Pots and Kettles: Should the Universities Take Saudi Money?

A reader who is also a member of one of the big law firms I excoriated for taking Saudi money * points out that both my current employer, the University of California, and my former employer, Harvard, have accepted of the Kingdom’s bounty for professorial chairs. He wants to know what I think about that.

Three answers:

1. I’m against it.

2. It isn’t the same.

3. If it happens again, I want to know about it so I can make a fuss.

That I’m against it should go without saying. People who give you money have influence over you. No one should voluntarily put himself in the position where the enemies of his country can influence him.

As it happens, some months ago a close friend who is also a highly distinguished professor with a needy research enterprise had an opportunity to raise Very Big Bucks from Saudi Arabia. He asked me what I thought about it, and I strongly advised him not to go that way, despite my regard for the importance of the work he and his group do.

That the Harvard and UC cases aren’t the same as the Baker Botts and Jones Day cases is true on two levels.

First, a university’s norms and processes are all about independence, while the lawyer-client relationship is based on the lawyer’s duty of zealous advocacy. In particular, a university can and should take money from people on both sides of most disputed issues, while the conflict-of-interest rules mean that a lawyer who takes a retainer from one party can’t represent the other party, even in a different action.

Second, disloyalty, like its relative, treason, sometimes is what Talleyrand said it was: a matter of dates. Taking Saudi money before 9-11 (or before the public record contained what it now contains in the way of evidence of Saudi complicity in 9-11) was not the same thing as taking that money today. Unlike the retainers I criticized, the UC and Harvard transactions were both pre-9-11.

I didn’t like those deals when they happened; the Kingdom has done, and continues to do, enough nasty things other than financing al-Qaeda to make it worthy of sustained criticism, and taking its money must tend to reduce the volume and severity of the criticism it gets. Moreover, American universities employ substantial numbers of Jews, and the Kingdom is openly and consistently anti-Semitic.

Surely it is not far-fetched to suspect that a country that, as a matter of law, does not grant visas to Jews will, as a donor, tend to make the places to which it gives money less hospitable to the people it hates and despises. (“C’mon, Jim. Can we really afford to have a Director of Development named Katzenberg? How far is that going to get with Prince Bandar?”)

Be that as it may, now that we know that the Saudi government has waged, and is waging, war on the United States, it would be in my view utterly despicable for any university to take Saudi money, or to provide the usual quid pro quos in the form of named chairs, named buildings, named programs, or honorary degrees. I’d be happy to help publicize any incidents of such academic prostitution that come to my attention.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com