Oxford University Vice-Chancellor Sir Colin Lucas Lectures at Oxford Chabad Society Shabbat Dinner


Isaac Meyers

St Peters College


The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Sir Colin Lucas, made a visit to the Oxford Chabad Society during Michaelmas term, for which 75 people, including Oxford dons and students, gathered in the Hannington Hall of St. Peter's College for a traditional Shabbat dinner. After Kiddush and a delicious dinner, the Vice-Chancellor, a French historian, was introduced by Oxford University Chabad Rabbi Eli Brackman, who thanked the Vice-Chancellor for his dedication to equality of education at Oxford.

The first issue that the Vice-Chancellor addressed was about equality of opportunities for students in Oxford. Sir Colin said that the purpose of a university like Oxford is to find out the true nature of things by no other means than reason and argumentation. Anyone who can contribute to that search should be welcome and there must be no exclusion on the basis of accidents of DNA. That is to say, he said, the fact that someone was born in Israel should never be used to exclude him or her from appropriate work at Oxford.

Sir Colin continued to speak about his area of expertise, the French Revolution. The problem of Napoleon and the Jews, he said, was as one of assimilation versus authenticity. He explained that in the spirit of the French Revolution, Napoleon offered the Jews complete equality in exchange for complete assimilation. This was not some charitable gesture, rather, as a raging anti-Semite, this was simply his way of getting rid of the Jews as Jews. It was the first time the Jews had been offered such a stark choice between the authenticity of Jewish separateness and the security of assimilation and many chose assimilation without considering the full implications of their choice. At that time authenticity was not considered a right and many gladly surrendered it for a measure of protection from Jew-hatred. The others who rejected it, inevitably angered both the Emperor and their more assimilationist fellow Jews.

The Vice-Chancellor, who spent time at the University of Chicago, then addressed the challenges facing the University of Oxford. He acknowledged that American universities could pay professors more than British universities. In the U.S., endowments are much richer and students pay tuition. But he charged that, first of all, American universities are heading toward a financial crunch. Already, Stanford has instituted a hiring freeze, and deficits are growing. Secondly, British e
émigrés could experience a culture shock and cautioned that America can be unfriendly compared to the UK.

On the other hand, he said, Oxford must make an effort to compete with American schools financially. This means charging fees. He pointed out that he paid his way through Oxford by five separate scholarships. Government support is not a right, and it is no longer enough. He said that if Oxford is not allowed to raise necessary money through fees, it will find its superiority in jeopardy. Those who can afford to go to America, will, and without tuition fees from wealthier students, Oxford will not be able to afford the brightest poorer students.

He then spoke about the uniqueness of Oxford University. He said that the university must learn how to define itself. In the current era, university can mean from Oxbridge to Apex Technical School. The government has tossed around the ideal of higher education for 50% of the population. The proliferation of higher education is a very good thing. But Oxford is dedicated to an older and higher ideal than the average higher education. Oxford must learn to defend its adherence to the old tradition and not be distracted by other models.


Rabbi Brackman closed this memorable occasion by thanking the Vice-Chancellor for coming to the Oxford Chabad Society Shabbat dinner and wished him many more years of success and good health in his position. Dr. Joshua Getzler, law lecturer at St. Hugh’s college, gave the final vote of thanks on behalf of the students and academics present.