In the summer of 2008, Lewis N. Walker, president of Lawrence Technological University, flew to Bahrain to deliver an honorary doctorate to Sheik Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. The country’s prime minister and crown prince was being honored for his support of a free-market economy and for “creating the infrastructure for an innovative and socially and environmentally sustainable society,” according to a Lawrence Tech press release. The crown prince honored the university at about the same time with a $3-million donation.
These days, Bahrain may not look so socially sustainable. Soon after the demonstrations in Egypt, thousands of people marched to Pearl Square in Bahrain’s capital city to protest the country’s absolute monarchy, and were met with a brutal government response that so far has left several dead and hundreds wounded.
Lawrence Tech sought to cultivate a relationship with an oil-rich Mideast state—one, Lawrence Tech officials point out, that seemed relatively progressive at the time. But recent protests and resulting crackdowns in the region have had a way of refocusing the Western public’s attention on the regimes there—even on governments thought to be permissive—and on the colleges that have ties in the region.
Those ties—particularly with Libya—have been especially damaging to the London School of Economics and Political Science, where early this month the director resigned amid controversy over funds the school had received from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The fallout there, and at other Western institutions, shows the risks colleges take to their reputations when they accept money from autocratic regimes, no matter how amicable the regimes’ relations with the West are at the time.
Critics from conservative and pro-Israel camps have long argued that Muslim countries are buying influence in academe. Now objections to foreign money are also coming from the left, emphasizing the human-rights issues and the unseemly relationships colleges might have with despotic governments or money that flows through them.
Fabrice Coffrini, AFP, Getty Images