Report questions donor influence

Pete Jefferys - Investigations Editor 8 June 2009

Cambridge’s academic independence has been compromised by the influence of significant donors, according to a new report.
‘A Degree of influence’ published by the Centre for Social Cohesion claims that Cambridge is an example of how funding can have “significant impact on how a university is run”.

The report argues that several donors, including the Sultan of Oman, Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian government, have either exerted questionable influence on the departments they have funded or have human rights records that should exclude them from donation.

The report’s author accused top UK universities, including Cambridge, of “being in bed” with human rights abusers. The report is particularly critical of the Alaweed Bin Talal Centre for Islamic studies in Cambridge, which was set up in 2008 on the back of £8 million funding from the Saudi Prince.

The centre’s management committee is significantly influenced by the Prince, according to the report, as he has the power to appoint three out of its maximum of ten members. The report notes that Cambridge has dismissed fears that Alaweed has excessive control saying that such claims are “over-stated”.
Also highlighted by the report is a 2005 donation from Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman. Sultan Qaboos gave £3.1 million to establish a Professorship of Modern Arabic in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. He also donated £300,000 to Pembroke College to support a fellowship in Oriental Studies.

The report notes that in Oman’s elections of 2007 just 388,000 people were eligible to vote from a population of over 3 million. It is conceded however that Oman is “politically moderate” and that the Sultan has been seen as a “moderate and progressive leader”.

By contrast, the report is highly critical of donations to Cambridge from the Iranian government which it accuses of “an extremely poor human rights record”.
The report’s author, Robin Simcox, told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “Britain’s finest universities being financially reliant on unelected human rights abusers is clearly an unpalatable situation. The ones affected most adversely by this – students themselves – should be aware that donors have gained influence over the way the subjects are presented, caused censorship on campus, handpicked members of university management committees and used universities as diplomatic tools.”

Ant Bagshaw, CUSU education officer, was critical of the report calling it “highly islamophobic”. He argued that there was an “unwarranted association of middle eastern donors, certain Cambridge faculties and undue influence” made by the report, along with wrongful implication that the Centre for Islamic studies could be majority controlled by Prince Alaweed which, he argued, was “simply not the case”.

Responding to the charge of ‘islamophobia’, Robin Simcox, the report’s author, stated: “Presumably those making such allegations would prefer that we applaud UK universities for taking cash from regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran that routinely stone Muslim women, execute gay Muslim men and torture and imprison Muslim student protestors. It seems that those criticising the report have, as so often, failed to read it.”

A spokesperson for the University confirmed that Alaweed’s representatives could not hold majority control of the Islamic Centre’s management committee stating: “Donor representatives will always be in a minority, but may well themselves be academics who can bring an informed external perspective. These arrangements ensure that the academic integrity of the University is fully protected whilst at the same time enabling a particular academic area to benefit from the input of donor representatives.”

The director of the think tank which produced the report is the controversial, self-styled neo conservative Douglas Murray. During an interview with TCS in December 2008, Murray described Iran as having “a ludicrous government run by people who think a pre-pubescent boy is going to crawl out of a well and herald the end times”.

TCS reported in March that Churchill College had received significant donations from Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, who was linked to the controversial ‘Al Yamamah’ arms deal between the Saudi government and BAE systems. The ‘Al Yamamah’ deal, reportedly worth £20 billion, was subject to an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, which was suppressed in 2006 by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair on the grounds of “national security”.
Bandar’s donation to Churchill College was partly towards the completion of the new wing of the Churchill Archives Centre which houses an extensive collection of the papers of Lady Thatcher.

Thatcher brokered the first Al Yamamah deal in 1985 after negotiations with Prince Bandar, according to Ministry of Defence briefing papers. Prince Bandar is a member of the Guild of Cambridge Benefactors which honours all those who donate over £1million to the University or its colleges.

Pete Jefferys – Investigations Editor