tradition. Oxford Chancellor Lord Patten who recently condemned some students removal of a royal portrait as “offensive and obnoxiously ignorant”, has apparently yet to denounce the disposition of the Renaissance scholar Thomas Linacre – a contemporary of the original Faust – whose extent of college learning is still announces as his role model.
The snub went less well in Wigan, where Linacre served as rector for four years from 1520. The disrespect for the man from Wigan doesn’t stop there either. “The College will seek suggestions from the benefactor to develop a new crest and find new colors appropriate for the College,” reads the portion of the Thao agreement titled “Gift Promotion.” It adds: “The benefactor may use the name and crest of the College for publicity purposes if agreed in advance.”
So even if it’s too late for Hugh Hefner, there could hardly be a better time to, say, mermaids, which has met with some resistance in the UK, to consider an offer of a name change to, if not Balliol or Magdalen, certainly one of the younger colleges of this increasingly broad-minded university. Already Oxford’s sweeping exercises in philanthropic acceptance – whereby its learning centers can be named after, say, a Trump-backing private equity plutocrat or one chemical company notorious for its pollution – must have given many unloved asset custodians ideas on how to refresh its reputation. But, as Linacre completes its reinvention as, essentially, Faust College, even more implausible deals never seemed so attainable.
Assuming approval by a privy council headed by Johnson loyalist Mark Spencer, Thao’s OK would soon entitle him to a deeper involvement in the life of the college: “The Benefactor may, subject to the approval of the College, propose ‘Thao’ or other parents [sic] name of buildings, facilities, scholarships or fellowships funded directly by the donation or proceeds from the donation. In return, Vietjet’s parent company, Sovico, promises to be net zero by 2050. The agreement states: “The responsibility for the creation and implementation of the net zero plan rests exclusively with the benefactor.
The involvement of Sovico, a company engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels, was, alongside Vietjet’s bikinis and Linacre’s purge, the most prominent objection after the deal was announced at COP26 in presence of the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Pham Minh Chính. Linacre director Nick Leimu-Brown responded that the mild impact on Sovico’s strategy “will be significantly greater than any impact we can have through our own net zero progress.” They will be able to verify that in 27 years.
On the Vietnamese side, there have been some surprise that Thao should rather immortalize himself in one of the richest universities in the world than invest in his own country. It’s also unclear why, since Thao studied and made her first fortune in the former USSR, she hasn’t tried to rename her alma mater, the Russian Plekhanov University of Economics in Moscow. After Cop26, Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, repeatedly raised parliamentary questions on the merits of the deal, given Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record, receiving no adequate response.
To be fair to Linacre’s diligence, the agreement was signed before Linacre’s imprisonment. Nguy Thi Khanh, an internationally recognized environmental leader who, in fact, would make an excellent figurehead for any climate-conscious organization that got tired of its old name. Three other activists have also been imprisoned in what appears to be the orchestrated harassment of activists whose aims Linacre still ostensibly shares.
Of course, Linacre also could not have anticipated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a crime that might seem incidental to the college’s current ambitions, were it not for Sovico’s “excellent relations” with the Vietnamese government which refrained from condemning the invasion. Perhaps when the representative of Thao’s college, chairman of a new advisory council (“to report to the benefactor on the impact of the donation”), is seen around the place, Thao’s students will have a chance to confirm that their benefactor takes a more principled vision.
Alternatively, there may still be time for Linacre to reconsider or scale back a deal that now stands out only for being so completely bogus. Is its promised wealth and new graduate center worth an eternity as Bikini Airlines College? Even Dr. Faustus of Marlow reconsidered – however, as many Linacre students will appreciate, too late.
Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist
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