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Money From Black Gold

By Allen S. Weiner

In Harvard's gradual march from national to international prominence, the most publicized initial step may have been its advisory links with the Third-World.

In December of 1981, Harvard Medical School officials announced a program to help develop the Aga Kahn Hospital and Medical College, Pakistan's largest medical school and teaching hospital, in conjunction with Palestinian spiritual leader Karim Aga Khan '59. Since then, Harvard Medical School doctors have dispensed valuable advice to Pakistani faculty. But Harvard's growing cosmopolitanism may turn out to work both ways. As events of last spring indicate, endowments and gifts from foreign countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, could develop into an important source of funding for Harvard programs. With that possibility have come questions about the conditions that could ride on such gifts.

One such gift, a $600,000 grant given to Harvard's Semitic Museum by the Saudi Royal family in December 1982, will finance the museum's three-year effort to identify and preserve valuable photographs depicting life throughout the Middle East, according to Assistant Curator for Archives Ingeborg O'Reilly.

O'Reilly notes that the $600,000 gift, the largest single donation to the photographic research project, satisfied both the University's and the Museum's standards for private philanthropy. "We would never be able to accept a gift with strings or conditions attached to it," said O'Reilly, "but in this case, there were no strings and no conflict of interest at all "She added that the Fahd gift in no way seeks to control the scope or direction of the Semitic Museum's research, and that the foreign grant was treated like any routine donation.

But the University's handling of another major Saudi Arabian contribution generated confusion and criticism. In May of 1982, Harvard accepted a $1 million gift from a Saudi businessman to establish a professorship in contemporary Arab Studies that some faculty members of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies said was effectively conditional on the appointment of Walid Khalidi, previously a visiting professor and reportedly an affiliate of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to an unusual open-ended research post. As one official close to the center, who declined to be identified, described it last May, Harvard and the unnamed donor had an unwritten understanding that "the appointment of Khalidi [as a researcher] was a condition of obtaining the money" for the new professorship.

Dean of Faculty Henry Rosovsky denies that the Khalidi appointment was a prerequisite to receiving the donation, calling the professorship "a normal, no-strings chair." Still, the controversy surrounding the Khalidi appointment showcased the special difficulties attendant on gifts from foreign nations, particularly those with cultures and governments very different from our own. Edward L. Keenan, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) and outgoing director of the center for Middle Eastern Studies, notes that problems may arise when foreign donors do not understand Harvard's policy of accepting only donations without conditions: "After all, American philanthropy is a very special institution in the world." The normal procedure with international donations, according to Keenan, includes "explain[ing] these matters when dealing with foreign interests." The University's traditional basis of support--alumni and American philanthropic associations--need no such caveats, he adds.

Despite this potential for misunderstanding. University officials see little likelihood that such donations present a risk to Harvard's academic integrity. "There are those who misunderstand and they don't stay around long," says Keenan of some foreign donors, adding. "I see very little danger that Harvard will take money on any terms but its own."

Although the University Development Office does not classify donations by national origin, William Boardman, director of the Major Gifts division, says he knows of no Major Saudi Arabian gifts besides the two in 1982. David Johnson, also of the Office of Development, similarly down-plays the importance of foreign contributions, noting that alumni, along with domestic corporations and foundations, remain the essential sources of large gifts.

Keenan suggests that attention has been drawn to the Saudi donations only because of some larger fear of Saudi influence in our society. Many Americans feel that through their prodigious investments, the Saudis are taking control of fundamental domestic institutions. By contrast, Keenan notes, there was little controversy more than 10 years ago when a Polish national donated the funding for the Jurzakovsky Chair for Polish Language and Literature, a chair currently filled by Professor Stanislaw Baranczak. "The thing that makes people ask question is that the money comes from Saudi Arabia," the dean suggests, adding. "If we had two grants from two Icelandic citizens, people wouldn't notice."

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