In the summer of 2008, Lewis N. Walker, president of Lawrence Technological University, flew to Bahrain to deliver an honorary doctorate to Sheik Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. The country’s prime minister and crown prince was being honored for his support of a free-market economy and for “creating the infrastructure for an innovative and socially and environmentally sustainable society,” according to a Lawrence Tech press release. The crown prince honored the university at about the same time with a $3-million donation.
These days, Bahrain may not look so socially sustainable. Soon after the demonstrations in Egypt, thousands of people marched to Pearl Square in Bahrain’s capital city to protest the country’s absolute monarchy, and were met with a brutal government response that so far has left several dead and hundreds wounded.
Lawrence Tech sought to cultivate a relationship with an oil-rich Mideast state-one, Lawrence Tech officials point out, that seemed relatively progressive at the time. But recent protests and resulting crackdowns in the region have had a way of refocusing the Western public’s attention on the regimes there-even on governments thought to be permissive-and on the colleges that have ties in the region.
Those ties-particularly with Libya-have been especially damaging to the London School of Economics and Political Science, where early this month the director resigned amid controversy over funds the school had received from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The fallout there, and at other Western institutions, shows the risks colleges take to their reputations when they accept money from autocratic regimes, no matter how amicable the regimes’ relations with the West are at the time.
Critics from conservative and pro-Israel camps have long argued that Muslim countries are buying influence in academe. Now objections to foreign money are also coming from the left, emphasizing the human-rights issues and the unseemly relationships colleges might have with despotic governments or money that flows through them.
The scrutiny could widen beyond the region: Human Rights Watch, for example, is raising questions about the millions of dollars that American University received from Nigeria’s vice president between 2003 and 2007 for consulting in that country. The official, Atiku Abubakar, has been implicated in money-laundering schemes.
“Universities are supposed to be the bastions of liberal thought, and we believe that if these principles are to be applied to the academic side of the university, they should also be applied to the business side,” says Sam Westrop, a University of York student who is helping to organize a movement in England called the Clean Cash Campaign. It will pressure colleges to forgo contributions from countries that have dismal human-rights records, including China as well as those in the Middle East. “Any student, whether he is on the left or the right, would find horrifying the idea that we are selling our universities to these people,” says Mr. Westrop.
He and his peers in the campaign have been incensed about a professorship in Abrahamic faiths set up last month at the University of Cambridge and sponsored by Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, which is generally considered a progressive Middle Eastern country but has also met recent protests with violence. “What is reprehensible about the Oman case is that Cambridge signed this deal the same week that Oman shot dead protesters in the streets,” Mr. Westrop says.
Others see the growing connection between the Middle East and Western higher education as an opportunity to liberalize and democratize the region.
Financial Ties Have Grown
Of course, Middle East politics and concerns about the influence of money from the region are not new topics for higher education. But data collected by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that colleges’ financial ties to the region have grown significantly in recent years. Over the past 10 years, gifts from and contracts with governments, companies, and individuals in the region have amounted to more than $600-million.
Qatar, which sponsors Education City in Doha, has contributed about half of that, and the American colleges represented in Education City are among those receiving the most money from the region. But money from Saudi Arabia, for example, is also substantial, at more than $77-million.
Some colleges have been particularly successful at raising money from the region-like Georgetown University, which has received $165-million over the past 10 years, according to government figures, about a quarter of all Mideast money going to U.S. higher education. The university has significant programs in Muslim and Arab studies, with officials of Middle East countries acting as advisers and instructors, including Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, a former director of foreign intelligence for Saudi Arabia.
In 2005, Georgetown got a $20-million gift from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia for the university’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The gift (like similar gifts to Harvard University and the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh) has been a focus of criticism in some circles: For example, this month the online news site Jewish Ideas Daily contended that the prince had an agenda of burnishing the public image of Islam and Saudi Arabia, and that Georgetown’s center had been “staffed with reliable apologists.”
The recent focus on Mideast money in higher education is “an occasion for people who like to get into Arab and Muslim bashing,” says John L. Esposito, who founded Georgetown’s center and is a professor of religion, international affairs, and Islamic studies. He says he and his colleagues have written about totalitarianism and the need for reform in the Middle East, unhindered by concerns about the sources of donations to their work.
For a parallel, he points to the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, which is named for the Los Angeles businessman Haim Saban. “Look at Saban’s history-he is a militant Zionist,” Mr. Esposito says. “Does that mean that the people who run the Saban Center and the work of the Saban Center are skewed by his donation? I don’t make that accusation.”
Regarding the gift from Prince Alwaleed, Mr. Esposito says the Saudi royal is considered a progressive, who employs women in prominent positions and has dealings with Western billionaires like Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch. The professor points to a February op-ed essay by the prince in The New York Times that called for liberalization in the Middle East.
In terms of their politics, Mideast countries sit somewhere on a spectrum from permissive to repressive. But they all raise significant human-rights concerns, says Curt Goering, chief operating officer of Amnesty International USA, who worked in the region for many years. For example, Qatar may seem more liberal than other countries, but it has a troubling record of abuse of imported laborers, he says.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has long been a focus of the human-rights group for stifling free speech, conducting torture and grisly executions, mistreating women and homosexuals, and other issues. (Amnesty International has also criticized Israel for its interactions with Palestinians, and the United States for its stance on capital punishment, torture in the campaign against terrorism, and the detentions in Guantánamo Bay.)
The powder keg that has reignited this whole debate is Libya. Over the past few weeks, news reports have peeled back levels of influence and interaction among Colonel Qaddafi, the Libyan government, and Western higher-education institutions. Those revelations led to the investigations at the London School of Economics, where the director, Sir Howard Davies, stepped down amid questions about a contract to train Libyan officials and about a doctoral degree awarded ti Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, one of the dictator’s sons.
The controversy spread to the United States, where it was revealed that Michigan State University had a similar training program. A public-relations firm founded by Harvard professors had also been paid by Colonel Qaddafi to hire prominent academics-among them Benjamin R. Barber and Anthony Giddens-to help reform the public image of the regime and its volatile leader.
Everyone now seems to say, if they weren’t saying it before, that Colonel Qaddafi is a despot, even a madman. But how different is the situation with Libya and the London school from relations between other Middle East regimes and Western colleges?
According to Martin Kramer, not as different as one might think. Ten years ago, Mr. Kramer, a Middle East scholar who has been associated with pro-Israel perspectives, documented what he saw as undue influence of Mideast money on Middle Eastern studies in his book Ivory Towers on Sand. He argued that, among other things, the money led scholars in the field to ignore the threat of Islamic terrorism. (Critics called the book polemical and misleading.)
“Before, it was talked about as the corrupting effect of ‘oil money,'” says Mr. Kramer. “Now you have people, perhaps coming from a different perspective, who are saying that it is ‘blood money.'”
He believes that as financial ties have gotten deeper, with colleges operating satellite campuses in the region, the dangers have grown. “There is unacknowledged risk in all of these relationships,” he says. By operating in Qatar, for example, colleges “are enhancing the legitimacy of the soft power of the status quo. It’s an authoritarian state, dependent on foreign labor, where citizenship is vague, accountability is nonexistent, and reform is whatever the ruler thinks is enough to maintain himself in power.”
(In an e-mail message, a spokeswoman for Georgetown, which operates a foreign-service program in Qatar, cites the university’s “commitment to fostering discourse, dialogue, and understanding across a range of diverse perspectives.”)
Back on campuses in the United States, Mr. Kramer contends, Mideast money has a stifling effect. When revolutions overturned governments in Tunisia and Egypt, he saw academics laud the steps toward change there. But those countries give much less money to academe than, say, Saudi Arabia, where abuses are also publicly known. And when the protests moved to that country and were harshly put down, Mr. Kramer felt a conspicuous silence.
For example, he says, an announcement of a spring lecture series about authoritarianism in the Arab world at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies highlights “the unfolding developments in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Iraq,” but leaves out Saudi Arabia.
Osama Abi-Mershed, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and North African history, who is helping to organize the lecture series, says the reason Saudi Arabia is not mentioned is that the announcement was written before protests had flared up there. But he says a discussion of Saudi Arabian authoritarianism-and the United States’ role in supporting it-will definitely be part of the program. “We are eager for the United States to reconsider its alliances with these regimes,” he says, adding that he and his colleagues do not pay attention to where Gerogetown gets its money for their scholarship.
But that money, even if it is coming from progressives like Prince Alwaleed, is problematic, Mr. Kramer says. After all, Seif Qaddafi was once lauded as a reformer, too. “The question always is, What happens when push comes to shove in a crisis situation?” the scholar says. “It’s easy to be reformist when the going is good.” He also points to a CNBC interview this month with Prince Alwaleed, in which the prince said the Saudi people love King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, and noted that any change in the country should happen at a pace that Saudi Arabia determines.
Directors of Middle East-studies programs contacted for this article insist that their programs are not influenced by Middle East money. Some say their financial sources are more distant than they might appear. For example, Nezar AlSayyad, chairman of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, says the Sultan Program in Arab Studies is supported by a grant more than a decade ago from the Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Foundation, not from the Saudi royal himself, who is the crown prince.
At the University of Arkansas’s King Fahd Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies, Joel Gordon, the director, says he doesn’t even know who wrote the $20-million check in the mid-1990s to develop the program. (Bill Clinton, while still governor of the state, first courted the Saudi royals in 1991, but the Saudis did not make a big donation until after Mr. Clinton was elected president. A foreign-policy analyst at the time said that “it’s implicit that a natural political loyalty will develop” from the gift.)
From time to time, Mr. Gordon says, critics point to the name of the center, and academics there take pains to explain that they speak for themselves on the issues. Were the money offered today, he says, he and his colleagues might raise questions about it.
“Now what we have, for better or worse, thanks to Saudi Arabia, is a core faculty of people who know the region,” he says. “To an extent, there is a certain amount of discomfort. But on the other hand, you look at it as a title like a marker on a building, and if it is nothing more than that, you do you what you can do: You live with it.”