'Oxford' events firm under fire

Critics say a US company charging £1,500 per participant for Oxford- based conferences is trading on the institution's name. Melanie Newman reports.

A conference organiser has been criticised for cashing in on Oxford University's prestige.

Oxford Round Table (ORT), which runs five-day conferences at Oxford colleges, at a cost of $2,940 (£1,500) per participant, has been accused of failing to make clear the nature of its events.

The ORT is suing an Oxford University research fellow who criticised its academic pretensions.

The organisation's website, which features photographs of Oxford University buildings, says that "two decades ago" it "held its first meeting ... at St Peter's College in the University of Oxford" - attended by Oxford's vice-chancellor and chancellor - and that it maintains an office at Harris Manchester College.

A disclaimer on the ORT website says the organisation "does not have a formal academical (sic) connection" with the university, but that it has a "special relationship" with Harris Manchester, Lincoln, St Anne's and Pembroke colleges, Oxford.

An invitation from the ORT that was sent to academics in December 2007, which did not contain the disclaimer, includes pictures of Oxford University buildings and is signed by Andy Boyle, "Research Fellow, St John's College, University of Oxford".

An online discussion of ORT events on the Chronicle of Higher Education website has elicited over 700 posts.

One post says: "There is not the slightest indication that this is NOT part of Oxford University."

Another post says: "The invitation (I received) did not try to dispel in any way a connection with Oxford University ... Now that I've looked into it ... I can see that it was not exactly the professional conference I initially thought."

Posters suggested that US institutions were being persuaded to pay for academics' attendance at ORT events because they attach so much importance to the link with Oxford University.

A recent press release on Tennessee State University's website says: "For the past 17 years, the University of Oxford in London (sic) has brought scholars to the campus ... at an annual round table. This year, a Tennessee State professor will be among them." US academics have also referred to ORT invitations on their CVs.

Posters to the forum also questioned the selection process. One recalled being invited to an event on an issue outside the poster's expertise. Another suggested the events were "vanity conferences".

As well as criticising the ORT on the Chronicle's forum, Sloan Mahone, a research fellow at Oxford University, sent an e-mail to an academic who had been invited to an ORT event.

In that e-mail, she warned of a danger that US academics would wrongly cite presentations made at ORT as "given at Oxford University" on their CVs, as well as making stronger criticisms.

The ORT sued Dr Mahone for libel in Kentucky, where the firm is registered, but the court dismissed the case on grounds of lack of jurisdiction. The ORT is now taking legal action in the UK.

A spokesman for Oxford University provided a generic statement that says the events are organised by a "group external to the university", which hires out college premises on a commercial basis. The events are "not, as such, authorised or endorsed by the university".

Ralph Waller, principal of Harris Manchester, said that although the college provided the ORT with an office, "we don't run the ORT in any sense". He said that as far as he was aware, all ORT participants were satisfied.

"I haven't seen all their advertising so obviously I don't know exactly what goes on," he added.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

OXFORD ROUND TABLE RESPONDS TO CRITICISMS

A statement provided to The Times Higher by Karen Price, assistant co- ordinator of the Oxford Round Table, reads:

"Our invitations only refer to the college at which we plan to have a Round Table.

"In the letter, we refer to the college in its corporate, chartered, name. We do not and have never indicated that this is a University of Oxford event, only a college event.

"Concerning the 'disclaimer', we use the exact wording that was provided to us by the legal office of the University of Oxford several years ago.

"We send out invitations based on criteria including authorship of papers, expressed interest of the invitee, type of higher education institution and recommendations of ORT alumni.

"We invite a sufficient number of persons ... to constitute a small enough group for productive dialogue. We do not mass advertise.

"Hundreds of people have attended the Round Table over a period of 20 years and have found it to be a very worthwhile academic experience ...

"We are not aware of any criticisms by US academics except from a few nameless bloggers ... These persons have never revealed their identities, 'academics' or not."

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