Hunting for Witches in an Ivory Tower

Despite efforts to take the moral high ground on various issues, the London School of Economics is now on the defensive due to questionable ties with Gadhafi's embattled regime.

LONDON - The London School of Economics is not just an institution of higher learning. It's an activist kind of place. A kind of place that does not stand by quietly when human rights abuses take place around the globe. A place where passionate students and faculty regularly come out to demonstrate against what they perceive as abuse, tyranny, injustice and evil.

In the case of Israel, for example, LSE is known to be particularly strident. Over the years, student groups have over and again pressured the student union and the university to divest from companies that provide military and commercial support to Israel, and to condemn Israeli human rights abuses and oppression of the Palestinians. Half of the people serving on the board of LSE's Middle East Center support the boycotts, sanctions and divestment campaign against Israel.

Gadhafi protest - AFP

LSE, in brief, aspires to be the kind of place that knows right from wrong. Except, it turns out, for those times when faculty and students turn a blind eye to abuse, tyranny, injustice and evil - usually when big money happens to be involved.

Long used to its perch on the moral high ground, LSE suddenly found itself on the defensive this month as its questionable ties with the embattled regime of Libya's Muammar Gadhafi were exposed. These included details of a 1.5-million pound sterling ($2.4 million ) donation to its Middle East Center from the colonel's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who received a PhD in politcal science from LSE in 2008 - for work which, it now transpires, was probably plagiarized in part.

"In recent years, the LSE has had a particularly poor record of tolerating an at times hysterical anti-Israel atmosphere on campus while simultaneously promoting the interests of one of the worst Arab regimes: Libya's," says Tom Gross, a political commentator, noting that not only did Saif recently lecture at the university, but that Col. Gadhafi himself addressed students by video link less than three months ago. "By contrast," he says, "were [Israeli opposition leader] Tzipi Livni to turn up, she would probably face arrest."

Sir Howard Davies, LSE's director and a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, at first defended the university's ties with the Gadhafis, as well his personal role in providing financial advice to the Libyan regime. In an interview in the Independent, Davies wondered out loud what all the talk of hypocrisy was all about, and added - by way of a somewhat convoluted counterproof to the charges - that LSE's Middle East Center has many Jewish friends, too. "The biggest donor to the school in the past year is George Soros, who of course is of Jewish origin. We operate, I believe, a very balanced view," Davies told the paper.

Not everyone was impressed by that argument: A week later - with the press dubbing the university the "Libyan School of Economics" - Davies was out of a job. "I have concluded that it would be right for me to step down," he said as he tendered his resignation. "I am responsible for the school's reputation, and that has suffered."

A 'pro-money' school

Some students, sorry to see their director go, argued the charges against LSE as regards Libya should not be compared or even discussed in parallel with the attitude of the university toward Israel. "To make these donations an Arab vs. Israel issue is a false-dichotomy, since the LSE's collusion with both is not mutually exclusive," says Ashok Kumar, education officer of LSE's student union, who says he dislikes the tags of "pro-Arab" or "pro-Israel," preferring to describe the university as "pro-money."

"This is a public university," continues Kumar. "It should be accepting money from the British government to educate students, not be a tool to legitimize colonizing and autocratic regimes, whether Israel, Saudi Arabia or Libya," he charges.

Turning to damage control, LSE's Middle East Center announced it would transfer the 1.5 million pounds from the Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation into a scholarship for North African students. It also announced it had opened an investigation into Gadhafi's thesis, which could lead to him being stripped of his PhD, if claims it was written by consultants prove true. According to fresh evidence, a Libyan academic drafted to help him with the paper was later rewarded with an ambassador's post in Austria.

Other revelations, meanwhile, showed that along with the GICDF money, LSE had also benefited from a 2.2-million pound contract to train Libyan civil servants, leading Robert Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow, to call for the resignation of the school's entire governing council. "It is the only way the LSE can restore its name," he charged.

One person who does not feel any sympathy for the university's current predicament is Saif Gadhafi himself, who took time out from overseeing the firing on demonstrators to attack his former friends and colleagues at LSE.

"I am proud of my work at the LSE, and of being an alumnus. This is the reason I became a benefactor," he told the press in Tripoli. "The way these people are now disowning me is disgusting."

Gadhafi singled out two of his former close associates at LSE for the harshest condemnation: Prof. David Held, co-director of the Center for the Study of Global Governance and one of Gadhafi's tutors, as well as former trustee of GICDF, and Alia Brahimi, a research fellow who frequently visited the Gadhafis in Libya. The two have done an about-face in recent weeks and have begun denouncing their former friend.

"Just a few months ago we were being treated as honored friends. But now that rebels are threatening our country, these cowards are turning on us," said the younger Gadhafi. "These people saw Libya as a huge money-making opportunity, but have all but abandoned us after taking our money for years."

Some pundits can see the logic in Saif's point, and have argued the focus on LSE is akin to a witch hunt.

"What the LSE is actually being punished for is its failure to predict the future," argues Jenni Russell, a writer and commentator for the Evening Standard. "It took an influential student who appeared to be interested in creating a more liberal future for his country, accepted his foundation's money, and followed British government advice to help open up Libya to new influences by advising its technocrats and educating some of its people. If the Libyan revolts had never happened, or if Saif had decided to back the protesters rather than threaten them, no one would now be questioning the LSE's actions."

Moreover, concludes Russell, if one is going to criticize LSE, it would be wise to look around: This is far from the only British university to have accepted money from Libya or, for that matter, from other Middle East regimes that do not share Britain's political system or its view of human rights. Liverpool's John Moores University, for example, has contracts with Libya valued at 1.27 million pounds; Exeter University has an agreement with Tripoli to teach English to students in Libya, and has invited Gadhafi to address conferences at their school by video link; and Mutassim Gadhafi, another of the dictator's sons, was tutored privately in 2006 at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS ), at the University of London, which has a 188,024-pound deal with Al-Fateh University in Tripoli to run a master's degree program in finance there.

Meanwhile, the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies accepted a 20-million pound donation from the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia in 2008, Oxford's Middle East Center picked up 1 million pounds recently from that country's King Abdul Aziz Foundation, and SOAS also received 1 million pounds from King Fahd to help establish its own Center for Islamic Studies.

Cambridge University, for its part, received 8 million pounds in 2008 from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia toward a new research center for Islamic studies. Edinburgh University also received 8 million from Prince Alwaleed that same year to establish the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center.

Durham University's Center for Iranian Studies, in turn, hosted a seminar last year that was apparently funded by the government of Iran, in which the cultural attache from that country's London embassy - a hard-line supporter of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - gave an address at one of the sessions. That event took place on the very day the Tehran government announced the executions of two young men involved in protests against the regime.

The University of St. Andrews has also benefited from Iranian largesse, accepting a 100,000-pound contribution from a former high-ranking member of the regime in 2006. Most of these institutions have defended these choices, arguing, as LSE does, that funders do not buy influence or change the direction of research. "It depends what strings are attached," says Colin Shindler, the first full professor of Israel studies in the UK, who teaches at SOAS: "Let's not tar all these contributions with the same brush."

In 1996, notes Shindler, the Guardian newspaper - which today is among those leading the charge against LSE and other universities for their ties with despotic regimes - published an Iranian advertisement signed by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which spoke of Zionist control of the media. "Are they going to return the ad money?" he asks. "Where does this begin and where does it end?"