Beware of autocratic regimes bearing gifts: spotlight illuminates dark side of donations

Institutions warned to take care when accepting cash from overseas. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 10, 2011

“The largest philanthropic gifts in the UK go to education and the number of our donors is rising steadily, so universities must expect to be in the brightest spotlight.”

These are the words of Joanna Motion, vice-president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, and they will ring true for the London School of Economics. It has certainly felt the full glare of media attention in recent weeks as all eyes turned to its links with Libya, culminating in the resignation of its director, Sir Howard Davies, last week.

Sir Howard said he had made a mistake when he advised the LSE’s council to accept £1.5 million from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, and a personal error of judgement in accepting the British government’s invitation to be an economic envoy to the country. But while newspaper headlines have claimed that the institution has “sold its soul”, some commentators have described the vehemence of the criticisms as unreasonable.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, pointed out that while Libya had “a chequered history” when the donation was accepted, “governments all over the world, including ours, were doing deals there”.

“Arguably, (the LSE was) not to know then what a monstrous regime it would become. The judgement that needs to be made is how accepting a donation will look in hindsight, and I’m not sure that that is a reasonable judgement to ask university leaders to make.”

He said Sir Howard’s decision to stand down showed impressive integrity, and he noted that no other leader in the academic, business or political worlds had done the same over Libya.

“He has set a standard, but it seems that standards in higher education - at least in some parts - are different from those elsewhere.”

So what are the processes universities should use when considering whether to accept donations from overseas?

Leif Wenar, chair of ethics at King’s College London and co-editor of Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy (2010), said that such decisions could affect the character of a university and the reputation of its members, so the views of staff and students should carry great weight. Donations must be transparent and come with “no strings attached”, he added.

According to Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, institutions need to ask themselves whether they are entering into agreements with states or individuals connected to states known for human rights abuses, censorship, curtailing civil society and failing to separate the judiciary from the interests of the elite.

“This information is freely and widely available…There are no excuses,” he added.

The argument that it was acceptable to take “no strings” donations from dubious sources was “weak and naive”, he said.

“By accepting donations from autocratic regimes, a university is wittingly contributing to a regime’s soft power by helping to build its credibility,” Dr Davidson said. “Moreover, if a public relationship can be secured with an esteemed university, a regime can use this to claim (domestic) legitimacy.”

He added that “even if a donation comes without strings, it will invariably have a ‘chilling effect’ in the university, as senior academics will be keen to maintain good relations with the regime, while junior academics will be reluctant to criticise.”

Thomas Pogge, professor of philosophy and international affairs at Yale University, said this was why cuts to public funding for higher education were so pernicious.

“They make it ever more difficult for universities - ferociously competing with one another - to turn down money from tainted sources,” he said.

Risky financial rewards may damage reputation and recruitment

The furore over links between the London School of Economics and the Libyan regime demonstrates the need for universities to develop clear processes for reviewing “risky” donations, according to an expert in higher education crisis management.

Peter Reader, co-author of Weathering the Storm: Crisis Management in Higher Education (1999), said the scandal showed that “at each institution there needs to be a clear process for reviewing what might be termed…a risky source of contribution”. But he added: “In fairness to the LSE, if you think back two or three years to the way Libya was being lauded almost by the government, it would not have set off too many warning bells about this being a risky relationship.”

With millions of young people across the Arab world in sympathy with burgeoning democratic movements, UK universities that have close ties to ruling elites may find student recruitment from the region is damaged.

But Mr Reader, director of marketing and communications at the University of Portsmouth, said that universities changed their relationships with apartheid South Africa after sustained criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, and suffered little long-term damage to their reputations.

Barry Taylor, former director of communications at the University of Bristol, said: “It seems to me the LSE has already done everything it could be expected to do in these circumstances. The resignation of the leader of the institution seemed to strike the right chord with all the commentators.

“It also immediately committed to conduct an independent inquiry, which fits in well with the zeitgeist.”

Libya relationship under review

The London School of Economics’ council has commissioned an independent inquiry by Lord Woolf into the affair. The issues he is set to investigate include:

• The agreement to accept a £1.5 million donation from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation in 2009, £300,000 of which has been received to date

• The acceptance of $50,000 (£30,700) for Sir Howard Davies to advise Libya’s sovereign wealth fund in 2007

• The academic authenticity of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s PhD thesis

• An agreement to train Libyan civil servants, a contract worth £2.2 million

Libya links: delegations, dialogues and deals

A vice-chancellor visited Libya with a delegation of senior UK academics as recently as last year to discuss strengthening ties with universities in the repressive state, it has emerged.

Keith Burnett, head of the University of Sheffield and chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, visited the country in April with colleagues including Dominic Shellard - now vice-chancellor of De Montfort University - to “discuss opportunities for supporting the development of Libya’s higher education infrastructure”.

Sheffield has links with two Libyan universities - Omar Al Mukhtar University and Al Fateh University - thanks in part to Sheffield alumnus Sir Vincent Fean, who was British ambassador to the country from 2006 to 2010.

In a statement to staff last year, Professor Burnett said Sheffield planned to receive a “large number” of PhD students from Libya through its agreement with Omar Al Mukhtar and was about to discuss a long-term agreement for student recruitment.

Professor Burnett’s visit to the country is by no means unique.

In 2003, Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and current president of Universities UK, and Mu’ammer Gaddafi shook hands on a plan for British universities to educate Libyan academics. An Exeter spokeswoman said this week that the plan was “never pursued” and no money had changed hands.

In a more recent initiative, last year a consortium of five institutions led by Manchester Metropolitan University carried out an audit of nursing in Libya and held “exploratory talks” with its Ministry of Health to consider training students.

According to the other institutions involved - Queen Margaret University, Teesside University, the University of Glamorgan and Liverpool John Moores University - the project failed to get off the ground.

Liverpool John Moores has already been in the spotlight over proposed contracts in Libya worth £1.3 million, including a plan to deliver health training. It said that it had received £14,000 to date.

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