LONDON – Spending the last few days here in Britain it has been difficult to avoid the growing fracas surrounding the London School of Economics and its increasingly embarrassing ties with Libya.

Yesterday, LSE’s Director (President, in American university-speak) resigned amid the growing scandal. For those who may have missed it the basic details are these: Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, studied at LSE from 2003 to 2008. The school awarded him a doctorate based on a thesis entitled “The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions.” In retrospect, this ought to have been the first of many red flags: Muammar Qaddafi’s son and heir-apparent writing about democratization and civil society? It is true that Libya, officially at least, styles itself a ‘people’s democracy’ as outlined in the rambling writings of Col. Qaddafi in his Green Book. Anyone with even passing familiarity with Qaddafi’s Libya, however, knew all of that to be nonsense.

LSE is now investigating allegations that Saif’s dissertation was ghost-written, but in better times it was happy to take his tuition money and, apparently, asked few embarrassing questions about his supposedly deep and growing commitment to democracy and human rights. Why would it do such a thing? Well, shortly after being awarded his degree Saif offered to donate about $2.4 million to the school. The money was not his or the Libyan government’s, mind you. Rather it was to come from the Qaddafi Foundation, a ‘private’ organization registered in Switzerland. According to this morning’s Financial Times precisely two LSE faculty members went on record opposing the school’s acceptance of the cash. One of them, the late Fred Halliday, pointed out that to say the foundation was independent of Qaddafi and his government was “a legal fiction”. LSE Director Sir Howard Davies, who resigned yesterday, wrote to Halliday that “we have taken soundings from other Middle East experts, who have taken a different view, and especially argued that rejecting this gift would now send the wrong message.”

Today, of course, accepting the gift (or rather the $500,000-ish that LSE initially took) looks like a pretty terrible idea. So does Saif’s degree, in the wake of a televised speech late last month in which he promised to defend his father’s regime “to the last bullet” and dismissed protestors as “drunkards and thugs.” LSE’s separate decision to accept a $3.5 million contract to run executive education programs for Libyan civil servants is also looking dodgy at best.

LSE’s experience with the Qaddafi regime is the first instance of academic chickens coming home to roost, but I fear it is not going to be the last.

Almost any journalist who has spent a lot of time in the oil-rich parts Middle East over the last few decades has had at least one eyebrow-raising encounter with some businessman or local official who holds an advanced degree from a second or third-tier American or (more often) British university but can barely put two sentences together in English. One could never prove anything, of course, but it was always hard to avoid the conclusion that some of these schools were happy to award degrees with very few questions asked in exchange for large tuition payments and the implicit promise of future donations.

The higher-class version of this involves better known universities and endowed chairs, programs or academic research centers. Some institutions have even set up degree-granting campuses in parts of the Middle East – a practice that is very lucrative financially but carries significant reputational risk if the universities involved fail to convince the wider world that a Cornell degree earned and awarded in Qatar or an NYU degree from Abu Dhabi is exactly the same thing as one earned and awarded on the institution’s home campus.

Mercifully, I do not make my living raising money for academic institutions. I am well-aware that it’s a tough time to be in the fundraising business, but one has to ask what, exactly, LSE was thinking and whether in this and other instances the lure of big money did not wind up overwhelming common sense? Will my own alma mater, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, soon be equally embarrassed to have bestowed on the widely-respected scholar Joseph Nye the title of “Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations”? Oman is not Libya – not by any stretch. At the same time, anyone who thinks that Sultan Qaboos (in power since 1970) has any serious democratic inclinations is, frankly, delusional.

My father used to say that we are each the guardian of our own integrity. LSE’s mistake was to take Libya’s money while telling itself that since it did not intend to let the donation corrupt the institution nothing bad would come of it. ‘Everyone will understand that <insert name of prestigious university here> would never allow itself to be bought for a donation,’ the theory goes, ‘so where is the harm so long as we know ourselves to be uncorrupted?’ Especially, one might add, since seven-figure donors don’t walk in the door every day.

I suspect that the mess at LSE is only the first such embarrassment that the Anglo-American academic world is going to see. This is unfortunate but, unlike many events of the last six weeks in the Middle East, it was probably predictable.

 

Aside from the fairly obvious observation that Atlanta-Dubai-Abu Dhabi-London-Vermont is an awful lot of travel to undertake in just over four days, a few observations spring to mind after this latest quick trip.

First, the growth of Dubai has hit some speed bumps, but remains both impressive in scope and slightly unsettling in its implications. There is little doubt that Dubai and its real estate-driven boom have been hit harder than most by the global economic downturn. This article, which appeared in London’s The Independent last Thursday, offers a glimpse of Dubai’s building frenzy in what may prove to be its terminal throes. Even allowing that a lot of construction sites are now sitting idle, it remains astonishing how far down the road toward Abu Dhabi the Dubai sprawl now creeps. The ‘unsettling’ part comes from the fact that we still do not know how deep and broad the financial damage to the emirate has really been and, as The Independent article seems to indicate, finding out is going to be very difficult.

Second, Abu Dhabi has changed a lot since my last visit in 2005. Unlike Dubai, however, the change has less to do with cosmetics than with the structure of the city and government themselves. There is a concerted attempt to modernize and systematize public administration in the emirate. The website of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council (the main governing body of Abu Dhabi, as opposed to the broader federal government of the UAE) states that the emirate aspires to be “among the five best governments in the world” (when I asked a senior local official who the current five are he mentioned Singapore and the Netherlands). The longer-term question is whether this aspiration can really be translated into reality in a city-state that remains, for all practical purposes, a privately-held family business.

Third, the wave of goodwill President Barack Obama is now riding should not be underestimated. One Abu Dhabian, upon discovering I am American, went on at length about how impressed he was by President Obama’s respectful behavior while visiting a mosque in Turkey last month. This was only the most striking of several such conversations over the course of my trip. Of course, high expectations can also lead to bitterly dashed hopes, so with opportunity comes danger. Still, it was nice to make an overseas trip in which every conversation did not begin on a confrontational note. It has been a while since that happened.