Having personally spent five years living in countries such as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan and working with senior people in their governments, I am following with interest the discussion about university involvement with training civil servants and leaders in despotic countries.
If you ever needed proof about the populist depths to which the press has sunk in Britain, just look at the media coverage of the resignation of the LSE Director over the Libyan money which the School had been receiving (largely as a result of the pressures the Bliar and other Governments have put Universities under to build commercial links). Almost to a (wo)man, their comments condemn the involvement but fail to ask some basic questions. Colin Talbot has a more balanced reaction - I totally agree with this line of argument. I felt privileged to be allowed to stand in a classroom of the Tashkent Presidential Academy for Reconstruction and present to civil servants the sort of perspective about power enshrined in Rosabeth Kanter's Ten Rules of Stifling Innovation - and also to lay out the European experience of developing local government over the centuries.
Of course, the LSE Director (who came from the financial sector) was particularly unethical in his approach and deserved to go. But he is the easy scapegoat whose fate seems to absolve the rest from their guilt.
The late Fred Halliday (Middle East expert) seems to have been about the only academic to make public criticisms of the LSE acceptance of donations from various unsavoury despots - just before his death last year. It’s easy to be wise after the event - but the moral courage and nuanced judgement of people like Fred Halliday is in very short supply these days.
Many western universities have also run all sorts of training and education programmes in these same states. Does anyone seriously doubt that these encounters with democratic, open, education systems has not been a positive factor in helping to ferment the current revolt that is sweeping across the Arab world?
I have made this positive point in several BBC radio interviews over the past two days, against a tidal wave of criticism of the LSE. But I think that, in that context, the resigning LSE Director Howard Davies was absolutely right to defend the LSEs educational work with Libyan public servants, of which I was briefly a part in June 2008. As long as these programmes are not censored by the regimes in question, their impact can only be to the good.
Of course, in the real world it is not as simple as that – those of us who have worked in non-democratic states like China or Libya know that there are always pressures to compromise and self-censor, something we always have to guard against.
Rather more complex is whether Universities should accept money to establish research centres and programmes – like, for example, the Said Business School at Oxford (funded by a Saudi arms dealer). Here the issues of complicity with dodgy regimes or individuals become much more acute and potentially morally dubious.
It is in this area that Howard Davies and the LSE tripped up, but I’m still not sure it really merited his resignation. After all, these links were encouraged and supported by the then British government. And those on the right now attacking Tony Blair for pursuing this diplomatic strategy should ask themselves – would Libya be revolting now if it hadn’t been opened up to all sorts of western influences? Perhaps they should reserve their indignation for a Prime Minister who trots around the Gulf selling arms in the middle of all this?
But on balance, engagement with education organised by western Universities has had a huge, positive, effect on the Arab world and is probably not an insignificant factor in the current uprising. We in the University sector should be much more aggressive in defending this record – especially against media empires run by family-based autocracies that bear striking similarities to some Arab regimes I could mention.