Fundraising is the lifeblood of higher education. One might presume, however, that Harvard University with its $25.9-billion endowment would have the luxury of being selective in choosing its donors. But as two recent developments in the university’s hunt for funding indicate, even Harvard is willing to compromise its principles in order to fill its coffers.
In the first incident, Harvard’s was one of a group of 14 law schools, known collectively as the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc. (FAIR), which went before the Supreme Court to contest the Solomon Amendment, a provision that gives the government the option of refusing federal funding to universities that deny on-campus access to military recruiters seeking to hire some 400 new judge advocate generals each year.
The law school plaintiffs in this case, including Harvard, argued that they had long-existing policies of denying recruiting privileges to employers who discriminate against employees based on race, creed, and—most importantly in this case—sexual orientation. Given the military’s current exclusionary policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for gays in the armed forces, the law schools asserted that military recruiters, insofar as they knowingly and openly violated the long-held anti-discrimination precepts of the schools, would be unwelcome at recruitment events.
All well and good, save for one minor detail: While Harvard Law School wanted to deny the military’s ability to recruit the best and brightest from their campus, they understandably wished to keep the roughly $400 million that Harvard receives yearly in federal funds. But withholding federal funding from schools barring military recruiters was precisely the option the amendment granted to the government. “[T]ell recipients of Federal money at colleges and universities that if you do not like the Armed Forces, if you do not like its policies, that is fine,” said Representative Gerald Solomon of New York when the law was written in 1994. “That is your First Amendment right. But do not expect federal dollars to support your interference with our military recruiters.”
In the same weeks that Harvard waited for high court’s response to the FAIR appeal, good fortune smiled on the institution with the announcement of a $20 million gift from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The express purpose of the prince’s contribution, in his own words, is to “bridge the gap between East and West, between Christianity and Islam, and between Saudi Arabia and the United States.” The prince, reputed to be the world’s fifth richest man and chairman of the Riyadh-based Kingdom Holding Co., has been intent on “bridging the gap” for some time now. He was, it may be remembered, the same individual whose intended $10 million gift to families of 9/11 victims was returned by then-Mayor Giuliani after the prince off-handedly mentioned that the U.S. had to “reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause . . . Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek.”
Lest anyone doubt what side of the Palestinian-Israeli debate Alwaleed comes down on, one could point to yet another donation he made in 2002. During a government-sponsored, live-broadcast telethon for the benefit of Palestinian families of suicide bomber “martyrs,” which eventually raised $100 million, the prince himself made a pledge of $27 million to help show Saudi support for the Palestinian cause.
Politics aside, the prince’s donation presents a thornier ethical issue for Harvard. Considering the school’s strenuously professed commitment to equality, how is it to justify taking a major gift—and agreeing to set up an entire Middle East research center—from a donor who is a member of the ruling family of a repressive, totalitarian, sexist theocracy? The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that Harvard Law School could not abide on the part of the military is a triumph of civic tolerance compared to Saudi laws against homosexuality. In the prince’s homeland, homosexuality is a capital crime and accused homosexuals have been not only shunned but also beheaded. Shari’a law allows punishment for “deviant sexual behavior” ranging from imprisonment and flogging to death, and the self-appointed guardians of Saudi sexual mores do not hesitate to put it into practice. As a result, the country has seen the conviction by a Jeddah court of alleged transvestites, while thirty-one men suffered 200 lashes each and multi-month prison terms. Four other men in the incident received two years imprisonment and 2,000 lashes.
Still another characteristic of the prince’s totalitarian society should offend Harvard’s commitment to academic inquiry and free expression. This would be the virtual ban on any “non-conforming” speech on the part of teachers; in Saudi Arabia, apostasy is also a capital offense, and teachers who question religious dogma are at risk. This past November, for example, a high school chemistry teacher received 750 lashes and over three years in prison from a Saudi court for engaging students in discussions about Christianity, Judaism and terrorism. Similarly, in 2004, a Riyadh court permanently banned one Muhammad al-Sahimi from teaching. He received three years in prison and 300 lashes for “endorsing allegedly un-Islamic sexual, social and religious practices.”
Harvard faculty have yet to condemn such practices. This is not out of any reticence on their part. Readers may recall the near-universal opprobrium Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, found directed at him after his informal remarks in January 2004 suggesting that the absence of women from science faculties might be linked to superior quantitative reasoning on the part of men. One would think that the same highly-sensitive professors who went into a furor over Summer’s “unconscionable” remarks, and whose scathing criticism forced a contrite Summers to set up a $50 million diversity fund to attract more women faculty members, would be absolutely apoplectic over the complete repression of women in Saudi Arabia. There, women are not struggling for tenured spots on elite faculties. Saudi women have the dubious distinction of living in the only country where they still cannot vote, nor even drive. “They cannot travel abroad without permission from a male relative,” notes John R. Bradley in Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. “Indeed, they cannot in many instances leave the house without a male relative acting as chaperone. Whole employment sectors are closed to them. . . Generally speaking, the rule is that women are hidden, constrained and repressed.” Having denounced Summers as a contemptible misogynist for his remarks, Harvard’s censorious professoriate has maintained a curious silence on the incomparably worse injustices visited upon Saudi women.
More serious than Harvard’s hypocrisy is a question that goes to the very core of the purpose of Alwaleed’s gift. What is the intellectual intent of setting up the research center in the first place? Is this center, with a stated ambition of fostering “peace and tolerance” between East and West, part of a continuing “educational” campaign that minimizes the defects of Saudi society and culture and promotes a sanitized, disingenuous view that ignores religious intolerance, lack of pluralism, and homicidal religious fanaticism?
Certainly there is cause for suspicion. Consider that one of the prince’s earlier gifts for exactly that purpose was a $500,000 donation to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to supply American public schools with books and tapes with a retooled, softened view of the Islamic world.
CAIR, however, whose stated mission is to “promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America,” has become an apologist for terror and anti-Americanism. As part of its mission, it provides teaching materials to school systems, such as the Arab World Studies Notebook, which Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, called “a piece of propaganda,” as opposed to an educational supplement with actual credibility as a teaching tool. A report by The American Jewish Committee about the text was similarly critical, noting that the work book, which “attempt[ed] to redress a perceived deficit in sympathetic views of the Arabs and Muslim religion in the American classroom, veer[ed] in the opposite direction — toward historical distortion as well as uncritical praise, whitewashing and practically proselytizing.”
As Harvard begins planning how the Prince’s donations will create research programs and advance honest intellectual inquiry into Middle Eastern studies, it will have to be careful to avoid the conflicting purposes that have arisen in other Middle Eastern centers—particularly at Columbia University’s controversial Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures Department where one-sided, biased “scholarship” focuses almost exclusively on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has been accused of being, at its intellectual core, ideology-driven and characterized with an unrelenting contempt for and dismissal of Israel, Zionism, Jews, and the West.
The lesson for Harvard here is that there can be ethical implications inherent in receiving the funds vital to the institution’s survival. When the university accepts gifts from a donor, it often has to give something in return, as well. The grim irony is that Harvard may have surrendered the very principles it so ostentatiously claims to prize.
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