Keeping Oxford on Top

No institution prospers for 800 years unless it's good at adapting. So when it comes to the global challenges that face universities today, it might be tempting for Oxford to shrug and say: "What's new?" Tempting, but profoundly wrong.

Oxford enjoys and merits its pre-eminent position as a center of outstanding learning, teaching and research. However it's measured, Oxford ranks among the very best universities in the world. It is also the oldest English-speaking university and probably the most famous in any language. That status brings with it all the mixed blessings of celebrity. You don't educate 25 British prime ministers and more than 30 foreign political leaders over the generations without attracting a certain kind of attention. But fame can be a source of various ills, including complacency. And complacency is something Oxford cannot afford.

We at the university recognize and welcome the fact that we are living in an increasingly competitive international environment. We are used to the presence of strong schools in the United States. But now we're coming to terms with developing countries like China and India, where the creation of world-class universities is an important motor and symbol of rising national aspiration and achievement.

Of course, we're comfortable with competition. Oxford itself is a competitive place: our college system fosters rivalry as well as collegiality, and our academics are used to having to pit their wits against talented colleagues elsewhere.

What does give us pause, however, is the question of how best to keep funding the teaching and research on which Oxford's reputation rests. That's no mean feat. At present we face a $141 million annual gap between the state funds we get for teaching and what that teaching costs the university.

This funding gap is filled by college endowments, transfers from the Oxford University Press and the commercialization of university research. But we can't maintain the status quo. The university has exciting plans for the future that will require major new investment. That is why we just launched an unparalleled fund-raising campaign. The Oxford Thinking project aims to raise a minimum of $2.5 billion to invest in learning, teaching, improved salaries for our academics, research and infrastructure. This is the largest fund-raising campaign in European university history. We aim to transform attitudes as well as funds. The average proportion of Oxford alumni who give to their college or the university is now 11.6 percent. At Princeton, it's roughly 60 percent. We need to move in that direction.

We believe philanthropic giving on this scale will be needed to secure Oxford's vision of its future. We need to attract the most gifted students from around the world, regardless of their ability to pay. We need to be in a position to compete for the best scholars, tutors and researchers, and to provide the infrastructure and facilities needed to support world-class students, academics and cutting-edge research.

By the standards of Britain and Europe, Oxford is wealthy. But compared with its major transatlantic competitors, it is a pauper. Oxford's college and university endowments currently total about $6.8 billion (or $11 billion, if you include trusts and foundations to which the university has access and the average annual value of money transfers from the Oxford University Press). That may sound like a lot. But Harvard's endowment is about $35 billion, Yale's is $22.5 billion and Princeton's is $14.8 billion.

A pessimist might look at those figures and say there's no way Oxford can continue to compete. But that would be to mistake the true nature of the challenge we face. Oxford needs the resources to go on being Oxford—not to become some other school in some other place. It needs the resources to maintain its rightly admired college and tutorial system, which is the bedrock of our teaching excellence. And it needs the resources to fund the kind of multidisciplinary approach to major problems that an institution with the depth and range of our tradition is uniquely placed to provide.

You might think that now is the wrong time to go fund-raising. But philanthropic giving during economic downturns has historically proved surprisingly robust. We hope that will continue to be the case. But again, we're not being complacent. We know we have to work to show that Oxford deserves to hold a special place in the world's esteem. And to do that, we have to go on showing that Oxford can, and will, make a special contribution to the world's well-being.