Donations to universities sometimes have strings attached

Would a university reject a multi-million ringgit donation if it were offered by a despot or tyrant?

Increasingly around the world, universities are seeing their budgets slashed. They receive less money from their governments and so must employ creative methods in order to survive.

Bigger and more established universities, especially those with research facilities, may already receive funding from large companies for a particular line of research.

Some businessmen who have made it big also donate to their alma maters. They give huge amounts of money as a thank-you for the grounding they received, or provide financial assistance to students who struggle as they did themselves.

Malaysians, too, are known for their generosity. Many years ago, the late philanthropist and politician Dr Tan Chee Khoon set up scholarships in many schools to assist poor students.

But what happens when a university is approached by donors with whom they would rather not be associated? They will be torn between receiving the money and having their reputations sullied.

Do these donations come with conditions? Should a university refuse the money, especially when the person behind it has been involved in human rights violations or corruption? Only naive people would think that a political despot donates for altruistic reasons.

In 2011, the London School of Economics (LSE) accepted US$2.1 million from Saif al-Islam, the son of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

When a video emerged showing leading academics at LSE heaping praise on Gaddafi, an outraged British public demanded that Saif be stripped of his doctorate. Howard Davies, the director of LSE’s business school, issued a statement that the university’s reputation had “suffered”, and subsequently resigned.

But LSE is not the first university to receive money from questionable personalities, nor will it be the last. Universities need donations to survive in the competitive world of academic funding, and donors are keen to whitewash their reputations.

Several years ago, Australia’s Monash University conferred former prime minister Najib Razak with an honorary doctorate. Similar honorary degrees from other universities were also awarded to Rosmah Mansor and former Sarawak chief minister Taib Mahmud. Today, both Najib and Rosmah have been charged with money laundering, corruption and abuse of power.

On July 25, 2010, meanwhile, demonstrators held a protest at the entrance of the University of Oxford’s Said Business School where Taib was slated to give a talk. He had sponsored the school’s Inaugural Global Islamic Branding and Marketing Forum.

A few years later, when I accompanied cartoonist Zunar to the university where he delivered a talk, I was told not to show videos of the talk or publicise it, so that the university would not get into trouble with the government. Fear of the government kept many students away from the talk, and those who did turn up did not want their faces shown.

Universities desperate for cash keep out of trouble by exercising caution.

In 2016, Nottingham University student Cassandra Chung initiated a petition and debate to have a two-metre high portrait of Najib removed from the King’s Meadow Campus. But Malaysians were too scared to attend the meeting or sign the petition. It was alleged that a delegation from the Malaysian High Commission also travelled from London to the university for the debate.

In the end, the petition failed to achieve its goal while back at home, Chung’s family was reportedly vilified on social media by cybertroopers.

Universities which are desperate for cash, recognition and survival, whether on home turf or overseas campuses, are not immune from the scandals generated by some of their more infamous graduates. It appears, after all, that money really does talk.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.