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More Than a "Personal Error of Judgment": Seif Gaddafi and the London School of Economics

[Seif Gaddafi. Image by Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters] [Seif Gaddafi. Image by Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters]

“Seif is committed to resolving contentious international and domestic issues through dialogue, debate, and peaceful negotiations.” These were the words with which Professor David Held introduced a public lecture by Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2009. Last week, British media revelled in replaying Held’s words, before cutting to Seif Gaddafi’s February 21, 2011, speech on Libyan state TV in which he predicted "rivers of blood" and vowed: "We'll fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.” Another Youtube video shows Gaddafi wielding an assault rifle and rallying his supporters with promises to arm them.

Held is a co-director of the LSE Centre for Global Governance. He had acted as an informal adviser for Gaddafi’s PhD thesis at LSE, completed in 2008. The following year, Held’s centre received a donation of £1.5 million from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (GICDF) for a North Africa research program that was to include a “virtual democracy” center. The donation was controversial even then, but became untenable after Seif’s “rivers of blood” speech; LSE was shamed into rejecting it, having received only £300,000 so far. Then, charges of plagiarism were levelled against Gaddafi Jr. and London’s academic scene was abuzz with rumours that the PhD had been ghost-written. It was further revealed that LSE Enterprise had concluded a deal with the Libyan Economic Development Board worth £2.2 million to train Libyan civil servants, and that LSE director Howard Davies had advised the Libyan Investment Authority on its strategy in 2007 in return for a payment to a scholarship fund at LSE of £30,700. On March 3, LSE decided to charge Lord Woolf, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and former Chairman of the Council of University College London, with conducting an inquiry into the university’s links with Libya. Davies stepped down, calling the acceptance of the dictator’s donation “a mistake” and contended that his advice to the sovereign wealth fund was a “personal error of judgement.”

Yet these dealings are more than a personal lapse in judgment. The cooperation between the autocrat’s son and the most high-profile social science institution in Britain has to be understood in the context of Gaddafi’s efforts to succeed his father and the creeping privatization of British higher education. The LSE’s links to the Libyan regime are, therefore, a welcome opportunity to debate the ethics of accepting donations from private individuals and foreign governments, especially in Middle Eastern studies.

The Price of a PhD

Before turning to these wider issues, let us examine the justifications given by those involved on the LSE side. One of Seif’s PhD examiners, Meghnad (Lord) Desai, is emeritus professor of economics at LSE and founder of the Centre for Global Governance which was to benefit from the GICDF donation. Lord Desai defended LSE’s behaviour in a comment to the Guardian. He claimed that the PhD and the donation were uncontroversial at the time: “No one at this stage had said there were problems of authorship or plagiarism with the thesis. It was only after bullets started flying in Libya that his thesis was subjected to an online investigation for plagiarism, and Gaddafi was found to have cheated. Nor had anyone until then objected to the LSE receiving a donation from Gaddafi's foundation. This was, after all, public knowledge.” In short, all that the LSE could be accused of was a lack of foresight. Lord Desai makes two claims: firstly, that no one had suggested there was plagiarism when the PhD was handed in and secondly, that there was no criticism of the donation at the time it was made public. The first claim ignores several incongruities in the thesis and the way that LSE handled it. By not picking up on those incongruities, Lord Desai and Anthony McGrew may have failed in their responsibility as PhD examiners on behalf of the University of London. The second claim, that there was no criticism of the donation, is simply untrue.

In awarding a doctorate to Seif Gaddafi, his examiners accepted that their student operated in a grey area of the institution’s examination rules. In his PhD, titled The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-Making, Gaddafi acknowledges (on pp. 13-14) that he used the services of the Monitor Group to conduct a quantitative survey of over one hundred respondents from international governmental organisations (IGOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as over fifty qualitative interviews. Gaddafi claimed in his thesis that the interviews followed his own research design and that he himself had provided the “focus” of the questions. He also includes a substantial methodological appendix. Hiring a consultancy firm to conduct a whole survey is in a grey area, to say the least, and may actually violate the rules under which the PhD was granted.[1] This is all the more serious because the survey is crucial for the “original contribution” to which the thesis lays claim. Admittedly, it is not unusual for doctoral candidates to hire research assistants to conduct interviews with difficult-to-reach respondents, for instance due to language barriers or great geographic spread. It is therefore up to Lord Woolf to decide whether the rules were violated.

Another serious charge regards plagiarism. It took this author five minutes of using Google to find text in the thesis that had been plagiarised with only slight alterations from pages 9-10 of Tim Jones and Peter Hardstaff’s Denying Democracy: How the IMF and World Bank Take Power from People (World Development Movement: London, 2005). A “wiki” set up to collect incidents of plagiarism turned up additional instances of copy-and-paste. The Independent newspaper further reported claims that the PhD had been ghost written by a Libyan academic. PhD examiner Lord Desai says that Seif Gaddafi “stood up well” to the two-and-a-half hour oral examination, suggesting that he did not think it was ghost written, but Desai now accepts that the student had indeed “cheated.”

A final incongruity in LSE’s handling of the thesis is that it was conducted in the department of philosophy. The title of the thesis suggests that it falls under the heading of international relations or government, given that the topic is civil society and global governance. The argument of the thesis – according to the abstract – is that the inclusion of NGOs in decision-making could create a more democratic global governance system. The methodology includes a quantitative survey of decision-makers in NGOs and IGOs. The examiner Anthony McGrew is a political scientist, Lord Desai is an economist. Neither is known as a philosopher, nor do they teach in philosophy departments. In short, the topic of the thesis, the methodology, and the examiners suggest that it should have been conducted in the LSE departments of international relations or government, but certainly not in philosophy.

Lord Desai also claims in the Guardian that there was no criticism of the donation by the Gaddafi Foundation to the LSE Centre for Global Governance in 2009 until “bullets started flying in Libya.” This statement is patently untrue. The greatest authority on Middle East politics at LSE, the late Fred Halliday, had submitted a memo (dated October 4, 2009) to the Council of the LSE when it made its final consideration on whether to approve the £1.5 million grant from the Gaddafi Foundation. Halliday had previously expressed his misgivings about the grant to the LSE’s director, pro-director for research and external relations, and to David Held. It is worth quoting from the memo in detail. He starts off with an important distinction between consulting and advising Libyan officials and actually accepting funding from them: “While I am in favour of British government and business attempts to develop links with Libya, and support LSE work that is of a consultancy and advisory character, and while encouraging personal contact with whatever Libyan officials we meet, I have repeatedly expressed reservations about formal educational and funding links with that country.”

Halliday saw nothing wrong with contacts to the regime and even advising it, but formal links which involve funding would present a “reputational risk” for LSE. He has certainly been proven right. The strong opposition to accepting the Libyan donation by the LSE’s leading expert on Middle East politics belies Lord Desai’s claim that no one objected to this linkage with the Gaddafi regime. One wonders whether Halliday’s opposition to links with the Libyan regime provide a clue as to why Seif Gaddafi did not submit his PhD in LSE’s international relations department, where Halliday was based.

Doctoring Up a Succession Bid

The context of Seif Gaddafi’s efforts to woo LSE was his fight for succession and for regime survival. There was an external and an internal dimension to these efforts. Seif had understood that Western governments had resigned themselves to the longevity of Arab authoritarianism. These trends were reflected in political science discourse on the region. In the 1990s, European and American political scientists briefly went “democrazy,” searching for indications that the “third wave” of democratization that had swept Latin America and Eastern Europe was reaching the Middle East. By 2000, such democratic change seemed unlikely. After the successful accession of the sons of autocratic rulers in Syria, Jordan, and Morocco, political scientists turned their attention to studies of regime survival and “authoritarian upgrading.” An important aspect of this was the succession of “new elites.” Popular uprisings were considered unlikely, so political scientists focused on the new generation who were going to inherit power in the autocratic regimes of Arab world. Talk of a new generation and of inheritance could be taken quite literally, as many of those who were being groomed for succession were the sons of existing rulers. American and European policy makers were looking to political scientists to explain to them who exactly was taking power in the Middle East and whether the West “could do business with them.”

Intellectual Reputations for Sale

This new generation of autocrats was angling to make themselves acceptable to Western states. The epithet “Western educated” calms the nerves of Western policy makers, signifying that the son of the autocrat somehow belongs to “us” – the liberal, enlightened West – rather than a “backward” and stagnant autocracy. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has used his unpaid, self-funded, and interrupted fellowship at a London eye hospital to maintain a popular guessing game about whether he is a “reformer” or a “hardliner.”[2] Among the sons of Arab autocrats, Seif Gaddafi enjoyed the most success with this strategy. He used his connection to LSE to clean up his image and to present himself as a reformer with an interest in democracy and conflict resolution. The Libyan regime also employed the Monitor Group to clean up its image. The PR firm cleverly realized that “prestigious” social scientists are highly influential in shaping perceptions of the world and foreign affairs. Monitor Group paid high-profile American and European academics to visit Muammar Gaddafi and encouraged them to publish positive articles on their experience.

In his desert tent, Gaddafi Sr. hosted social scientists who had coined some of the most memorable terms of the discipline over the past twenty years: Robert Putnam (“social capital”), Anthony Giddens (“the third way”), Benjamin Barber (“strong democracy”), Francis Fukuyama (“the end of history”), and Joseph Nye (“soft power”). The meetings were framed as intellectual exchanges between these academics and Gaddafi, who posed as a “philosopher king.” The malleability of the concepts of these theorists also played a role: While terms such as “soft power” or “the third way” may be clearly defined within the covers of academic books, the authors’ visits allowed Gaddafi to be associated with a more loose and more easily marketable version of these liberal concepts.

[Col. Muammar Gaddafi (left) listens during a debate on democracy with Anthony Giddens (far right) and Benjamin Barber. Image from Reuters/Louafi Larbi]

The opinion pieces that the academics produced subsequently had the effect of softening Gaddafi’s image. Joseph Nye wrote that he could not tell for certain whether Gaddafi had changed, “[b]ut there is no doubt that he acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas-- including soft power--with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy.” Former LSE director Giddens praised the Libyan regime in the Guardian in 2007: “As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular.” In the same year, Freedom House gave Libya the lowest possible score in its rankings of democracy and individual liberties – in other words, they ranked it among the most repressive regimes in the world. Barber, the Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Rutgers University, wrote that “Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country's role in a changed and changing world.” Barber further found that that “Libya under Gaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.”

Why did the academics travel to Libya, meet the dictator, and write about their experience – sometimes in highly positive terms? Recent interviews given after the start of the uprising provide an insight into their thinking. Some were just curious. Joseph Nye and Robert Putnam seem to fall into this category. They wanted to see Gaddafi to benefit their own research and to discuss their ideas with an influential – albeit autocratic – leader. These motives may be intellectually valid, and contrast with the efforts by neo-conservatives in the Bush administration to shut off all relations with “rogue” states. However, the visits leave a sour taste because the professors were paid for their troubles. They subsequently helped to soften the image of the regime by allowing Gaddafi to present himself as a sage who consorts with the great social thinkers of our time. Other academics actively defend their involvement with Gaddafi even now. Barber argues that Seif was “a credible, risk-taking reformer” and suggests that he had reason to fear his father because of his reform drive. Of course, this is the same Barber who had written in 2007 that Muammar “Gaddafi has taken grave risks in the name of change: offending the Benghazi clans that engineered the nurses' arrest.” He was referring to the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor from a Libyan jail in 2007. Barber interprets Seif Gaddafi as torn between liberalism and tribalism: “Seif is torn: On the one hand, he's a Qaddafi, a member of that clan. On the other, he's a scholar, a student, a reformer; he believes in Western liberalism -- his books and his dissertation are about how you adapt liberalism and civil society to the culture of North Africa. And then, he's also a European playboy.” According to Barber, Libya is a “tribal society” not ready for democracy. Torn between loyalty to his family or to Western liberalism, Seif Gaddafi chose the former.

David Held offered a similar analysis: “Watching Seif give that speech – looking so exhausted, nervous and, frankly, terrible – was the stuff of Shakespeare and of Freud: a young man torn by a struggle between loyalty to his father and his family, and the beliefs he had come to hold for reform, democracy and the rule of law.” In Held’s version, Seif was deeply conflicted between liberal democracy and his family and it was during his time at LSE that the dictator’s son made a final commitment to democracy. Similarly, Lord Desai expressed his disappointment after Seif’s “rivers of blood” speech “because he was not behaving as if he had had an LSE education.” Apparently, you cannot be an LSE- educated autocrat.


This purported contradiction fits neatly with the view of Middle Eastern societies as “backward” and “tribal,” struggling to modernize themselves toward liberal democracies. If European liberal academics can teach dictators and their sons the arts of liberal democracy, then they are pushing these societies in the right direction. Seif Gaddafi’s professors and advisors argue that he had internalized (but not resolved) this struggle between liberalism and tribalism. The dictator’s son is a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, torn between liberal rationality and the Freudian urges of filial loyalty. For a more cool-headed and less pompous analysis, it is worth going back to Fred Halliday’s 2009 memo to the LSE in which he picked up on this misconception of his colleagues: “Perhaps part of the problem here is a misunderstanding by colleagues of the role of the ‘liberal’ wing within such states. It is not a question of whether or not they are ‘sincere’ – they may well be – but of what their function is: in Libya, as in such states as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran the primary function of such liberal elements is not to produce change, but to reach compromises with internal hard-liners that serve to lessen external pressure.”

Domestic considerations also played a role in Seif Gaddafi’s liaison with the LSE and with Western academics. Muammar Gaddafi had based his rule on his “revolutionary” credentials from the 1969 overthrow of the monarchy. Seif’s brothers Khamis and Mutasim control military units and security organs. Seif, meanwhile, sought to build institutions that would underpin his rule. That is why he pushed for a constitution, while his father had always used the informality of the “revolutionary” system to divide and rule. The GICDF and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) also appear to have been among Seif’s institutional power bases. Larbi Sadiki interprets the conflict resolution and human rights initiatives of the GICDF as a means of ending one of the most repressive episodes of the regime between 1995 and 1997. The aim was to build a more consensual style of rule in Libya – but crucially, this is still a rule by the Gaddafi family, with Seif at its head.

Halliday came to a similar conclusion regarding the GICDF when he advised the LSE against accepting money from the fund: “While it is formally the case that the QF [Qaddafi Foundation, GICDF] is not part of the Libyan state, and is registered in Switzerland as an NGO, this is, in all practical senses, a legal fiction. The monies paid into the QF come from foreign businesses wishing to do business, i.e. receive contracts, for work in Libya, most evidently in the oil and gas industries. These monies are, in effect, a form of down payment, indeed of taxation, paid to the Libyan state, in anticipation of the award of contracts. The funds of the QF are, for this reason, to all intents and purposes, part of the Libyan state budget. ‘NGO status’, and recognition of such by UN bodies, means, in real terms, absolutely nothing ... That the President of the QF, and its effective director, is himself the son of the ruler, and, for all the informality of the Libyan political system (even the ‘Leader’, Colonel Qaddafi, has no formal position), in effect a senior official of that regime, confirms this analysis.”

In short, the false dichotomy between liberalism and tribalism went hand in hand with a false analysis of Seif’s struggle between the forces of light and darkness – one represented by the LSE, the other by the Gaddafi family. Sadiki also describes how Seif Gaddafi monopolized the human rights agenda, while rival human rights advocates were marginalised and even jailed. The Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) is said to have been another vehicle for Seif’s ambition. A BBC report suggests that Seif was effectively in control of the fund’s policy in handling investments estimated at £50-60 billion. On the invitation of the British government, LSE director Davies had advised the LIA ( and accepted a payment of £30,700 on behalf of an LSE scholarship fund.

The “Errors” Are Not “Personal”

It would be easy to fault prominent figures at LSE with individual “errors of judgement” – especially Howard Davies and David Held. However, dismissing the LSE’s behaviour merely as individual mistakes misses the context within which the university took its decision. Two elements must be added to the analysis: the direction of British foreign policy and the changing funding structure of British higher education. The British government encouraged the LSE to build a close relationship with the Gaddafi regime. One former LSE academic argued that Davies “is being made to carry the can for something that was clearly a British diplomatic strategy.” The UK government had been at the forefront of bringing Muammar Gaddafi in from the cold. In 2003, the Libyan leader abandoned his nuclear program and was rewarded with the restoration of diplomatic ties to the US and the UK, the two powers who had secretly negotiated the deal. Tony Blair presented this development as an example that the invasion of Iraq was working to discipline other “rogue states.” Gaddafi also accepted liability and paid compensation for the bombing of a Pan Am airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. In return, the UN lifted sanctions on Libya. In 1999, the regime had handed over Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to a Scottish-run court in the Netherlands, where he was convicted of the bombing. However, in 2009 the cancer-stricken Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds by the devolved Scottish government in a deal negotiated by Seif and viewed favourably the British government. Although the Scottish government continues to insist that the reasons for the release were compassion and the Brown government insisted it did not pressure Scotland, the episode improved UK relations with Libya at a time when British companies were scrambling for contracts in the North African state. Seif Gaddafi was a pivotal figure in the negotiations for al-Megrahi’s release.

[Image from]

British interests in Libya included oil, trade, intelligence, and immigration. The Libyan government is seeking international investment to boost output in oil exploration. Libya had the highest proven oil reserves in Africa in 2009, at 46.4 billion, but its current production is only about half of its peak in the 1960s. British companies were seeking a share of the lucrative pie, especially as Britain’s own North-Sea hydrocarbon reserves are running low. Libya was also seen as an attractive market for British products, especially arms sales. Following the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Libya in 2003, European arms suppliers such as France, Russia, and the UK queued up to provide the weaponry for the modernization of Libya’s military, which was planning to replace its aged arsenal of weapons from the 1970s and 1980s. For Britain, arms exports are seen as one way of “rebalancing” the economy away from finance and towards manufacturing, with armaments being one of the few British manufacturing industries still globally competitive after the Thatcherite assault on industry in the 1980s.

Another concern was intelligence support in the fight against al-Qaeda. Finally, European states in general are concerned over immigration from Africa, and Libya is a passageway to Europe. In October 2010, the European Union concluded a “cooperation agenda” with Libya to “manage” migration flows, despite warnings by human rights groups that “torture and other abuse of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants is systematic in Libya." When the LSE embraced Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, it simply mirrored the Libya-hugging by the British government. This is likely to be a cause of great bitterness for the tainted academics who may feel that they behaved no worse than the politicians.

Another aspect of the LSE’s liaison with the Libyan dictator is the changing funding landscape for higher education in the UK. An expansion of student numbers since the early 1990s was not matched by an expansion of government funding. Universities had to rely on “outside financing” to an ever greater extent. LSE has been a trailblazer in this regard, building up a recognizable “brand” which it could market around the world. The university’s prestige allowed it to charge the highest fees for masters’ programmes in Britain.[3] The university also tapped funding from wealthy private donors and foreign governments: Financier George Soros – an LSE alumnus – is the university’s largest donor, while governments such as Greece, Turkey, and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi also sponsored LSE research.[4] The university reportedly even made plans to go completely private. David Held’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance has been particularly enterprising. It lists a mixture of private and UK government funders on its website.

Yet LSE is by no means alone in accepting money from Libya or other Middle Eastern regimes. The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London hosted Seif’s brother Mutassim for private English tuition before embarking on a cooperation with al-Fateh university in Tripoli, for which the Libyan counterpart paid £188,024. A SOAS spokesman pointed out that the links to the Tripoli university predated Mutassim’s course at SOAS. The Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College ran a project to support prison reforms in Libya, funded by the UK’s Foreign Office but facilitated by the Gaddafi Foundation. Durham University’s Centre for Iranian Studies was criticised for holding a seminar sponsored by an Iranian government agency in January 2010, which prompted several speakers to pull out. The event was subsequently “monopolised by pro-regime speakers,” as its vice president admitted. A US embassy cable disseminated by Wikileaks revealed that Durham also solicited funding from the US State Department in 2008 for “extensive exchanges with Iranian media, academic, civil society and clerical sectors” which are possible “due to the political cover among contacts within Iran which Durham has apparently been able to generate.” Durham had thus gained funding from both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States.

The need to rely on outside funding has increased substantially due to radical changes in the funding structure of English higher education introduced in December 2010. The government contribution to the teaching budget is to be cut by 80 percent while the level at which English universities can charge fees will triple from £3,290 to £9,000.

The privatization of higher education in England increases funding uncertainty for British universities and provides incentives for the ever more aggressive solicitation of funds from private donors and foreign governments. British universities will find it harder to turn down gifts from Middle Eastern autocrats. The LSE’s Libya debacle is a good moment to reflect on the ethics of research funding. Rather than pinning the blame on individual decision-makers, British universities should do two things. First of all, university management, academics, and students should fight tooth and nail to retain public funding for teaching and research, both through the government and through Britain’s government-financed research councils. Secondly, universities need clear rules and mechanisms to assess and handle donations. The first condition is transparency: who are the donors, how much are they providing, and what conditions do they attach? For instance, memoranda of understanding between donors and universities could be made publicly available to ensure that research remains independent of donor interference.

What is also required is a broad debate about the ethics of particular donations. The LSE ignored Fred Halliday’s objections, but the opinions of academics at a university are crucially important, especially if they know the donor country well and can surmise the donor’s motives. Student unions also have a role to play. Such debates are not going to be easy. After all, Middle East studies – and donations to this field – are highly politicized. The Arab-Israeli conflict is just the most prominent dimension of this politics and there will always be someone who seeks to discredit donations for political ends. In short, there are no easy answers to the ethics of donations but there is no way around fighting government cuts in higher education and having a broad debate and clear rules.


[1] The PhD appears to have been submitted to the University of London rather than LSE – both have the power to confer PhDs and LSE students are able to choose either. Seif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis is available in the University of London’s Senate House library and bears a print mark of London University. His examiner Lord Desai said he was asked by the University of London to examine the thesis. The PhD regulations of the University of London state that the PhD should be the candidate’s own account of her/his investigation. Commissioning a survey from a consultancy may violate these stipulations (item 9.4.4.): “the submission of work commissioned from another person” is considered an “examination misconduct”. University of London, Regulations for the Degrees of MPhil and PhD - various years.

[2] For details of al-Assad’s stint in London, see: David Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2005), p. 61.

[3] The Guardian newspaper’s league tables for postgraduate courses show that the LSE charges the highest fees in the UK for master’s degrees in politics and sociology. In economics, only City University beats it into second place. 

[4] The Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy was set up by the Government of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and funded part of the LSE Middle East Centre. The Greek Ministry of Finance paid for a Senior Research Fellowship at the “Hellenic Observatory," which also receives funding from Greek private donors. The Turkish government and private donors funded a Chair in Contemporary Turkish Studies.




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2 comments for "More Than a "Personal Error of Judgment": Seif Gaddafi and the London School of Economics"


I think this article is a bit thin in its argument.

The implicit standards that academia is supposed to meet don't exist. It's just a way to raise money so what if a dictator got a degree there. And about this plagiarism business I mean subjecting any PHD thesis to these tests should show that most of them will have taken significant material from other sources. It's not cheating unless you get caught and when you copy from one person its plagiarism when you copy from a hundred it's research. I think you're being unfair and highly moralistic in this piece. Why does Sayf the student have to be the same Seyf the ruler, different skills for different jobs, as well as allowing the possibility for individuals to change. Human beings are fallible and the social context determines behavior more than innate "badness". Even those academics who went to Libya can't be said to have violated some moral standard. I think that the link between actual harm having been done and the payments, visits, softening of image is unclear.

Rony wrote on March 15, 2011 at 09:24 PM

In contrast with Rony, I think this is a well-researched and significant piece.

Rony: Bauman does not accuse anyone of "innate badness" (take a second look at the title!). On the contrary, he points to the creeping privatization of British academia and the unashamedly pro-big business stance of the previous Labor government as the context within which academics made these decisions.

This is a very important point. Not only might such developments encourage similar indiscretions in the future; they also threaten to further undermine an already diminished tradition of critical scholarship within the social sciences and humanities. And the problem likely to get worse under the current Tory-Lib.Dem coalition.

Of course, the individual academics and university administrators must accept personal responsibility (and Bauman is again right not to absolve them). Personally, my main problem with Barber, Giddens, Nye, Held and others is not so much that they agreed to visit Libya on Gaddafi's dime, but rather that they seem to have let personal and institutional interests cloud their critical faculties. (That said: If they benefited financially from their visit to Lybia, this clearly compromises not only any analysis or opinion produced as a result of the visit, but also their very integrity.)

This brings up a second important issue raised by the article, but not directly addressed by Bauman: the question of whether academics should boycott all initiatives that might have links to repressive / occupying powers.

My gut reaction is "YES!" But I have to admit that my intellect raises questions about how and where to draw the line.

Clearly, if one receives an invitation to a sponsored initiative--be it from Lybia, Iran, Israel, or, for that matter, the United Statesy--one has to seriously consider the political implications of acceptance. As academics, we might like to flatter ourselves that invitations arise only out of the intrinsic quality and interest of our work (I can imagine that flattery as well as financial reward might have played a role in the positive/apologetic appraisal that Gaddafi received from visiting scholars). But acceptance can also make us complicit in unseemly, if not downright dirty and oppressive, political projects. And this is very often the goal.

The easiest way to deal with this problem would be to adhere to a blanket boycott. But, I find myself conflicted regarding absolute boycotts. Were academics wrong per se to visit Libya (or, would they be wrong to attend a seminar sponsored by an Israeli or Iranian University)?

The moral and political necessity of an institutional and financial boycott of entities (including business and universities) that directly or indirectly support or benefit from occupation or repression seems clear to me.

But might an absolute academic boycott prevent scholars from engaging in situations that might actually lead to a more profound and critical understanding of--for example--how oppressive governments (and these might be found in Europe and North America as well as in the Middle East) seek to represent and naturalize practices of oppression and occupation.

It is worth noting that Gadaffi invited academics with a high international profile, but little actual knowledge of Libya. This made it easy for him to seduce his guests, and inscribe himself (and notions of a new Libya) into their frameworks. In this regard, it is noteworthy that Haliday, for example, doesn't seem to have received an invitation.

Thus, one issue that seems crucial is whether the individual in question is truly equipped to engage critically with the presentation given by a hosting organization or government.

Anyway, I should get to my real reason for this digression: as a supporter of the BDS campaign who nevertheless feels that individual, politically aware and research-related engagement with organizations inside Israel might actually contribute to a critical emancipatory project, I am struggling with a dilemma about where to draw the line.

Any comment/feedback on how others approach/view this dilemma would be welcome.

R.H. wrote on May 11, 2011 at 10:07 AM

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