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Seeking and Conferring Legitimacy in Academic Citadels: The Troubling Trend
June 6, 2011 - 8:00am

I was one of those who had been closely watching the global reaction to the establishment of the “Obiang Chair” that would provide cash to UNESCO and name a science prize after President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea for the past 30 years.

The high profile campaign that the Economist titled “UNESCO's dictator prize: Reputation mismanagement” in its October 21, 2010 issue, fell apart in disgrace after a campaign by activists, journalists, eminent Africans including Nobel Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and even pressure from the Obama Administration.

The Economist article lamented that UNESCO and “its [new] director-general missed a chance to take a principled stand and to burnish her credentials as a fresh force at the institution” already suffering from “not very high stock”.

The vast majority of Equatorial Guineans, 670,000 in all, live below the poverty line in a country ranked the continent's fourth biggest oil exporter. According to the United Nations, human rights groups and local dissidents, Equatorial Guineas’s human rights record is abysmal. Freedom House, a watchdog group, has ranked Equatorial Guinea, among the nine most repressive “Worst of the Worst” nations in the world, along with Libya, Turkmenistan and Myanmar. The New York Times (May 31, 2011 issue) described Obiang as “one of the undisputed human rights global bad boys.” And yet, Mr. Obiang, was recently elected the Presidency of the African Union.

The Risk of Bestowing Legitimacy: The Fallout

Some weeks back I got a campaign communique from Serbia to participate in the renunciation of the honorary doctorate granted by a Serbian University to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. According to the Albequerque Express, the private university refused to revoke the degree because “it was given for scientific reasons ... and that politics played no part in the school's decision to honor Gaddafi four years ago.”

Khartoum University in Sudan, a neighbor to Libya, did withdraw the honorary doctorate that it had awarded the Colonel on March 7, 2011. A proposal by the university's director of education “won the overwhelming endorsement of the council, which registered its condemnation of the Libyan regime’s actions against the Libyan people."

The awarding of a PhD to Mr. Seif Al-Islam, one of Colonel Gaddafi's sons, by the London School of Economics has prompted a plagiarism investigation by the school. The receipt of more than USD 1.3 million from Mr. Islam, which the institution has now decided to use as scholarship money for students from North Africa, is a central issue of contention. The credibility of the institution has been called to question by the allegations that led to the resignation of the director of the LSC council.

In Zimbabwe students at universities from which President Robert Mugabe has received honorary doctorates have sought to get those degrees revoked. The University of Edinburgh, UK, and the University of Massachusetts, USA, have stripped Mr. Mugabe of honorary degrees they awarded— the former, after a two-year campaign by the Edinburgh University Students Association. In addition, the student body at Michigan State University in the USA unanimously passed a resolution calling for similar action.

The list of such cases is growing with expanding global communication and intensified scrutiny of the motives of institutions for honoring these personalities.

Shopping for Prestige: Lobbying Run Amok

It is now increasingly common to recruit lobbying firms in America and Europe on behalf of national governments, private organizations, NGOs, and businesses. Politicians, especially those with questionable credentials, are buying influence at the international market place through powerful lobbying campaigns, investing exorbitant amount of money. The academy has played a willing and undignified role in these campaigns.

Harvard University, one of the world's leading universities, found itself in the spotlight when it was disclosed that a consulting company operated by several professors apparently accepted millions to improve Gaddafi’s international image. According to the New York Times, until March of this year, President Bill Clinton’s former special counsel, Lanny J. Davis, had a million-dollar-a-year contract to help Mr. Obiang with an image makeover.

The willingness to collude with infamous leaders to embellish their credentials or to help build a more appealing image reflects unwitting complicity, utter indifference to their sinister activities and the unbridled self interests of academic institutions and their professors. Dictators, autocrats, and politicians of all stripes now easily find academic institutions to help embellish their national and international image, sanitize their track records, and boost their credentials — for a price.

Conclusion

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with seeking or conferring legitimacy at academic institutions—a celebrated act since time immemorial. Most institutions and individuals, engage in this symbolic and strategic tradition frequently in a legitimate, deliberate, and transparent manner.

However, a few cases, involving high profile institutions and controversial personalities, are eroding the credibility and the meaning of the tradition, often at a cost to the reputation of academic institutions.

It is critically important for an institution to take precautions and carefully scrutinize the beneficiaries who are worth bestowing recognition. While it may be tricky to police the acts of all individuals at the knowledge citadel, as in the Harvard case, it is imperative to expect a high level of professional ethic from everyone on staff.

 

 

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