A few decades ago, American university campuses were arguably the freest places in the country – oases of liberty where even the most challenging and unorthodox ideas could get a fair hearing and be earnestly and vigorously debated. In recent years, however, that freedom has been eroded by “speech codes” supposedly intended to protect members of certain groups from offense. Speakers whose views are considered politically incorrect have been disinvited. During the last year or so, many students have complained about what they call “microaggressions” – gestures or statements that unintentionally give offense on an admittedly minor level but that nonetheless, they argue, need to be silenced.
All this policing of speech on American campuses has helped make them considerably less free than they used to be, and has been widely criticized. But another threat to the freedom of American universities – and their British counterparts, too – has drawn somewhat less attention. We’re talking about the morally questionable ties that college administrators, eager to rake in foreign money, have forged with undemocratic governments around the globe.
Three years ago, Shaun Tan, who at the time was an International Relations student at Yale, published a highly illuminating article, aptly entitled “Dangerous Liaisons,” about this phenomenon. The article should have appeared in a high-profile place like the New York Times Magazine, and should have sparked national debate; unfortunately, it was posted at The Politic, a website written by and for students at Yale.
Tan served up a raft of eye-popping anecdotes. In 2011, for example, Sir Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics, “resigned in disgrace” when the media uncovered lucrative deals he’d made on behalf of the LSE with the Qaddafi regime in Libya. Tan noted that LSE, sniffing out the possibility of a big payday, had accepted Qaddafi’s son Saif as a Ph.D. student “despite his poor English skills and weak academic record,” and had accorded him “special privileges, including special assistance from professors and permission to use a personal assistant to help him with his thesis.”
In return, LSE cashed in, receiving “a $2.5 million donation from the Gaddafi Foundation in 2008, as well as a $3.5 million contract for a special exchange program to train Libyan bureaucrats.” LSE even hosted “a live video-link conference” with Colonel Qaddafi himself, who
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.
But we’re just warming up. More tomorrow.