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.

Second, can one doubt that there will be a tendency not to offend the donors? It’s possible that Stephen Walt (professor of international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government), a man who was hired to tart up Gaddafi in the public view, might have written this drivel on his own without the money, but one doubts it despite his strong anti-Israel, pro-Arab views:

First, although Libya is far from a democracy, it also doesn’t feel like other police states that I have visited. I caught no whiff of an omnipresent security service — which is not to say that they aren’t there — and there were fewer police or military personnel on the streets than one saw in Franco’s Spain. The Libyans with whom I spoke were open and candid and gave no sign of being worried about being overheard or reported or anything like that. The TV in my hotel room featured 50+ channels, including all the normal news services (BBC World Service, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, etc.) along with contemporary U.S. sitcoms like “2-1/2 Men,” shows like “Desperate Housewives,” assorted movies, and one of the various “CSI” clones. A colleague on the trip told me that many ordinary Libyans have satellite dishes and that the government doesn’t interfere with transmissions. I tried visiting various political websites from my hotel room and had no problems, although other human rights groups report that Libya does engage in selective filtering of some political websites critical of the regime.  It is also a crime to criticize Qaddafi himself, the government’s past human rights record is disturbing at best, and the press in Libya is almost entirely government-controlled.  Nonetheless, Libya appears to be more open than contemporary Iran or China and the overall atmosphere seemed far less oppressive than most places I visited in the old Warsaw Pact.

Benjamin R. Barber, then a senior fellow at Demos (a New York-based think tank focused on the theory and practice of democracy) and now at Rutgers, was also hired by the Harvard-related group to buff up the Libyans. He wrote this bit of treacle:

Written off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world.

On the other hand, Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School didn’t act as a Gaddafi promoter. Upon returning from a trip to Libya, he disclosed his consulting arrangement with Monitor and reported critically on what he saw there. It could well be that the funders — like those who fund two Georgetown University centers run by Professors John L. Esposito and Michael Hudson, two men instinctively critical of the U.S. and Israel and indulgent of the Arabs — are often merely putting money in the pockets of those who already take their side, and are not buying their approval. Mutual attraction, not prostitution, may explain the grants on one side and the product on the other.

Still, by funding these professors the donors are assuring that these professors gain power and prominence within their university and the academic community.

This problem is not confined to foreign gifts. Those who follow the latest politically popular trends — like global warming — get funded by the government; those academics skeptical of it do not. Similarly, when the Annenberg Foundation funds went from that foundation, through Obama, to Bill Ayers, Ayers’ power within the University of Illinois undoubtedly increased, along with his sway in the national educational establishment itself. Still, the notion of foreign governments, especially those who pose national security issues for this nation, buying up or paying off like-minded professors or directing undue scholarship towards a benign reading of matters in their interest is especially troubling.

Aside from monitoring what information is made public, is there anything else that can be done? I think a first step would be for universities to adopt a code of conduct, requiring professors who speak publicly before Congress, in the media, and before public audiences to disclose any foreign funding of which they are the recipients. This hardly seems to be asking a great deal. I believe it is a policy in ordinary use respecting scientific research — I can’t see why this policy merits objection from academia. Increasingly the public is used to and demanding transparency in all our institutions — why should universities and those who run them and work there be exempt? They have a unique ability to shape public opinion, and with that comes a special obligation to be candid about who’s footing the bills.