St Andrews finds ‘no evidence’ of improper links with Syrian state

The University of St Andrews has issued a robust response to a national newspaper’s allegation that it has inappropriate links to the Syrian regime.

May 4, 2011

In a front-page article on 28 April, The Guardian newspaper reported that the university had received more than £100,000 in funding for its Centre for Syrian Studies with the assistance of Syria’s ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami.

It quoted a St Andrews spokesman as saying that the money had come from the Asfari Foundation, a charity established by the Syrian-born British businessman Ayman Asfari.

It suggested that Mr Asfari’s backing was secured by Dr Khiyami.

Noting the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria, the newspaper described the “link” to the regime as an “embarrassing disclosure”.

It drew comparisons with the row over the London School of Economics’ relationship with the Libyan regime, which resulted in the resignation of LSE director Sir Howard Davies earlier this year.

In response, St Andrews announced a review of the centre’s work.

In a statement released today, the university says that the internal review, led by Chris Hawkesworth, St Andrews’ deputy principal, “reaffirmed that the centre operates to the highest standards of academic independence”.

“When a national newspaper uses its front page to challenge academic integrity, it is a serious charge that requires a considered response,” the statement says.

It adds that the review found “no evidence” that the centre’s research had been prejudiced or that links to a “cross-section of Syrian interests” were inappropriate.

And it says that, following an introduction, “the university met Mr Asfari privately to begin discussions on a potential donation. Neither the Syrian Embassy nor the Ambassador was involved in those discussions, nor did they in any way “arrange” the subsequent generous donation.”

“The centre was established in 2006 to foster scholarship and dialogue about contemporary Syria – particularly in the areas of economic and political reform, and security and foreign policy issues – as well as exchanges between Syrian and other scholars,” it states.

“The motivation for funding the St Andrews centre was twofold – addressing the fact that, due to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime, there is no tradition of independent scholarship about the country and much international ignorance about Syria.

"Additionally, since there were indications the regime was preparing to undertake political and economic reform, providing a platform for academic study of social and economic conditions in the country would be the necessary precursor to such reforms (and the country’s subsequent integration into the world economy).”

St Andrews adds: “As an academic institution recognised internationally for the quality of our teaching and research, we believe it is our duty to engage actively in local, national and international current affairs.”

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