By Laura Lynch
On a sunny spring day, professors and students at the London School of Economics (LSE) mingle outside. It's been a rough few weeks at one of Britain's leading universities because of its relationship with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The relationship featured a $2 million plus donation from the Gaddafi foundation, run by the dictator's son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. That was in January of 2010. The following December, Gaddafi himself was an honored guest — appearing before LSE students via a video link. One of the school's academics offered the Libyan leader warm thanks, presenting him with an LSE baseball cap.
Anthony Glees, a professor at the University of Buckingham, said the academic's "gushing tone" spoke volumes. Glees, who has researched the security implications of accepting funding from Arab and Islamic sources, said it is wrong for university professors and administrators to forge close links with dictatorships.
"They are paid to be independent voices dedicated to the pursuit of high ethical values and above all, complete objectivity," he said.
The controversy recently cost the head of LSE, Howard Davies, his job. Davies conceded that taking the money damaged the school's reputation.
"We took a risk on that and I think it is right to say that that risk has backfired on us," Davies said. "I feel embarrassed about it, but I don't think the decision was made without due consideration at the time."
There aren't any definitive studies detailing just how much money is involved. But Glees claimed it is part of a much wider problem that may get worse as universities chase more foreign donations to make up for budget shortfalls, due to cuts by the British government. Glees pointed out that the foreign donations don't help poor people from those countries that come to the United Kingdom to study: "They're used to boost the reputations of the countries and their leaders giving the money."
Nicola Dandridge, who represents more than 130 British universities, said that is not a valid reason for slamming the door on foreign contributions.
"There often is a question of buying prestige in these sorts of arrangements," she said, "and I think it's for the universities to determine whether or not the benefits that accrue to the initiative, whatever they may be, outweigh the dis-benefits of providing cover or prestige to the government."
Dandridge pointed to the importance of building relationships with authoritarian regimes in hopes of encouraging reform.
"We have to be engaging countries," she said. "It may well be that the government and regimes in those countries don't duplicate our own, but that's not a reason for not getting involved with them." "I think it's absolutely critical we continue to be careful about these donations, that we make sure they're transparent based on the best evidence," she added.
But vows of greater transparency may not satisfy those who say there is no justification for taking money from dictators and despots.