Monday, March 07, 2011

The recent resignation of the director of the London School of Economics over his university's lucrative and academically suspect relationship with Muammar Khaddafi's son has highlighted the general shamelessness of academics in courting wealthy foreign despots. (Daniel Drezner has a nice roundup of reports.) Middle Eastern studies gadfly Martin Kramer has been having loads of fun citing examples and implying that the academics in question--and by implication, academics in general--are essentially for sale to the highest bidder, happy to whitewash murderous tyrants if the pay is good.

In fact, the situation is far worse. Consider, for instance, the famous case of Lee Bass' $20 million-dollar grant to Yale University to expand its "Western Civilization" curriculum. Bass' grant was ultimately turned down, because he wanted to ensure that it was spent at least somewhat in the spirit in which it was offered. Similarly, Princeton sacrificed $50 million out of the Robertson's $900 million grant, plus another $40 million in legal fees, rather than accept the foundation's seemingly innocuous condition that the funds be used to prepare students for government service. Apparently, some principles are more important than mere money.

What, then, distinguishes merely questionable gifts from the unacceptably filthy ones? The easy answer, of course, is, "ideology". One could, for example, draw a parallel with universities' long history of selectively capitulating to threats of violence (only) from quarters representing the academic left's political fashions of the moment, from the appeasement of the student radicals of the 1960s to the most recent case of the Yale University Press' removal of the famous Mohammed cartoons from a scholarly book on the controversy. And no doubt a radical anti-American regime such as Khaddafi's can attract its share of ideological sympathy on American and European university campuses. But Saudi and Emirati potentates--hardly the campus revolutionary's idols--have also received more than their share of academic sycophancy. There appears to be more at work here than just ideology.

I believe Paul Rahe has identified that key extra element: prestige. It is the currency of the modern academic--indeed, of the professional scholar in every age--and he or she therefore evaluates every seductive offer or menacing threat in light of its dividends in that currency. Certainly the Khaddafis' reputations profited from their hob-nobbing with world-renowned scholars, and fromhaving the latter write glowing op-eds about them. But for the scholars, too, public engagement as an "advisor" to a national ruling family--even one as odious as Libya's--was a badge of global importance, and clearly more than one mere egghead was excited to wear it (at least until said family's status as national rulers suddenly started looking a little shaky).

Contrast this delicate quid pro quo with the Bass and Robertson cases, in which some wealthy industrialists attempted to pay a couple of leading academic institutions to do their bidding. No reciprocal status marker was offered--just cash, in return for the humiliation of being explicitly told what to teach. It's hardly surprising that the institutions in question found that deal rather unappealing.

There's a possible lesson there for philanthropists seeking to influence the direction of academia: mere bribery is unlikely to succeed. Subtler appeals to academic vanity--prizes, say, or appointments to positions of (real or apparent) influence--are likely to work much better.

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