Harvard and Georgetown universities both say a Saudi prince attached no strings when he gave them $20 million gifts — but at a time that Arab influence in American classrooms is coming under scrutiny, some observers are taking a wait-and-see approach. “We realize that this is a sensitive topic, but the purpose of this gift is to support the study of Islam as a religious and cultural tradition, which is a significant factor in today’s world,” Harvard spokeswoman Sarah Friedell said.
The schools announced earlier this week that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud had made the contributions to further Islamic studies at both institutions, which were planning to rename centers after the prince.
A recent JTA investigation linked bin Talal with a group producing teaching materials for American public school students. The materials contain content that is pro-Islamic, anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.
In 2001, the prince donated $10 million to a fund for the families of uniformed workers who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani refused the money after learning that al-Saud had tried to link the attacks to U.S. support for Israel.
Some observers of academia are wondering if the gifts to Harvard and Georgetown may be the latest in a series of attempts by the Saudis and other Arab countries to influence how the Middle East is taught in U.S. schools.
“Of course that’s the concern, and it’s not an unreal concern,” said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress. “But you can’t assume that the universities improperly sold out for money. Because it comes from an Arab or Muslim source, you can’t assume that there’s something untoward about it.”
According to federal law, the schools are required to file papers disclosing the amount and date of foreign donations as well as a description of any conditions or restrictions on the gifts. AJCongress will check the forms once they’re filed, Stern said.
Though the money was designated for Islamic studies, both Georgetown and Harvard say the prince has no say in the hiring of professors or in curriculum.
“The funds are designated, but there are no strings attached,” said Erik Smulson, assistant vice president for communications at Georgetown. “Georgetown University has final say on how the gift will be used, consistent with its mission.”
Harvard, too, said the prince will not be involved in hiring decisions.
“Consistent with university policy, recognizing the paramount importance of academic freedom in fact and in appearance, the donor will have no input whatsoever over appointment decisions,” Friedell said.
But it’s not the prince and his money per se that concern Daniel Pipes, founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia think tank. The forum runs Campus Watch, which reviews and critiques Middle East studies on American campuses.
Pipes frets about the “virtual monopoly” that he says academics espousing anti-American and anti-Israel points of view hold on university positions.
The donations are “pushing an open door, because the academics who are dealing with Islamic studies are, in general, already quite willing to go along with the Saudi outlook,” he said.
Concerned about the perceived anti-Israel tilt in academia, some universities have received gifts to ensure that Israel studies are taught at U.S. colleges as well.
UCLA’s International Institute announced last year that it was launching an Israel studies program, which its creators said would be the first teaching, research and community program at an American university focusing solely on the Jewish state in its multiple facets.
In 2002, the Helen Diller Family Fund committed $5 million to the Jewish studies program at the University of California at Berkeley, to bring an Israeli professor to the university each year.
While those programs will ensure that Israel receives serious academic study, however, they don’t necessarily teach from a pro-Israel perspective.
Georgetown will use bin Talal’s gift to bolster its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, to be renamed the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The funds will endow three faculty chairs, expand programs and scholarships and improve library facilities.
Harvard said it would create a new Islamic studies program, increasing faculty in areas such as the history of science and adding new area studies.
“For a university with global aspirations, it is critical that Harvard have a strong program on Islam that is worldwide and interdisciplinary in scope,” said Harvard University Provost Steven Hyman, who will coordinate the program’s implementation.
This is not the first time a Saudi Arabian has given money to an American university: Last year, for example, media reports had an unidentified Saudi giving Columbia University $250,000.
A Saudi Arabia-based foundation led by Prince Faisal bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud endowed a $5 million Arab studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. Harvard’s program in contemporary Middle Eastern studies was the beneficiary of a grant of some $2 million from Saudi businessman Khaled al-Turki. The school has also donations from the bin Laden family (though not from the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden) for the study of Islamic law and architecture.
And the late Saudi King Fahd gave about $20 million to create a Middle East center in his name at the University of Arkansas.
In 2003, Rachel Fish, then a graduate student in Harvard’s Divinity School, campaigned successfully for the school to return a $2.5-million donation from United Arab Emirates President Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who had backed an Abu Dhabi-based think-tank that sponsored anti-Semitic and anti-American speakers.
As for bin Talal’s gift, Fish, now director of campus strategy at Boston’s David Project, hopes Harvard will select new faculty carefully.
“I think what would be a true test for both Harvard and Georgetown would be who they decide to hire for these professorships,” she said. “Students deserve to learn about Islam, but they must allow objective scholarship and questioning within the tradition of Islam.”
Bin Talal’s is the second-largest single gift in Georgetown’s history, and is among the 25 largest gifts made to Harvard.
The prince also recently agreed to fund a new Islamic wing at the Louvre and has previously given $5 million to establish the Center for American Studies at the American University in Beirut, $10 million to the American University in Cairo and more than $1 million to the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at England’s University of Exeter.
As far back as 2003, Martin Kramer, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, lamented the Saudi influence in American academia.
Saudi money “has already compromised the research agenda in Middle Eastern studies,” he wrote on his Web site. “Prince Alwaleed’s buying binge is liable to reduce the entire field to a cargo cult, with profs and center directors dancing the ‘ardha,’ ” a warriors’ sword dance, “in the hope of attracting the flying prince.
“This is great for Saudi Arabia,” Kramer wrote. “It’s not at all great for the American public, which seeks objective assessments of the Saudi kingdom.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.