I am going to assume that by now you have all heard about the… um… interesting news regarding British Prime Minister David Cameron, which was in yesterday’s papers. If you haven’t, then take a quick look here. Then come back. Quickly. Maybe have a shower first.
OK, so, my first thought about this story is “I wonder what kind of day Oxford’s PR folk are going to have?” Because, honestly, at most universities, the idea that some of your students – indeed, some of your most famous alumni – have at some time in the past been involved in on-campus porcine frottage would not be good news. The press would want to know what the university knew about these very un-kosher sexual rituals, and when did it know find out? Is it still going on? Etc. etc. And you’d have administrators running around campus worrying: what will this do to applications? What will this do to fundraising? Disaster! How quickly can we close down these clubs?
(This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether or not the story is true. I think there are some very good reasons to think it isn’t. The source, Lord Ashdown, has a well-known grudge against Cameron. And accusations of pig-fiddling are one of the oldest tricks in the political book. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thomson described how LBJ had, in his Texas days, told his campaign manager to accuse his opponent of carnal knowledge of sows. His campaign manager objected, saying they couldn’t call him a pig-f***** because no one would believe it. To which Johnson replied: “I know, but let’s make the sonofabitch deny it”.)
But no. On this question yesterday, silence. No blowback at all on Oxford. And I can guarantee you that no one – no one – at Oxford thought for a moment about next year’s application figures. The problem is that everyone knows that whatever else Oxford may be, it’s a playground for Britain’s ruling class. And let’s face it, the ruling class in Britain are known to get up to some pretty sordid stuff. So in the popular imagination, it’s already only a small step from membership in the Bullingdon club to what appears to be a barnyard version of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut. And not to single out Britain here: the same could more or less be said of Yale, with its various Skull and Bones-type societies. And nobody (well, not many, anyway) think the worst of them. Indeed, for a certain demographic, the presence of elite kinkiness probably increases an institution’s attractiveness.
But we can abstract from Oxford to say something more general about World-Class Universities, and it is this: being a world-class university means never having to worry about bad PR. Alumni in a bestiality/necrophilia story? No problem! Prestigious science faculty in bizarre twitter rant about how 14-year old Muslim children actually conspired to get themselves accused of bomb-making in order to get an invite to the White House? It is but a laugh. PR events that would swamp other institutions simply glide off World-Class universities’ backs.
Academic prestige matters. Built up over enough time it can shield you from pretty much anything. If you don’t think that’s a motivating factor in institutions’ prestige-seeking activities, you’re simply not paying attention.