For many people around the world the Arab Spring was a cause for great hope, as thousands of Arabs banded together to overthrow their corrupt and repressive governments. For the London School of Economics (LSE), however, it triggered a revelation that embroiled the institution in one of the biggest university scandals in history.

On the 3rd of March 2011, Sir Howard Davies, the Director of LSE and the institution’s highest official, resigned in disgrace amidst a media firestorm. The firestorm was sparked when the British press found extensive links between LSE and the Gaddafi family, links forged under the oversight of Davies through Saif Gaddafi – Colonel Gaddafi’s son, who had been a PhD student at LSE.[1]

The PR fallout for LSE was immense, with LSE unsuccessfully striving to downplay its cozy relationship with the brutal regime. But perhaps the most telling response was the indignant sense of betrayal articulated by Saif Gaddafi.

“Just a few months ago we were being treated as honored friends,” he railed. “Now that rebels are threatening our country, these cowards are turning on us. The way my former friends at the LSE have turned against me and my father is particularly upsetting. These people…abandoned us after taking our money for years.”[2]


The Libyan School of Economics

Perceiving his future as a powerbroker, LSE’s administration admitted Saif Gaddafi to the PhD program in Philosophy in 2003, despite his poor English skills and weak academic record.[3] At LSE, Saif enjoyed special privileges, including special assistance from professors and permission to use a personal assistant to help him with his thesis.[4]

This special treatment produced great returns. Through Saif, LSE solicited a $2.5 million donation from the Gaddafi Foundation in 2008,[5] as well as a $3.5 million contract for a special exchange program to train Libyan bureaucrats.[6]

LSE’s services to the Gaddafi regime also included glossing its image. In December 2010, LSE arranged a live video-link conference with Colonel Gaddafi. The Colonel, his gigantic visage projected onto a screen in LSE’s auditorium, took the opportunity to denounce the Lockerbie bombing as a “fabrication” of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whilst the LSE moderator addressed him as “Brother Leader” and “the world’s longest-serving national leader.” At the end of his speech, Gaddafi was presented with a LSE baseball cap as a gift. “A cap was first given to your friend Nelson Mandela, on his visit to the LSE” the moderator told him, “and since then it’s become something of a tradition.”[7]

The events of the Arab Spring shattered these illusions. As Colonel Gaddafi tried to shell his people into submission, denouncing them as “dogs” and “traitors,” and Saif warned opponents of “rivers of blood,” the Gaddafis’ reputation plummeted, bringing LSE’s down with it.

By insisting throughout the relationship that Libya was “changing” internally, LSE’s officials blinded themselves to reality.[8] An inquiry conducted by former Lord Chief Justice Woolf found that the relationship was allowed to grow unchecked, without due diligence assessments,[9] such that LSE came to be known in academic circles as “The Libyan School of Economics.”[10]

That the LSE-Gaddafi scandal was a black mark against academic integrity is undeniable. But how far was it an anomaly? Could it, in fact, be just the tip of the iceberg?


A Free Lunch

In 2006, Harvard and Georgetown came under fire for accepting $20 million each from the House of Saud – a heavy financier of terrorist groups – to fund their Islamic Studies departments.[11] Critics deplored accepting money from the Saudis, who also funded similar programs at Berkeley and the University of Arkansas.[12] Former Congressman Anthony Weiner accused the Saudis of “trying to cleanse their bloody hands by taking contributions to institutions like Georgetown and Harvard.”[13]

Three of the world’s most prestigious universities have been funded by questionable sources

British universities also receive heavy funding from Gulf States, Oxford’s Centre for Islamic Studies receiving $119 million from a dozen Middle Eastern rulers, and LSE’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies receiving $14 million from the UAE.[14] A further UAE donation of $4 million endowed LSE’s Sheikh Zayed Theatre, named after the UAE dictator whose foundation funds lectures and publications blaming Zionists for the Holocaust and the U.S. military for masterminding 9/11.[15]

Another dubious source of funding is the Chinese government, which has financed Confucius Institutes at universities including Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.[16] Ostensibly meant to promote study of Chinese language and culture, something many Westerners rightly perceive as important, the cash comes with strings attached. Affiliated universities must sign a “memorandum of understanding” endorsing the “one-China policy” that precludes recognition of Taiwan as a state.[17] Confucius Institutes have also been known to act as lobby groups in universities, attempting to block guest speakers who they perceive as anti-Beijing.[18]

Likewise, accepting money from Gulf States has pernicious consequences. The $12.7 million the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh accepted from the House of Saud, for example, enabled the Saudis to appoint members to the management committees of their Islamic Studies centers.[19]

A more subtle effect of these donations is the universities’ increase in self-censorship. Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy outlined the risk of academics of skewing their work or censoring their statements to please donors, either to show appreciation for their generosity or in the hopes of attracting future donations.[20] In 2009, Yale University Press refused to print images of Prophet Muhammad in a book about the Danish cartoon controversy, a move Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute linked to Yale University President Richard Levin’s outreach to Persian Gulf funders at the time.[21] Such incidents ranked Yale among the 12 worst colleges for free speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.[22]

While such donations can seem like easy money for universities, they’re about as free as the chimerical free lunch. “[T]his is like taking out a sub-prime mortgage,” commented David Prager Banner, Associate Professor of Chinese at Columbia, on the Confucius Institutes. “[I]t may seem like a good deal at first but it will surely have consequences we may not be able to foresee at the outset.”[23]


The Great Game

Upon visiting the office of John Sexton, University President of New York University, Zvika Krieger wrote in New York magazine that it resembled “a shrine to Abu Dhabi”, replete with “a massive Oriental rug, a gift from the crown prince, on one entire wall,” and a framed portrait of Sheikh Zayed, founder of the UAE, on the other.[24]

Clinched by a $50 million donation to NYU, and the promise of much more to come, NYU-Abu Dhabi opened in fall 2010, making it the first liberal arts college outside America. Awarding full NYU degrees and financed completely by the government of Abu Dhabi, NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus is Sexton’s brainchild, conceived through his mad obsession with dethroning what he calls “the holy trinity” – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – from their perch at the pinnacle of American education.[25]

This collaboration with Abu Dhabi, Sexton believes, will help boost NYU’s endowment and its international reputation. In the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Sexton found the ideal partner.

Sexton described his first meeting with Sheikh Mohammed in his opulent majlis social hall as “electric.”[26]

“The Crown Prince told me that he felt it in my handshake, in my eyes, in my aura at that first meeting,” Sexton recounted breathlessly, “I knew right then and there, that we had found our partner.”[27]

Having decided on his plan, Sexton pushed it through with autocratic fervor. “It was negotiated secretly and announced to the rest of us with only a veneer of serious faculty consultation, but we knew it was a fait accompli,” said a senior NYU professor who declined to be named because of “a sense that people who get on Sexton’s wrong side get punished.” Indeed, reservations about the project seemed to batter uselessly against Sexton’s bewildering naïveté. “The Crown Prince chose us,” Sexton said, “and he wants us to be the best.”[28]

At the same time, Sexton warned students and faculty at the new campus that they couldn’t criticize Abu Dhabi’s leaders and policies without repercussions.[29] However, he denied that such restrictions would betray the spirit of a liberal arts college. “I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” he said.[30]

There are disturbing parallels between the NYU-Abu Dhabi venture and the planned Yale-NUS College, which is set to open in fall 2013. Yale-NUS too was conceived by university presidents, negotiated surreptitiously, denied the process of a faculty vote, and then presented as a fait accompli, much to the chagrin of many students and faculty.[31] Although the deal with the Singaporean government seems to guarantee free expression on Yale-NUS’ campus, this guarantee is still subject to Singapore’s draconian laws on defamation and sedition.[32]

Most worryingly, Yale-NUS seems to have led to increasing authoritarianism on the part of the Yale administration. Faculty members have voiced fears of appearing to oppose University Professor Richard Levin on this project, according to Victor Bers, Professor of Classics at Yale.[33]

The administration has also displayed an eerie moral relativism on Singapore. In reference to Singapore’s restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, Charles Bailyn, the designated Dean of Yale-NUS, said simply: “They take demonstrations in a kind of different way. What we think of as freedom, they think of as an affront to public order, and I think the two societies differ in that respect.”[34]

When asked whether the Singapore government’s close surveillance of political blogs was antithetical to Yale’s values, President Levin declined to comment.[35] ‘When debating a resolution urging the Yale-NUS College to respect civil liberties on campus, Levin opposed a clause expressing concern at Singapore’s “lack of respect for civil and political rights”, objecting that it “carried a sense of moral superiority.”[36] His sentiments were echoed by some other faculty members, who, according to Economics Department Chair Benjamin Polak, worried that such language would be “offensive” or “arrogant.”’[37] As the project comes to fruition, the Yale administration has grown increasingly reluctant to make any kind of value judgment with regard to Singapore.

A similar attitude was expressed when Chinese Premier Hu Jintao came to speak at Yale’s Woodbridge Hall. After his speech, Hu was not subject to questions from the audience like a normal speaker at Yale. Instead, he was given two softball questions pre-selected by the Yale administration.[38] Students who wanted to protest Hu’s visit were restricted to the enclosed area of Old Campus, where they could not upset Hu and cause him to rethink his recent decision to allow Yale to be the first foreign university to trade on China’s heavily regulated stock market.[39]

As a large proportion of power shifts from the West to the East, many university presidents have come to see Asia and the Middle East as the next frontier, the next stage in the Great Game played by generations of university presidents in their endless struggle to outmaneuver each other. For them, Asia and the Middle East are exotic and lucrative markets that cannot be resisted and that they all have to get a little dirty to tap.

Before making the extraordinary investment of building a campus in these regions however, universities should consider the difficulties faced by the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a joint-campus established in China by Johns Hopkins and Nanjing University 26 years ago.

Writing on the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Bloomberg, Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden relate how the Chinese government kept tight control of the Center’s activities, by interrupting a film screening and blocking a human rights lawyer from speaking at a panel. Staley and Golden also described the pressure Brendon Stewart, an American student, faced when he tried to publish the Center’s first academic journal in 2009. Administrators prevented it from circulating outside campus and tightened the Center’s rules, requiring all clubs or events to be submitted for their approval.[40]

“I didn’t expect such a rigid monitoring over students’ behavior,” said a Chinese student, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal. “I don’t think the US side had a lot of bargaining power to protect the interests of its students,” Stewart related.[41] Ultimately, Johns Hopkins could do little to resist government interference with the Center’s affairs, and allowed an atmosphere of paranoia to constrain students in a campus that bore its name.


Never Again?

Ernst Hanfstaengl (waving), Hitler’s aide and a Harvard graduate, at Harvard for his 25th class reunion

In the 1930s, American schools held significant exchanges with two foreign countries.

One of them was fascist Italy. Jonathan Zimmerman recounted in The Christian Science Monitor how, a decade after seizing power, Mussolini promoted Italian language exchange programs where top American high school students were given free trips to summer camps in Italy. There, they wore fascist uniforms and learned to hail the Italian flag.[42]

The other country was Nazi Germany. Stephen H. Norwood, Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma, wrote about how Harvard sent a delegate to Heidelberg University’s 550th anniversary celebration to take part in “a Nazi propaganda festival orchestrated by Josef Goebbels.” This was after the university had expelled its Jewish faculty members.[43]

Harvard also welcomed Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s foreign press chief and Harvard graduate, to its campus where he gave the Commencement address to Harvard College’s class of ’34. Together those acts of recognition lent credence to the Nazi regime. At the time, Harvard University President James Bryant Conant called the student protestors against Hanfstaengl’s visit “ridiculous.”[44]

These parallels are not to suggest a moral equivalence between Nazis and fascists and the governments of Singapore, China, and Gulf States. Rather, they demonstrate the extent to which esteemed academics may be willing to ignore inconvenient truths when dealing with the rich and powerful. Hopefully this time round it won’t take a declaration of war for university administrators to start calling a spade a spade.


Who Changes Who?

In 2007 I attended a public lecture at LSE’s Center for the Study of Human Rights. The moderator of the lecture was Conor Gearty, the Rausling Professor of Human Rights Law at LSE, and a leading human rights lawyer, a man who, till that day, I held in high esteem.

The guest speaker was Paul Kagame – the President of Rwanda – who is credited with lifting Rwanda out of poverty. He is also a despot who rigs elections, tortures dissenters, and kills political opponents.

At the lecture, Gearty heaped effusive praise on Kagame. It went above and beyond what courtesy required; it bordered on the sycophantic. It was also misleading. Gearty described Kagame as winning “a landslide victory in democratically contested elections,” and lauded his “experience in dealing with rights abuses.”

Most alarming of all was the reaction of the audience. Probably knowing little about Rwanda, they looked to Gearty’s behavior for guidance. And they followed his cue.

Are university presidents like LSE’s Howard Davies repeating Harvard’s earlier mistakes?

They laughed at Kagame’s terrible jokes, and when, at one point, a Congolese rights campaigner got up and criticized Kagame for his abuses, the audience laughed and jeered at the campaigner like he was a clown.

Kagame, of course, loved it. He smiled smugly. With no hint of irony he criticized African “one-party states” and addressed his lone critic like he was indulging a local loon. Not once did Gearty even question Kagame (an act within his rights as the moderator), and when Kagame denounced human rights organizations, Gearty didn’t even blink.[45] And I squirmed in my seat thinking that either I or everyone else in the hall had gone mad.

I close with this story because it’s my most vivid experience of this phenomenon. University administrators often justify their ties with authoritarian regimes by citing the need to engage with the rest of the world in order to change it for the better. Ideally, the university should also learn from the engagement and change for the better too.

However, unless universities engage with a commitment to upholding their values of free inquiry at least equal to the commitment of the regimes that stifle it, they themselves will end up changing – for the worse.

Valuable engagement requires robust leadership, something difficult to see in many university officials today – “They take demonstrations in a kind of different way,” “The Crown Prince chose us,” “Oh Brother Leader!”

In the absence of such leadership, it will be the truth, and the freedom to pursue the truth – the two core values of any university – that suffers.


Shaun Tan is an international relations Masters student. Contact him at


Editor’s note:

In the spirit of objectivity and free inquiry, The Politic includes the following links below.


Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s speech at LSE:

“Alia Brahimi hosts a Gaddafi apologists’ “love-in” at the LSE,” YouTube, 1st March 2011 –


President Paul Kagame’s speech at LSE:

Paul Kagame, “The challenges of development and environmental sustainability in Africa,” Center for the Study of Human Rights at the LSE, 4th Oct 2007 –


Our readers are invited to watch the videos and listen to the podcast and to make up their own minds about the incidents.

[1] Stuart Hughes, “LSE criticized for links with Gaddafi regime in Libya,” BBC, 30th Nov 2011 –

[2] Neil Sears, ““Horrific”: David Miliband’s furious reaction as it emerges Gaddafi’s son gave university lecture in his father’s name,” Daily Mail, 7th March 2011 –

[3] “Saif Gaddafi London School of Economics Admittance Investigated,” The Huffington Post, 1st Dec 2011 –

[4] “LSE slammed over Gaddafi ties,” Al Jazeera, 2nd Dec 2011 –

[5] “D. D. Guttenplan, “Embarrassing Liaisons at British Universities,” The New York Times, 20th March 2011 –

[6] Jeevan Vasagar, “Foreign Office asked Oxford to admit Gaddafi son as student,” The Guardian, 1st Dec 2011 –

[8] Jeevan Vasagar, “Foreign Office asked Oxford to admit Gaddafi son as student,” The Guardian, 1st Dec 2011 –

[9] Stuart Hughes, “LSE criticized for links with Gaddafi regime in Libya,” BBC, 30th Nov 2011 –

[10] Richard Gardner, “Verdict on Gaddafi exposes roles of Blair, LSE and Oxford,” The Independent, 1st Dec 2011 –

[11] Charlotte Martin, “Schools accept prince’s money,” The Yale Daily News, 9th Jan 2006 –

[12] Eliana Johnson, The Yale Daily News, 17th Jan 2006 –

[13] Ibid.

[14] Stephen Pollard, “Libya and the LSE: Large Arab gifts to universities lead to “hostile” teaching,” The Daily Telegraph, 3rd March 2011 –

[15] Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang, “The LSE’s Libya connection is only the tip of the iceberg,” The Guardian, 4th March 2011 –

[16] Daniel Golden, “China Says No Talking Tibet as Confucius funds U.S. Universities,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 8th Nov 2011 –

[17] Glenn Anthony May, “Confucius on the Campus,” Asia Sentinel, 4th March 2011 –

[18] Daniel Golden, “China Says No Talking Tibet as Confucius funds U.S. Universities,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 8th Nov 2011 –

[19] Stephen Pollard, “Libya and the LSE: Large Arab gifts to universities lead to “hostile” teaching,” The Daily Telegraph, 3rd March 2011 –

[20] Eliana Johnson, The Yale Daily News, 17th Jan 2006 –

[21] Michael Rubin, “Yale University’s (and the Media’s) Free Speech Problem,” Commentary, 21st Feb 2011 –

[22] Greg Lukianoff, “The 12 Worst Colleges For Free Speech,” The Huffington Post, 27th Jan 2011 –

“FIRE’s 12 Worst Colleges For Free Speech In 2012,” FIRE, 27th March 2012 –

[23] Quoted in Elizabeth Redden, “Chinese-funded institutes raise concerns on U.S. campuses,” USA Today, 4th Jan 2012 –

[24] Zvika Krieger, “The Emir of NYU,” New York, 13th April 2008 –

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden, “China Halts U.S. College Freedom at Class Door,” Bloomberg, 28th Nov 2011 –

[30] Ibid.

[31] Elizabeth Redden, “Whose Yale College?,” Inside Higher Ed, 28th March 2012 –

[32] Muhammad Cohen, “McYale with the death penalty,” Asia Times, 9th Sept 2011 –

[33] Gavan Gideon and Antonia Woodford, “Faculty approve Yale-NUS resolution,” The Yale Daily News, 6th April 2012 –

[34] Quoted in Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, “Yale values to be tested in Singapore,” The Yale Daily News, 29th March 2012 –

[35] Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, “Stories of Singapore,” The Yale Daily News, 4th April 2012 –

[36] Quoted in Gavan Gideon and Antonia Woodford, “Faculty approve Yale-NUS resolution,” The Yale Daily News, 6th April 2012 –

[37] Ibid.

[38] Chris Miller, “Yale’s principles for sale in Singapore,” The Yale Daily News, 3rd April 2011 –

[39] “Hu caps U.S. tour with Yale speech,” USA Today, 21st April 2006 –

[40] Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden, “China Halts U.S. College Freedom at Class Door,” Bloomberg, 28th Nov 2011 –

[41] Ibid.

[42] Jonathan Zimmerman, “Beware China’s role in U.S. Chinese classes,” The Christian Science Monitor, 6th Sept 2006 –

[43] Stephen H. Norwood, “Harvard Never Learns,” Jewish Press, 7th March 2012 –

[44] Ibid.

[45] Paul Kagame, “The challenges of development and environmental sustainability in Africa,” Center for the Study of Human Rights at the LSE, 4th Oct 2007 –