When educators who are identified as professors from prestigious universities testify before Congress, write op-eds, and appear on public or media sponsored panels, most readers and listeners value their words more than those of others less credentialed. Perhaps this is especially the case when the subject is foreign affairs, which — without warrant — is generally treated as an arcane subject requiring considerable specialized study to fully comprehend.
For this reason, concern is growing that our universities, especially those highly regarded, have been receiving very large sums of cash from abroad, often from countries or citizens of countries which hold positions antithetical to our interests or engage in conduct shocking to our values. This matter is receiving critical attention from both sides of the political spectrum.
The fact of these large gifts is no secret. 20 USC 1011-Sec. 1011f requires colleges and universities to disclose foreign donations and contracts valued at $250,000 or more, and the Department of Education annually posts them online on its website.
Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Scott Carlson on the subject (subscription only). Reviewing the latest such report from the DOE (the next is due next month), he notes:
Over the past 10 years, gifts from and contracts with governments, companies, and individuals [in the Middle East] have amounted to more than $600 million.
Qatar is the largest contributor, donating almost half of the total. It is followed by Saudi Arabia, which donated $77 million. I suspect that with the downturn in the American economy these large foreign gifts are being more aggressively sought out and constitute a larger and larger portion of university revenues.
How much of this is known to alumni and students is unclear. If you recall, the videos of the NPR fundraisers (both former university fundraisers) and the make-believe Arabs revealed that they were very willing to do what they could to keep the proposed gift anonymous. They said they had done this before, and even mentioned an $80 million dollar gift — apparently from a domestic giver with a feminist bent — to a number of universities which had successfully been kept under wraps by all the schools concerned. I suspect that a great deal of the foreign funding, though reported as the law requires to the federal government, may not be fully known in university communities.
In any event, word is getting out. As Carlson observes, the initial complaints came from conservatives and those who support Israel, but now the left — which is expressing concern about human rights issues — has joined in. Some of the most well-publicized of these disputes here and in the UK involve unseemly conduct on the part of university officials, but incidents which undermine scholarship are not as well-known.
We may know of Lawrence Tech’s grant of a doctorate to Bahrain’s prime minister, who in turn donated $3 million to the university; or we may know of the scandal at the London School of Economics — the university trained Libyan officials and granted an apparently unearned doctorate to one of the dictator’s sons. (Subsequently, it was learned that Michigan State was also training Gaddafi’s men, and prominent Harvard professors — through a public relations firm of their creation, Monitor — were hiring professors in part to burnish the dictator’s image.) However, although these incidents have had higher profiles, I believe these acts are far less insidious and detrimental to our interests and to the universities’ basic functions than is so much else that this largesse creates on a regular, lower-profile basis.
First, these gifts cannot but distort the research and classroom work of a university. Professors, universities, and the entire university food chain (graduate students, assistant professors, students) all know who has money, and naturally gravitate to those studies and projects for which there is funding. If there is no money to support research in a given area, there can be no fellowships or grants to sustain the scholarship. So teachers read, teach, and write about topics for which funding is available, and students make such topics the object of their study. Time is a scarce resource even in the groves of academe, and smart people do not wish to waste theirs pursuing subjects for which there will be no ability to finance and publicize their endeavors.