The Funding Debacle: What really happened with the CSS

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While the university began to celebrate the marriage of a certain two alumni, a story in the Guardian (28th April) threatened to rain on St Andrew’s day in the sun. The article alleged, inter alia, that “The University of St Andrews… has received more than £100,000 in funding… with the assistance of Syria’s ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami.”

After an immediate press release denying the newspaper’s claims, the university published a more detailed study led by Deputy Principle Chris Hawkesworth (4th May), followed up with an editorial by Principle Louise Richardson published in the Times (5th May). Both exonerated the University of any wrongdoing, but I believe both the review and the editorial miss certain very pertinent issues.

Both the review and the editorial focus primarily on academic independence. The review states that there is “no evidence that the source of funding for the CSS [Centre for Syrian Studies] prejudices the outcome of our research,” while Richardson adds that “the publications produced by this centre focus on reform and are consistently critical of the regime.”

The review’s claim is exhaustively documented by examining a whole two articles published by the centre that are critical of the regime (one is critical of the authoritarian nature, the other is critical of the lack of economic liberalization). However the focus on whether academic independence was compromised is a curious one.

The Guardian’s article at no point questions the independence of the centre’s research, and the closest anyone comes to doing so is a quote by Conservative MP Robert Halfon who warns of the “danger” of being compromised by receiving money from governments; but he never directly accuses the university of this.

Instead, the focus on academic standards hides the very real issue of the university’s link to the regime. The review “robustly refute[s] the allegation that we should be embarrassed by the Asfari Foundation’s support” of the CSS. However the important issue that isn’t mentioned is whether the University should be embarrassed by seeking the assistance of the Syrian regime, which was the main accusation made. Indeed the only use of the term in the Guardian’s article is when it talks of “connections between a British university and an authoritarian Arab regime.”

While the University denies Khiyami was involved in the actual donation, it openly admits that he “facilitated” the donation when he “introduced Professor Hinnebusch to Mr Ayman Asfari.” Richardson echoes this when she bemoans that the University has been criticised “because the Syrian ambassador recommended” a charity. However the Principle omits the fact, admitted in the review, that Hinnebusch “sought the advice of the Syrian embassy.”

It isn’t just a case of the Syrian embassy offering to help: the university actively went to the Syrian ambassador for assistance. This makes it clear that the university had a ‘link’ with the regime. Richardson defends the action by saying “[as] long as ambassadors are accredited by the Government, we should not be criticised for speaking to them.” Quite aside from the reservations many of us will have about such a claim, the university wasn’t “speaking” to the ambassador: they were asking for his help. This goes somewhat beyond what Richardson admits to and inevitably represents a political act.

The Universities denies that it should be embarrassed, but the university’s reputation has taken a large hit as a result of the controversy; most of it due to the university’s actions. Right after the celebration of St Andrew’s role as royal matchmaker, the Times opened an article (5th May) saying Louise Richardson had argued that “British universities must be allowed to engage with undemocratic foreign governments to secure funding and stimulate debate.”

The contrast between the celebration of two people’s love for each other and the claim that universities should engage with murderous dictatorships is rather jarring. The review itself describes the Syrian ambassador as being a reformer: someone “who would like to help Syria move towards democratization.” This was published a short couple of days after his invitation to the royal wedding was withdrawn when the regime he represents shot unarmed protesters in the streets.

St Andrew’s links to the Syrian regime have been compared to the LSE’s saga with the Gaddafi dictatorship. We should be clear that our university’s links are in no way as serious as the LSE’s. The money received was from a respectable charity, and the CSS is quite evidently not a mouthpiece for the Syrian government.

However this debacle opens up questions of the ethics of our funding. Richardson states that “universities will have to become more creative in identifying support,” but when we do so we have to make sure our ethics, as well as our independence, isn’t compromised.

It is up to the student body to decide what kind of University they want. There will be some, like J. H. Ramsay who wrote “I like money”, who agree with Richardson, and think that in order to have a world class university we need to have dealings with unsavoury characters.

However I believe that it is possible and desirable that St Andrews mixes high academic standards with an ethical policy that is in keeping with the highest ideals of a university; something that the university can be proud of as we celebrate its 600th anniversary.

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