Universities Compromise Values for Arab Money
Universities have largely escaped government scrutiny — at least until recently — for their fundraising in Arab countries. It may seem paradoxical that institutions widely viewed as bastions of liberalism seem to have no compunction about soliciting and accepting funds from some of the world’s most despicable regimes, but it is indicative of the propensity for universities to place raising money ahead of either education or principles. This is reflected not only in foreign gifts from the Middle East but also those from serial human rights abusers such as China, Turkey, and Venezuela.
In a new report for the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise using Department of Education reports and other sources, I identified more than $10 billion in Arab funding towards American higher education since 1981. As I noted in The Arab Lobby, few universities have the courage to reject hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars offered by Arab donors.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 presented universities with ties to Saudi Arabia with a public challenge to their values. With rare exceptions, universities have escaped scrutiny for accepting funds from heinous regimes. The national attention devoted by the media to Khashoggi’s brutal slaying forced recipients of funds from the government and, especially, from the crown prince accused of ordering the assassination, to consider the merits of keeping the money.
Ethics seems to have played less of role in the decision-making of universities than the potential downside of negative publicity. Since there is little awareness of Saudi funding, however, that risk is too low to warrant returning gifts or hesitating to solicit and accept new ones. When pushed, universities fall back on an ends justify the means argument.
Several institutions said they were reviewing their relationship with the Saudis in the wake of the killing, but none seem to have deemed the incident important enough to cut their ties. Northwestern University, for example, reported receiving nearly $22 million in gifts and contracts from Saudi Arabia. When asked whether the university would reconsider accepting money from the government following the Khashoggi murder, a statement from the university expressed its condolences, but said it had “determined that most of the funds received have been to faculty in the form of grants for basic science research. The results of such research will be shared with the world through peer review-published journals with the intent of global benefits.”
At MIT, graduate students wrote an open letter to the school’s president urging him to sever ties with the Saudi government and condemn its human rights violations: “MIT’s continued collaboration with the Saudi government sends the message that human rights violations can be overlooked in favor of financial considerations. It assures Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, that MIT will tolerate his present and future transgressions. And it enables the regime to profit from MIT’s reputation. This both grants the kingdom impunity and damages MIT’s reputation.”
One MIT rationale for continuing to accept Saudi money was that some of the funders “served as moderating social influences — for example, by employing female engineers and managers.” Jonathan King, the editorial board chairman of MIT’s faculty newsletter, said the relatively small amount of money involved did not justify getting “in bed with murderers and a government that imprisons its women activists.” He asked why MIT would risk its reputation for “chump change.”
Since the controversy arose, MIT has reported additional gifts of more than $9 million from Saudi Arabia.
Johns Hopkins is another institution that has been challenged to address the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. The university has reported nearly $29 million in gifts and contracts, many related to health care, from Saudi sources. It partnered with Aramco to run the company’s health system, for example, and works with a hospital that specializes in ophthalmology. Pamela Paulk, president of Johns Hopkins Medicine International told The Baltimore Sun, “It is not important for us to be involved in politics. Our mission is to provide health care, education, and research.”
Peter Danchin, a human rights lawyer and director of the International and Comparative Law Program at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law suggested universities can express their views privately or publicly. “The risk is the regime retaliates and threatens to cancel the joint venture,” Danchin told the Sun. “As a human rights lawyer, I would think that is a risk worth taking. There is a question about complicity. If you are doing business in a country with human rights violations, at some point there is a moral and ethical question that arises about what you should do.”
There has been no announcement of Johns Hopkins withdrawing from Saudi Arabia, but it has not reported any gifts since the controversy over Khashoggi arose.
No doubt speaking for many universities, Liz Reisberg, an independent consultant and research fellow at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education who has worked as a consultant for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education, said that responding to the Khashoggi murder could be symbolic, but it would be hypocritical unless universities are prepared to cancel academic relationships with other countries that violate human rights. “If universities withdraw from their international initiatives each time there is a violation of human rights or an act of violence committed by academic partner’s government,” Reisberg wrote, “soon all international academic engagement would probably come to a screeching halt.”
Universities do not have to end all relationships with foreign governments, but they could certainly stop taking money from the worst human rights abusers. As the MIT students noted, their university does not have to worry about financial retaliation: “With an endowment of over $16 billion on which it managed to generate a staggering investment return of 13.5% in 2017, MIT cannot be threatened into silence.”
Then again, not every university has those resources, and if MIT turns down Saudi money, you can be sure other universities will willingly take it.
Ethics aside, in a report on foreign gifts, the US Department of Education noted, “There is very real reason for concern that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.” The department found that some of the foreign sources of funding that are hostile to the United States “are targeting their investments (i.e., ‘gifts’ and ‘contracts’) to project soft power, steal sensitive and proprietary research, and spread propaganda.”
Mitchell Bard is a fellow at Campus Watch, a foreign policy analyst, and an authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.