Our University has accepted over £100,000 arranged by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. And I think that’s great.
Some, such as the writers at The Guardian, believe that these funds are detrimental to the reputation and reliability of the University of St Andrews. I strongly disagree.
If the rumours are true that the £100,000 went directly to a Syrian studies centre at this university, then I simply cannot find anything in this “scandal” to criticise, other than the xenophobia of the criticism itself.
Had the al-Assad regime donated money to our chemistry department, I’d be a little sceptical. But the fact that the funds have gone to a centre that is aimed at understanding the politics and culture of Syria brushes away any plausibility of corruption.
Yes, democracy is ideal. Yes, Syria should have a democratic government. No, it doesn’t really have one right now. They’re working on it.
But just because a nation doesn’t currently have a functioning democratic system doesn’t necessarily mean that that nation isn’t deserving of serious academic study. And if said nation’s ambassador chooses to assist in donating funds directly to this end, I can’t see the downside. Sami Khiyami, the Syrian ambassador to the United Kingdom, is doing just this with our university.
What The Guardian is calling an “embarrassment”, I see as an integral asset to St Andrews’ high academic standards. Understanding the perspectives of other cultures is essential to the study of international relationships and global politics.
Some may agree with me that Syria deserves to be studied, but disagree with Syrian regimes donating money directly to this end. And I can understand why one might suspect bias towards Bashar al-Assad because of his funding. But I have enough confidence in this university to expect better than succumbing to a bribe.
The University of St Andrews boasts one of the best International Relations schools in the world. To keep that reputation, any and all funds should be accepted by research centres aimed at education.
I hope the future of this school will see funds coming in for a Palestinian research centre, an Israeli research centre, and even an Inuit research centre. We cannot turn down any opportunity to receive resources to study a society. Just because we accept £100,000 from Bashar al-Assad’s regime doesn’t mean that this university is anti-democracy.
By accepting money associated with the president of the Syrian Arab Republic, the University of St Andrews is not advocating or supporting what that regime is supposedly responsible for. In fact, I would argue St Andrews has no side in the argument whatsoever. We are a third party. We are taking notes, not pulling triggers. And the university should stay that way.
The International Relations school aims to offer “a friendly, intellectually stimulating and vibrant environment in which students can assess developments in the international system.” Assessment is not synonymous with judgement. And it is certainly far from encouragement.
Where there are crimes against humanity, which is the case in Syria now, there is undoubtedly development on the horizon. Keeping an eye on Syria, with the help of a Syrian studies centre, is something I’m proud our university has the guts to do, no matter where the money is coming from.