Crying Woolf: How a University Scandal Should Not Dissuade Europe from Philanthropy

The following is a guest post by Joanna Motion, a consultant with More Partnership, and previously the vice president for international operations at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

A deathly hush descended over the development offices of British universities when the long-awaited Woolf Report into links between Libya and the London School of Economics was published on November 30. Earlier in the year, a dense network of links between the school and Libya going back over a decade started to emerge. In particular, a £1.5-million ($2.3-million) pledge from the “Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation” to the institution’s Centre for Global Governance in 2009 became a matter of notoriety.  Moreover, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s son, Seif, who had received his Ph.D. in, slightly improbably, philosophy from the school, ran the foundation. The acid tag “the Libyan School of Economics” was uttered. A kind of contagion spread. Most British universities received Freedom of Information requests about gifts from the Middle East. In some quarters, conviction wavered as to whether the business of fund raising for education was do-able and worth doing at all.

The LSE took vigorous action, as befits the historic, self-critical, and internationally celebrated institution it was and remains. By March, the school’s director, Sir Howard Davies, felt he had to stand down. On the same day that the school’s council–with great reluctance–accepted the resignation of their well-established and respected head, they set up the Woolf Inquiry, commissioning the country’s former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, to conduct an independent investigation “to establish the full facts of the school’s links with Libya, whether there have been errors made, and to establish clear guidelines for international donations to and links with the school.”

The result is 188 hard-hitting, tough-minded pages. This is required reading for educational fund raisers. But it transpires that Lord Woolf’s “lessons to be learned” go much wider than that. What emerges is not so much a failure to police a doubtful piece of fund raising from a roving faculty member–though the school acknowledges inadequacies in its policies and procedures in this respect–but more profound errors of governance and communication. Indeed, of institutional risk-management.

For the growing number of European academic leaders and their staff members who have been nurturing a culture of philanthropy to education in the past decade or so, this news is simultaneously encouraging and sobering. Fund-raising efforts at British universities are at “a kindergarten stage” compared to American colleges, Lord Woolf quotes a witness to his inquiry as saying. That’s a little harsh. Oxford and Cambridge are both engaged in campaigns that have reached an impressive $2-billion and are still heading north. The number of donors to British universities has doubled in five years, partly encouraged by conscious interventions such as a government-financed Matched Funding program. The momentum behind the rise in giving to universities is such that the recession has hardly slowed it. All this is surely grounds for celebration, if not congratulation.

Yet the habit of giving to education is still not deeply embedded (an important word for Lord Woolf), either in Britain or–even more–across the rest of Europe. It is vulnerable to cynicism from within the institution and assault from without. From those who see fund raising as at best a grubby necessity of contemporary academic life, the cry goes up: “This isn’t America, you know!” “It isn’t our tradition.” “It’s the government’s business”–and a host of other reasons why the university and its people should not be expected to get serious about fund raising or stay that way.

Please note: Lord Woolf definitively does not say that it is inappropriate or unnecessary for universities to raise funds. Indeed he asserts that “universities need gifts from private donors to support their activities. State support for the funding of universities has decreased.” (Let’s return to that second sentence in a moment.) He perhaps underestimates–as many leaders do, reared in the hammock of the post-war European welfare state (familiar, if increasingly uncomfortable, in straitened times)–the extent to which philanthropy is our tradition and that it is the last 70 years that are proving the blip in the graph. A recent vice-chancellor of Cambridge (and former provost of Yale), Alison Richard, spotted a gift to Cambridge as early as 1284 of 50 marks “for the support of poor students.” Some causes hardly change across eight centuries. Right through Europe are examples of universities and schools, museums, hospitals, and alms-houses established and sustained by philanthropy. Recent campaigns from fine institutions such as Karolinksa Institutet in Sweden (the home of the Nobel Prize for medicine), Ecole Polytechnique in France, and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium are reconnecting with that tradition and demonstrating in their own accents and contexts that educational philanthropy is not a sinister Anglo-Saxon plot but an energizing force for good.

Where I would go further than Lord Woolf is in the character of philanthropy–both the motivations of donors and the impact of their investment. Of course it concentrates the mind when governments are unable to pay for the standard of excellence in universities that we would all wish for. But the value of philanthropy–thoughtfully engaged in and appropriately managed – is its ability to take institutions beyond the ordinary; it sparks innovation, provides a plurality of support, and buttresses institutional autonomy. It positively insists on the qualities of clarity, accountability, and transparency that the ethical code of a values-based institution would encourage in the 21st century.

It is the business of universities to engage with the world–most especially explicitly international players like the London School of Economics, whose understanding of the Middle East, among other regions, we need more than ever. At the same time, it is an essential attribute of aspirational universities to advance their mission through philanthropy. The forensic analysis of Lord Woolf and the candid response of the LSE to his recommendations should fuel both those propositions.

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