Thursday, 21st March 2013

LSE’s problems highlight wider questions for underfunded academics

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) finds itself at the centre of another Gulf-related crisis. Following the furore triggered by the UAE’s decision to stop LSE academic Kristian Coates Ulrichsen from discussing Bahrain at the American University of Sharjah (GSN 942/1), the university has now cancelled a major Gulf conference planned for London on 25-26 March. The conference, hosted by the LSE Kuwait Programme, was to look at ‘The Arab Spring and the Gulf: Politics, economics and security’; the trigger for the late cancellation was the withdrawal of sponsorship from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS). “Due to unforeseen and pressing circumstances, a major partner in our Kuwait Conference is unable to attend,” the LSE said in a 15 March statement. “In consequence the LSE has decided to cancel the conference. We regret the inconvenience that this may cause.”

GSN was told KFAS sent LSE a letter on 13 March saying the “timing is not right” for such a conference. Two days of debate followed; then the anodyne cancellation announcement. Conference organisers were dismayed at the decision, which they saw as highly damaging to the Kuwait Programme’s credibility. They wanted LSE to either continue without KFAS, or at least issue a statement rejecting such interference.

The conference is just one of the LSE’s Gulf headaches. Following the 2011 debacle that led it to shelve its North Africa Programme (after a media onslaught over its links to Saif Al-Islam Al-Qadhafi), the university council is now debating whether to maintain or scrap the Kuwait Programme altogether. There is not yet a formal decision, but it is widely believed that, despite Kuwaiti funding commitments, LSE will not renew the programme, which has employed several academics and produced a steady stream of literature since its 2007 launch.

This is more than a storm in an academic tea cup. The LSE’s dilemmas pose wider questions about western values, academic independence and the implications of accepting funding (particularly welcome at a time of tightened belts elsewhere) from a region whose leadership tends towards the authoritarian. Criticism of the Saif Al-Islam link had been quietly voiced by some in academia, but it was more widely welcomed by experts who, for decades, had seen little investment in North African studies. It came as other rulers were funding programmes: the chair in Maghreb studies endowed at St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford, by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, for example, or the expansion of Middle East studies at Exeter University, which owes much to the endowments of Sharjah ruler Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi.

The robust response of many rulers to the Arab Spring, and the re-evaluation of last decade’s reformists, such as Saif Al-Islam or Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, has meant these apparently innocent – and much-needed – donations have attracted greater scrutiny. The LSE has made many of the headlines, but such is the extent of Middle East funding that few major institutions are immune. Many of the bigger think tanks have received Gulf funding; the Royal United Services Institute and the Brookings Institution have even opened centres in Qatar, with strong support from the ruling Al-Thanis.

The LSE’s problems have highlighted the discomfort that follows when commitments made in easier political times are put to the test by changing circumstances. The Gulf-watching profession seems set for a period of soul-searching and introspection. As GSN – which has never received a penny of sponsorship or official funding – can attest, finding alternative funding sources is not easy in a region where business interests tend to trump political objectivity.

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