Town Crier: Many U.S. universities are accepting substantial gifts from Middle Eastern countries. What do we find if we “follow the money”?

Is there a conflict of interest in our colleges?

Last week, The Daily Bruin student newspaper urged the University of California system to consider opening another campus, this one in the United Arab Emirates. The UCLA student writer noted that it was the hot new thing among universities and the way to become a truly global university system.

Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Cornell and the Virginia Commonwealth system have campuses in nearby Qatar, and the New York University system will open a campus in the United Arab Emirates in 2010.

At the same time, there is a dispute between Chancellor Michael Drake of University of California, Irvine, and a Jewish group on Drake’s refusal to condemn anti-Semitic acts at Muslim student events. Drake says that while he condemns anti-Semitism, he is trying to be “content neutral” when it comes to evaluating such activities. Such conflicts are not new on the California campuses.

Also last week, the Los Angeles Times cited UC San Diego economist Ross Starr’s comment that the Iraq War had caused a significant portion of the economic woes here in the U.S. right now, particularly in regard to the budget deficit.

What do these situations have in common? Perhaps nothing, but the skeptic in me says, “Follow the money.”

In February, the U.S. Department of Education released its annual Foreign Gifts to Postsecondary Education Participants System report. Since 1995, colleges and universities that receive money from foreign sources are required to report the amount and source of such gifts and contracts. The report released in February covers contributions from 1983 to last year. Details are sketchy in some cases, and often, only the nation of origin is stated without disclosing the organization, individual or government source. Further, the report does not cover contributions through domestic middlemen.
Nevertheless, it is interesting reading. While universities get millions of dollars in gifts and contracts every year, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is apparently the only California school that’s reported foreign gifts or contracts in the last two or three years, almost exclusively for contracted work. UC Berkeley received $800,000 from the United Arab Emirates in 2001, while UCLA got $300,000 from it in 2002. According to the report, there have been no Middle East contributions or contracts with California institutions since 2002.

This is in stark contrast to the other universities that are apparently setting up camp in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Just in 2004-06, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., received $8.3 million in gifts and nearly $30 million in contracts from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., took in $10.9 million in gifts from Qatar in 2001-2002. During 2004-2005, Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon took in $110 million in contract work for Qatar and Malaysia. The Virginia Commonwealth schools reported more than $29 million in contracts from Saudi Arabia, way back in 1995. Columbia in New York has reported a niggling $500,000 in gifts from Saudi Arabia, small change for both Saudi Arabia and Columbia, although the New York Institute of Technology had $6.8 million in contracts with UAE and Bahrain in 2006. Texas A&M scored $1.5 million in 2003 from Qatar. Small wonder these institutions are moving to the Middle East.

Muslim-dominant nations throughout the world are spreading largess through the university system. The report discloses at least $167 million in gifts to U.S. universities and $231 million in contract work from those nations, much of it since 9-11. Harvard has received nearly $50 million in gifts from Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, UAE and Malaysia. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has taken in $38 million in gifts from Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. George Washington University got $3.4 million from Kuwait in 2005.

When these august universities come out in favor of these nations’ interests, I think it is fair to wonder if there is a conflict of interest. Why such support for condemnation of Israel and so little for Sudan? Why is Harvard setting up separate times in its gyms for Muslim students or broadcasting Muslim calls to prayer? Is academia’s antipathy to the War on Terror related to its pocketbook?

University of California president-designate Mark Yudof will have his hands full, and while schools might campaign for campuses in the Middle East, I hope this president will concentrate on more pressing domestic matters right now and not sell the system short.

• Pamela Case, a local freelance paralegal, is among a select group of local residents with columns in the Tracy Press.



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