As recent events in Libya unfolded, one story that got a fair amount of air time was the donation to the London School of Economics of money from Saif Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader. Inevitably of course further investigations by journalists have revealed other donations and grants from the region, including a research grant accepted by Durham University from the Iranian government, and another Libyan payment made to Liverpool John Moores University for developing a teaching programme for a local university.
If journalists keep sniffing around they will find more. However, we should beware just a little of the righteous indignation that this sort of story seems to encourage. As higher education in parts of Europe and America interacts much more closely with the rest of the world, it is going to come into close contact with governments without any great democratic credentials. Mostly we don’t care that much. Nobody was saying a word about Libyan links three months ago, though some of them were well known. But in fact there are teaching and research links with dozens of countries that don’t even aspire to (never mind practise) European-style liberal democracy. While it is embarrassing no doubt for the LSE to have footage broadcast on television of an event in which academics made obsequious comments to the Libyan leader, that probably could have been any university.
It is of course shocking that Colonel Gaddafi was willing to turn his guns on his own people; but rather than come over all indignant now it would be far better to have a clearer think about the appropriate response to offers of financial support from governments whose democratic credentials are in question (whether currently involved in violent attacks or not).