The Woolf Report has its fair share of scapegoats and villains. These individuals and departments have received much criticism and scrutiny since the scandal broke, and rightly so. To treat the Libya-LSE debacle as an isolated incident, however, would be a mistake. Professor David Held, “close friend” of Saif, did not act alone. Neither was Sir Howard Davies or the School’s Council led astray. They pursued a purposeful policy of engagement with entrenched governments and private institutions. Modern universities are engaged in this same pursuit across Britain as they attempt to survive a Government that has starved higher education of funding.
The threat of the high-risk embrace of the Libyan regime was made apparent to the LSE high command from the outset of their dealings. The late Professor Fred Halliday, once the LSE’s foremost expert on the Arab world, made the case in meetings, emails and finally a memo that accepting the money was an egregious mistake. Yet as the report documents, Professor Held and Sir Davies sought to isolate and dismiss his concerns. In one of the more startling entries, Held and Davies supposedly told the Council that Halliday was “rubbished” and falsely claimed he was mentally “not well.”
This brutal behavior cannot merely be dismissed as an error in judgment. It stemmed from an unbridled opportunism that placed securing international funding as the utmost priority for the institution. Concerns over academic integrity and institutional values were perceived as outdated, part of a parochial view of universities. The world was moving too fast for the LSE to listen to Halliday, and they have paid a dear price for their brazenness. Instead of scapegoating, the LSE and Britain needs to confront a larger question: how can universities continue to ensure their academic integrity while pursuing financial security?
At present, British Universities have no alternative but to compete internationally. Starved of proper funding at home, the UK government has gone so far as to actively encourage universities to fundraise on an unprecedented international plane and scale. Lord Woolf compares this new paradigm and operation as similar “to that of a global company.” The risk of this business-centric approach is that our educational establishments are forced to expand their directive beyond that of the public good. They must now compete alongside private interests, and over time their scope has grown and morphed almost entirely unchecked.
After all, tighter funding and greater financial strain creates a fierce urgency to secure outside monies.
Professor Held and Sir Davies were not in control of this funding game; they were mere players who were seduced by the sparkle of Libyan gold. It would have been naïve to expect them to behave with greater probity than the rest of society, especially since the people who run our universities tend to hold views and values identical to those in power. If they were relying on their Government to set an example, then they would have seen Blair entering a Libyan tent in 2007 to sign a half-a-million pound deal on behalf of BP. With him was Peter Sutherland, the Chairman of BP, who went on to become the Chairman of the LSE Council.
The truth is that we expect universities to hold true to public values and act independently of the society around them. We expect universities to balance contradictory forces and to remain true despite financial hardship. We expect academics to work tireless around those with power while never being seduced by it. Perhaps we expect too much.
The Woolf Report and much of the ensuing coverage have focused on the individuals involved. Everyone wants to know who is to blame. There is a need for a wider responsibility at the LSE and beyond. Professor Held, despite his shortcomings, was trying to fund a Centre that pursued “democracy” and “human rights.” These are noble ideals that deserve the type of attention he was able to bring to them. But pure intentions were corrupted with dirty money.
What Fred Halliday tried to jumpstart in his opposition to the Gaddafi donation is a larger discussion over the future of university funding. All signs indicate that the magnitude of international funding will continue to grow. The LSE and other institutions will be confronted with similar ethical challenges. If we are to avoid the same mistakes then there is need for a coherent set of policies to deal with these new ethical risks. If the Government expects universities to appropriate a corporate approach to funding, then the time has come to regulate them as such.
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