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Why Arabian Gulf Countries Donate to US Universities

June 09, 2008

By Jay P. Greene

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jay P. Greene, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Greene conducts research and writes about education policy, including topics such as school choice, high school graduation rates, accountability, and special education.

FP: Jay Greene, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Greene: It’s nice to be back.

FP: Tell us about how Arabian Gulf countries donate to US universities. What’s the significance?

Greene: I’ve done some analysis of foreign gifts to US universities in two posts on my blog that can be found here and here. First, I found that Arabian Gulf states (mostly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates) give way out of proportion to their wealth. Gulf Arabs are the source of 16.44% of all foreign gifts and contracts to US universities but they represent only 1.95% of foreign GDP. That is, Gulf Arabs give 8 times more relative to their wealth than do other foreign donors. To put it in perspective, our top 10 trading partners (excluding Saudi Arabia) give 47% of all foreign gifts and contracts and represent 44% of foreign GDP; their giving is roughly proportionate to their wealth. Clearly, Gulf Arab countries have a particularly strong interest in US universities.

FP: Why do these Arabian Gulf states engage in these donations?

Greene: They probably have a few reasons. They provide a louder megaphone to people articulating their interests and shift the selection and development of future Middle East experts toward their way of thinking. Second, they want to be able to send students from their own countries for training at these universities. Large donations help facilitate that. Third, they are determined to build their own world-class universities and these donations help secure expert advice on how to do that. For example, Qatar has built an "Education City" with satellite campuses operated in Qatar by Cornell, Georgetown, and Virginia Commonwealth. Saudi Arabia has committed $25 billion as an endowment for their elite university. Investments in US universities should help transfer the know-how to these new institutions.

FP: How are Arab donations concentrated?

Greene: If we focus only on gifts and exclude contracts, most of which seem related to oil production and research, Gulf Arabs gave a total of $88 million to 14 US universities between 1995 and the present (if federal filings are accurate and complete). The biggest recipients (in order) are the University of Arkansas (where I am a professor), Georgetown University, George Washington University, and Harvard University. I also note that the 14 recipient universities are the homes of a disproportionate 16 of David Horowitz’s 101 most dangerous professors.

FP: And what are your thoughts on the 14 recipient universities being the homes of a disproportionate 16 of Horowitz’s 101 most dangerous professors? What is the meaning in your view?

Greene: I'm not sure if there is any causal relationship there, but I think it is interesting to note. Most of the money went to people and universities that were already inclined toward what the Gulf Arabs wanted. Some of those same people are among the 101 professors that David Horowitz has identified as dangerous. But the same people that Horowitz views as dangerous may be viewed by Gulf Arab donors as wonderful.

FP: What influence do these donations have? How do they figure in the world of Middle Eastern Studies?

Greene: In some ways, these gifts are smaller and have less of an impact than I would have expected. While $88 million sounds like a lot of money, it is quite small relative to university endowments and budgets. As of 2007 university endowments totaled $524 billion, making Gulf Arab donations .02% of the total. Even at the 14 recipient institutions Gulf Arab money is generally less than 2% of their endowments. And $88 million would produce only a fraction of 1% of annual spending at these institutions.

Gifts of this size cannot significantly alter the priorities of universities. For the most part, these gifts went to universities and individual professors who were already pursuing agendas favorable to Gulf Arab interests. They didn’t buy the universities or professors, they just gave them a louder megaphone for what they were already saying.

In other ways, these gifts have had a profound impact, particularly within the small world of Middle Eastern Studies. $88 million may be a small part of total university resources, but it is quite a lot to a Middle Eastern Studies department or program.

Anyone wishing to be a successful graduate student and eventually a professor of Middle Eastern Studies has to know that if they stay away from certain questions, like the abuses of authoritarian Arab regimes, and focus on other questions, like alleged shortcomings of Israel or the US, they might get several million dollars dropped in their lap. In addition, the students of the favored professors who receive millions of dollars are more likely to advance further in the profession.

Students of other professors without the status of multi-million dollar gifts will fare less well. Prospective graduate students who do not hold the views favored by the Gulf Arab donors are less likely to do well under this system and may choose to leave the field. So, the gifts do not change the views of established professors, but they significantly alter the selection and development of future professors of Middle Eastern Studies. And since these future experts will populate the faculty of other universities as well as government agencies, such as the State Department and CIA, these relatively small gifts can have a far reaching impact.

FP: So what can graduate students who do not hold the views favored by the Gulf Arab donors do?

Greene: It's not easy. They have to find a program where their views will be tolerated or even encouraged. I would recommend that people contact the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, which is a new group of scholars headed by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami to get a sense of which program might be accommodating.

FP: What are potential solutions to the problems these gifts produce?

Greene: First, we need to ensure that there continues to be full disclosure of all foreign gifts to US universities so that we can monitor any potential pernicious influence. Stanley Kurtz at National Review has expressed concerns that Congress may dilute reporting requirements.

Second, supporters of Israel and others concerned about Gulf Arab influence in Middle Eastern Studies ought to gather their own funds to donate to universities and programs more sympathetic to their views. If the problem is that Gulf Arab money is privileging certain perspectives by giving them a louder megaphone and higher status within the field, then gifts from other sources could give a megaphone and status to other perspectives.

Of course, it is tricky for potential donors to know which universities and programs are most likely to be amenable to their views and it is even more difficult to ensure that those views endure after gifts are made. But there are organizations out there to help people make constructive donations to universities and ensure that their intent is followed. For example, the Veritas Fund For Higher Education Reform run by my friend David DesRosiers works with potential donors on these issues. The best way to ensure that there is a diversity of views in Middle Eastern Studies programs is to ensure that there is a diversity of significant funding sources. Those wishing to counter Saudi influence should be able to muster something like $88 million over a dozen years.

FP: But surely these Studies programs can also be pressured to give academic freedom as well, no? Funding should not necessarily lead to one view being imposed. The key is for Studies programs to allow intellectual diversity, right?

Greene: I agree. But a competitive market of donors will help ensure a competitive market of ideas. Rhetorical pressure on closed-minded programs to be more tolerant and diverse is also important, but there's no pressure like competition from another program that receives large donations because it offers greater intellectual diversity.

FP: Jay Greene, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Greene: Thank you.

Original Source:



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