As private dollars continue to reshape American civil society, we’re seeing greater scrutiny of the influence of mega-donors, the sources of their wealth, and their business and political associations. Recent examples of this phenomenon include pushback to gifts from philanthropists like the Mercer family, the Koch brothers, the Sackler family and Stephen Schwarzman, among many others.
But this growing concern isn’t restricted to U.S.-based donors. Questions have been swirling about the financial arrangements between American universities and the Saudi Arabian government in the aftermath of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to the Associated Press, 37 U.S. colleges and universities have received more than $354 million from the Saudi government since 2011. Yet while some private businesses and lobbying firms have cut the cord, major U.S. universities have decided to hold on to the cash, making the calculation that the pros outweigh the cons.
I’ll explore this tricky moral calculus a bit further in a moment. But first, let’s get a handle on the Saudi government’s surprisingly large footprint across the U.S. higher education space.
Scholarships and Research
Saudi support for American universities typically takes one of two forms. The first and largest portion of funding is earmarked for scholarships for Saudis studying in the U.S. The AP reported that George Washington University received $73 million from the program, followed by George Mason University, with $63 million. That’s a significant chunk of change.
The second target funding area is contracts or gifts from the kingdom’s nationally owned companies and research institutes.
Northwestern University, for example, has received $15 million from King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, a top Saudi research center, since 2011. UCLA received $6 million from the same institute. In March, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, gave $25 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for research in areas including renewable energy and artificial intelligence.
Given the fact that one of the primary metrics universities use to determine if it should return a gift is the gift’s “impact”—measured, naturally, by its size—it’s worth calling attention to some contextual financial realities at play. The recipients of Saudi largesse are all affluent universities. Northwestern University’s endowment stands at $10 billion. UCLA recently blew past its $4.2 billion centennial campaign goal. MIT’s endowment is $16.4 billion.
Given the scope of the Saudi government’s transgressions, most fair-minded people would conclude that, relatively speaking, these schools don’t “need” the money. Schools like UCLA could make up for that revoked $6 million with a few phone calls. These gifts, at least when compared to the kingdom’s funding for scholarships, are a drop in the bucket.
Yet it’s precisely because Saudi funding is so low that some universities have decided to hold on to it.
The University of California, Berkeley said it is not reviewing its Saudi funding, which includes a $6 million contract to support renewable energy, because, according to spokesman Roqua Montez, the kingdom’s support represents only a small fraction of the contracts and grants that go to researchers. Similarly, Saudi money makes up a tiny portion of MIT’s $3.3 billion annual operating budget—roughly $11 million—according to MIT president Rafael Reif. Nonetheless, as we’ll soon see, the school has decided to maintain ties with the kingdom.
Students Push Back
In Casablanca, Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, famously says, “I'm shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” after walking into a café and walking out with a pile of money.
I can’t help but see some parallels regarding concern over Saudi money. By financing, supporting and exporting Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia is, according to many commentators, the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. The kingdom’s human rights abuses and its intervention in Yemen is also well-documented.
The country’s track record hasn’t repelled American corporations doing business with the kingdom or dissuaded the U.S. government from funneling billions in military aid to the country.
It also didn’t stop Harvard and MIT from hosting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier this year, prompting Shireen Al-Adeimi, then a doctoral student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, to remark, “The man MIT is hosting has created the worst humanitarian crisis on earth,” in reference to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen, where 85,000 children have reportedly died of starvation and millions more people may be at risk of the same fate.
Meanwhile, a group of graduate students in political science at MIT published an open letter to President L. Rafael Reif in the student newspaper, The Tech, in which they urged the university to sever ties with the Saudi government and issue a statement condemning it for its human rights violations, and encourage other institutions to do the same.
The letter specifically cites a photo of Salam shaking hands with Reif while one of the suspects in the Khashoggi killings can be seen looming ominously in the background. “This photo,” the students wrote, “disgraces MIT’s reputation and provides the MBS regime with a veil of normalcy.”
“They’re Putting on These Blinders”
As noted, organizations—both public and private—have been doing business with Saudi Arabia for decades, while fully aware of the kingdom’s transgressions. But for some private companies, the murder of Khashoggi was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The New York Times reported that three prominent Washington lobbying firms canceled contracts to represent Saudi interests. One firm, the Harbour Group, walked away from an $80,000 a month contract to represent the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Several other businesses have also suspended work in the kingdom, including those owned by billionaire investor Richard Branson.
For these firms, the “prospect of continued paychecks from Saudi Arabia—once a prized and profitable client—is not worth the risk to their reputations,” the Times’ piece read.
Yet American universities, at least for the time being, have yet to cut the cord. Why not?
Al-Adeimi, now an assistant professor at Michigan State University, has a theory. Universities are “just seeing the Saudis as cash cows,” she said. “Yes, they have a lot of cash. But they’re putting on these blinders—‘let’s ignore everything else they’re doing.’”
The Importance of “Global Engagement”
So how are other universities responding to Khashoggi’s killing?
Northwestern University refused to say whether any of its funding is under review. The University of Michigan did not provide AP with details about their Saudi funding. And Tufts University spokesman Patrick Collins said school officials are closely following the “deeply concerning news,” but remain committed to global engagement. The school has received about $42 million from the Saudi government.
While we may never know if Tufts would remain committed to “global engagement” if it only received, say $2 million from the Saudis, I’d nonetheless like to draw your attention to the term, as it underscores a recurring line of thinking for advocates of maintaining ties with the country.
One such advocate, Liz Reisberg, an independent consultant and research fellow at Boston College's Center for International Higher Education, argues that if universities terminate their academic collaborations with a country, “then we cede international interaction to economic, political and military interests.”
“I am uncomfortable with the call for scholars or universities to pull back from Saudi Arabia,” wrote Reisberg. “We could certainly do this as a symbolic statement of our abhorrence of the Khashoggi murder. But what will it accomplish, and who will be hurt? Don’t we also risk hypocrisy? Why stop with Saudi Arabia?”
Two responses come to mind. One, universities “stop” at Saudi Arabia because of the profound gravity of their human rights abuses, along with the immediacy of this issue right now, given Khashoggi’s killing, and even more so, what’s happening in Yemen. And two, there’s precedent. Not only have private businesses severed ties, but Cornell University suspended a relationship between its labor college and that of Renmin University of China over concerns about academic freedom and a crackdown on students involved in activism related to workers' rights.
To Reisberg’s point regarding “who will be hurt,” Michael Sandler, a spokesman for George Mason University, said the school has no plan to shutter its scholarship program for Saudi students. “Refusing payment would result in us denying an educational opportunity to otherwise qualified students,” he argued, “This would run counter to our mission of serving students.”
There’s No Playbook
In a perfect world, universities would have a clear playbook to gauge the relative toxicity of a donation and prescribe a corresponding course of action. Policies are reviewed, boxes are checked off, data is crunched, and voila, a university either accepts or rejects a gift.
The best analog we have here is how universities are debating whether to revoke honorary degrees for individuals accused or convicted of sexual harassment. It’s complicated stuff, according to Robert O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia, who said that institutions are rolling out “eclectic or haphazard” processes that run the risk of creating a “very bad precedent.”
The guiding principle in crafting a revocation policy, O'Neil said, should be the extent to which the recipient's alleged actions come into “significant conflict” with the university's ideals.
One would like to think that torturing and dismembering an opposition journalist, supporting Islamic extremism, jailing dissidents, and fomenting a massive humanitarian crisis would pose a “significant conflict” with a university’s “ideals”— especially when private businesses have severed ties and a university’s own students are imploring administrators to do the same thing. But this thought exercise, as we have seen thus far, is an inherently relative one.
Which brings me back to MIT. In the wake of the Khashoggi murder, President Reif commissioned an internal review to determine if the school should maintain ties to Saudi Arabia.
On December 7th, the Boston Globe reported the university’s findings. The report did not detail the total amount of money it gets from organizations and individuals tied to the Saudi government. And while it did acknowledge “the large-scale violations of political, civil, and human rights” in Saudi Arabia, its authors concluded that MIT should maintain ties because terminating its engagement wouldn’t have “any meaningful ameliorative effect” on the kingdom.
Commenting on the report, president Lester acknowledged that the recommendation is likely to be controversial, but said money wasn’t the motive. “The judgment I’ve reached was not driven by financial considerations,” he said, apparently with a straight face.
When reached for comment, Shireen Al-Adeimi said she hopes that MIT alumni will reconsider their financial support of the university.