Harvard Returns Gift to Arab President

Qualms about United Arab Emirates president's ties prompt return

Harvard agreed to give back a controversial $2.5 million gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after he requested its return, the University announced Monday.

The donation, pledged in 2000 by UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, had been put on hold by the University in May 2003 while it examined his alleged ties to the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up.

The think tank stated on its website that it promotes the unification of Arab nations through historical and cultural education. But students at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) charged that the center promulgated anti-American and anti-Semitic views.

The gift was earmarked to fund an endowed professorship in Islamic religious studies at the Divinity School.

The donation first came under public scrutiny in spring 2003 when students raised concerns about Zayed’s links to the center, which is based in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

A group of HDS students, led by Rachel Lea Fish, researched the issue and brought their concerns to HDS Dean William A. Graham in March 2003. They alleged that the Zayed Center, established in 1999, had hosted speakers claiming that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Zionists, not Nazis, and that Israel plotted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It had also featured less controversial speakers like former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore ’69.

At the time, Graham said Harvard had “no intention of keeping the gift if we find that the obvious problems with the center’s website do represent the donor’s views—something we have no concrete evidence of at present.”

Graham said he had first heard about the problems with the center indirectly at the beginning of January 2003, and that when he saw the website, he raised the issue with top University administrators.

HDS then employed a researcher to investigate the issue, according to Graham.

“We’re still trying to get all the facts,” he said then. “We do not have enough answers yet for clarity about the center, its leadership, or its linkages to the donor.”

Graham declined to comment further for this article.

Fish continued to be active in challenging the gift, writing an op-ed in The Crimson and talking to the national press for stories about the issue.

Last August, the UAE closed the Zayed Center due to activities that “starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance.”

“In light of the Zayed Center’s having promoted activities in evident conflict with the purposes of the gift, Harvard indicated to representatives of the donor that the University was seriously considering returning the gift funds,” Monday’s press release said.

The University then decided to put the donation on hold for the academic year, and had yet to reach a decision when the UAE requested the money’s return.

Abdulla Alsaboosi, a diplomat at the UAE embassy, said the request—which he said was communicated to Harvard “lately,” although he did not know exactly when—was made “because the university took too long to reach a decision.”

He added that the UAE government had been in touch with Harvard for the past several months in anticipation of a decision.

“The negotiations were conducted in an atmosphere of goodwill and mutual respect, but in the end, no decision was taken by the university officials,” he said.

Fish hailed the decision as a vindication of her concerns about the gift, although she added that the decision should have been made sooner.

“I think Harvard Divinity School and the Divinity School administration was reluctant to deal with this issue, whereas, I don’t think they would have dragged their feet if the donor was associated with the KKK or incited hatred toward any other minority,” she wrote in an e-mail.

List Professor of Jewish Studies Jon D. Levenson ’71—who has expressed concern about the gift and signed a petition organized by Fish urging the money’s return—praised Harvard for arriving at this decision even though “the financial pressures pushed in the opposite direction.”

“Certainly, by putting the gift on hold, Harvard sent a message to the UAE,” he wrote in an e-mail.

He added that it would have been preferable if Harvard had given the gift back when the controversy arose, but said he realizes that there probably is a “protocol...even in a case as clear-cut as this.”

“The delay spawned a belief in some quarters that the University gave credence to the far-fetched arguments that were offered to excuse the Zayed family,” Levenson wrote. “Fortunately, it now seems that such was never really the case.”

Fish said that it would have been better if Harvard had chosen to give back the money on its own rather than honoring Zayed’s request to return it.

“It is a prestigious honor to be associated with Harvard University and that honor should not be bestowed upon just anybody, regardless of how much money they donate,” she wrote.

HDS will continue to pursue a senior and junior faculty position in Islamic studies with other funding, according to Monday’s press release.

Fish, who studied Islam in her time at HDS, said she thinks Islam is a critical field for study.

“It is imperative for students to have a better understanding and greater knowledge about Islam, but the money for the professorships in this field must come from a reputable source,” she wrote.

And Levenson said he is not worried that the withdrawal of the Zayed money will undermine efforts to establish Islamic studies professorships.

“It can only work for the good of Islamic Studies at HDS,” he wrote. “It makes it more likely that we will appoint a serious, non-ideological scholar. This is a field we need badly.”

John Taylor, vice president for research and data services at the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, said situations where schools return donors’ money is rare, but added that schools typically comply with such requests.

“In the interest of donor relations, the donor is always right,” he said. “But still, it does not happen that often, because donors and organizations know that a gift, when given, is irrevocable.”

This is not the first time Harvard has agreed to return a multi-million dollar donation. Last February, Jane Fonda retracted the $6 million she had not yet given out of an initial $12.5 million pledge to the Graduate School of Education. She also requested—and received—the return of all the money that remained unspent from the first part of her gift, which was intended for the creation of a chair of a gender studies center. The University had abandoned plans to create the center.

—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at marks@fas.harvard.edu.