By this time next year, there could be a new chair of Jewish studies at Nottingham University, enabling students to learn about Jewish history, religion, culture and politics. If it happens, it will be largely down to the contribution of one man — award-winning business journalist Jeff Randall.
The question is not how Randall will be able to raise the necessary money for the chair — he does, after all, have a contacts book filled with just about every significant player in the business world — but rather, why.
Randall is not Jewish, yet he has set himself the target of raising £1.5 million for a project which is very close to his heart. In fact, the Sky News presenter and Daily Telegraph columnist thinks he is the ideal man for the job.
He is a graduate of Nottingham University, having studied economics there, and feels he owes much to the institution. Randall says: “I absolutely loved my time there. I went there as a working-class boy not really understanding life’s opportunities and the scope of what I could achieve. It was there I was able to work out what I was going to do and how I was going to achieve it.”
Oh, and he had fun too. “I had a full grant, no fees, I was doing a really good course, playing loads of football, partying, chasing pretty, posh women. I remember thinking to myself that at the end of this I’m going to get a degree. There was no catch.”
In 2006, the university got in touch to inquire whether he would accept an honorary degree. He was delighted. “I told the vice chancellor that if there was anything I could ever do for this place, then he should give me a call.”
When that call eventually came it was with a request that Randall use his business contacts to establish a new chair for the university. “They asked me what I thought of four chairs which they had proposed. Two of them were trendy rubbish which I threw out the window. One was credible but it wasn’t really me, and one was a chair in Jewish studies. Having done a little research on the subject it occurred to me that this was a unique opportunity.”
Randall was struck by the fact that, out of 130 universities in Britain there are so few chairs in Jewish studies. He agreed to look for funding before he had even asked how much needed to be raised — “perhaps a mistake”, he jokes.
However, he threw himself into the task. “This is a community which I have known all my life. I have a disproportionately large number of Jewish friends. My parents had stalls in east London markets and in those days there were lots of Jewish stall-holders. I got to know a large number of Jewish people. It wasn’t a conscious decision. My best friend at school was a guy called Jeffrey Fenton, who was Jewish, even though the school was in a non-Jewish part of Essex. The first girl I met at university was Jewish, too. It’s been a theme of my life.
“So it occurred to me that I might be the perfect person to raise money for this project and that not being Jewish might perversely be an advantage. I think when I approach people they are intrigued. Someone said to me that he thought the Jewish community might not have appreciated this campaign as much had it been someone from within the community raising the money.”
Randall acknowledges that 2009 may not have been the best year to approach businesspeople for large sums of money, but he has managed to raise £600,000 to date. He also feels that Israel’s incursion into Gaza in January might have made potential non-Jewish donors a little twitchy. But he thinks that the Israeli action put into sharp focus the need for a chair.
“Gaza puts into context what all this is about. We need a broader understanding of the contribution and positive aspects of the Jewish community. Of course, the negative aspects should also be examined, and I am sure they will,” he says, emphasising that although he is responsible for raising the cash, he will have no input into the content of courses.
What Randall brings to the party is his contacts book. He knows many prominent Jewish businessman, some of whom he counts as friends. “There were some people I knew that I could call on. As far as this project went, there was some low-hanging fruit to pick.”
His work has netted him some good results. “An anonymous donor gave £300,000 and there have been generous contributions from the likes of Gerald Ronson and Simon Wolfson.”
Although he says he has taken his foot off the gas a little during the summer due to heavy work commitments, he remains passionate about the project. “The contribution of British Jewry is there for all to see. It’s a community that has punched above its weight for more than 200 years. If you are interested in the make-up of modern Britain, why wouldn’t you be interested in the Jewish community?”
So would Randall have taken the course? He ponders for a moment. He thoroughly enjoyed studying economics which he says gave him a “veneer of financial literacy” and helped to facilitate his stellar career — he was business editor of the BBC before Robert Peston took over the role. “I think I would have been fascinated to take the course as a subsidiary,” he says.
As for the funding, he feels it is incumbent on him to deliver. “I want to be on time and on budget, unlike so many British projects I have covered,” he jokes.