Today, I got in a nice twitter discussion about the latest academic embarrassment to hit the UK: the University of St. Andrews was taking money from the Syrians to fund their research centre. My tweet-friend, Stephanie Carvin, pointed out that the incentive structure in the UK is to max outside money, as this is highly rewarded in the competitive university review process.
I cannot be that surprised that universities will compromise their values to take money. After all, I was at Texas Tech when the institution hired a known student-strangler in Bobby Knight because he would sell tickets. And, boy, did he! TTU won the gamble as Knight retired without incurring any new lawsuits. TTU just had to put up with 2.5 years of Knight's son coaching the basketball team.
No, what bothers me just a bit is this: this past week's events are not the first time the Syrian government has been particularly oppressive. Sure, the government has not flattened one of its cities in a few decades, but if there was a fancy reclamation project of Syria's reputation a la Libya's, then I hadn't heard of it (nor did the academics who danced with the Libyan devil). So, St. Andrews may have the equivalent of buyer's remorse, having realized that they took dirty money, but to be provoked now only suggests that St. Andrews cares about the media spotlight and not the actual repression in Syria. After all, good social science means we cannot explain something that varies with a constant, and Syrian behavior has been consistent. What has changed, leading to St. Andrews revisiting its decisions, has been that Syria is now getting more attention for its latest crimes.
So, I am not shocked really either by a school taking Syrian money or dumping it once the media turns the lights on. But I am annoyed that folks will act like they suddenly discovered they were taking cash from bad people. St. Andrews got caught. Now they can use the "I am sorry if anyone was offended" line or its equivalent. Yes, facing perverse incentives like the system in Britain might force one to make difficult choices, but facing a difficult choice does not mean being a weasel about it.
Of course, I have gotten grants from the Canadian Department of National Defence and from NATO--two organizations that try really hard to kill people. And the media notices that I got money from these killers, will I return the money? No. I knew where the money was coming from and what those organizations are about. And I am ok with it, even if it hits the newspapers.
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