Mar 7th 2011

The Libyan Connection: Drama at the London School of Economics

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

Sir Howard Davies, former director of the London School of Economics, is in the soup. He has been rather less than diligent on the issue of receiving tainted funds, accused over his carelessness in accepting a £1.5 million donation from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. The LSE claims that it received only £300,000 of the donation, which will be used to fund scholarships for North African students.

The LSE has done much in 'taming', as the Guardian notes, the Gaddafi regime. Bureaucrats for the regime have had their 'consultancy' training sessions. The family has directly benefited from the services of the university. The intentions of the institution, claims Davies, were always honourable. These, of course, are often the worst. In his letter of resignation, Davies cites that the grant from the Gaddafi foundation was 'used to support work on civil society in North Africa, which will have value in the future. The training programmes we have run in Libya will also prove valuable in enhancing the practical skills of many people who will be needed under whatever successor regime emerges.'

There are other sides to the scandal that have emerged. Lord Meghnad Desai, formerly a professor at LSE, and Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, examined the PhD thesis of Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam. Allegations have been circulating that the thesis was, in fact, ghost written in parts, or simply plagiarised. Neither examiner decided to retort with the quip from J. Frank Doble that a standard doctoral dissertation is merely the transference of bones from one grave yard to another.

In Desai's words, 'We read the thesis and examined Mr Gaddafi orally for two-and-a-half hours. We then reported that the thesis needed revisions and corrections, which the candidate was invited to submit. When he did so we read the thesis again and decided that the degree should be awarded… At no stage did the supervisors or anyone else suggest to us that plagiarism was suspected and we found no reason to do so ourselves' (Hindustan Times, Mar 4). Davies himself, in his resignation letter, claims no impropriety in the awards to Saif Gaddafi, 'and there was no link between the grant and the degrees.'

The naïve disposition of academic institutions to vicious regimes hardly stops with Gaddafi. The LSE, having well and truly ditched its Fabian pretensions, seeks the heaviest wallets amongst its foreign clientele. And that clientele is huge, with only 15 percent of funding for the university coming from the government. The focus on external funding invites a Mephistophelian bargain. As Stefan Collini points out, the 'system is set up to invite supper with the devil' (Guardian, Mar 4). That very structure privileges grants and research awards from outside sources that have nothing to do with allocated university income. Laziness in checking the credibility of the sources is bound to creep in, and fund raisers are bound to get careless.

The temptation to sanitise and accept brutal regimes is very much encoded in the DNA of intellectual and academic life. And members of those regimes are happy to reciprocate their delights in the courtship. One can hardly be surprised to see the title of Saif's thesis, which went: 'The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions: from 'soft power' to collective decision-making'. Despots can, on occasion, prove supremely ironic when playing to the stands.

There will be many more added to the list alongside the LSE in due course. Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh and Durham have no reason to gloat. The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies may well be an 'independent centre', but its money trail leads straight to the coffers of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Some £75 million in grants for the centre can be traced to 12 Middle Eastern rulers, some of whom are desperately trying to crush their rebellious subjects (The Independent, Mar 5). Cambridge University can boast £8 million worth from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia for a research centre for Islamic studies, as can Edinburgh University.

There is no reason to assume that these arrangements can't be rectified when exposed. Harvard University returned a $2.5 million donation from Sheikh Zayed after it was revealed that the Zayed International Centre for Co-ordination had promoted lectures claiming that the Holocaust had been the work of crafty Zionists and that the attacks of September 11 2001 was an inside job of the American establishment. In the case of Libya, we are witnessing the removal of a mask of carefully moulded respectability. As that wily thespian prepares himself for the final curtain call in Libya, universities will continue to face the curse of external funding.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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