In the mid-1970s, a congressional investigation discovered that the Central Intelligence Agency was covertly funding hundreds of academic research projects—notably books—in the United States and abroad in order to counter Soviet propaganda efforts.
This discovery led to a change in regulations at Harvard, which, out of concern for academic independence, issued a set of guidelines in 1977 that required professors to report to the University if they were being funded by the CIA or other intelligence agencies.
According to this new policy, if the grants compromised academic freedom, the scholars would not be allowed to make use of the funds.
The regulatory change provided the backdrop for a scandal in 1985, when then-Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Nadav Safran was discovered to have received more than $150,000 of confidential CIA grants for academic purposes.
On October 10, 1985, then-Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence announced an investigation into Safran’s funding sources, discovering that he had received $45,700 from the CIA to fund a conference on Islamic fundamentalism without notifying the University.
The conference, which was scheduled to be held on October 15 and 16, 1985, at the Faculty Club, went on as usual. But many faculty members were “very unhappy” to learn about the questionable grants that funded the conference, according to then-Assistant History Professor Zachary Lockman, who is now a professor at New York University.
“We thought that [it raised] issues for scholars in general,” Lockman said, adding that “it needs to be clear that it’s not acceptable to take undisclosed funding from an intelligence agency.”
Thirteen of the 25 scheduled speakers boycotted the conference after hearing of the confidential funding. In fact, one of the professors returned to Cairo immediately after arriving in Cambridge.
Upon learning of the CIA funding, a participant of the conference, David Lelyveld, expressed his concerns over the confidential funding with regard to its potential impact on academic independence in a letter to Safran and The Crimson in 1985.
“The principle of the autonomy of academic inquiry is, I believe, seriously compromised by entangling it with the gathering of intelligence,” Lelyveld wrote.
At a time when the United States government supported then-Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who was described by The Economist as a “fundamentalist Sunni dictator,” it is even more important to be clear about academic independence, Lelyveld added in his letter.
But this controversy was not the end of Safran’s run-ins with other faculty.
Immediately after the disclosure of the funds Safran used for his conference, it was revealed that he also received $107,430 in April 1982 for another research project, which turned into a book in 1985. The book, “Saudi Arabia, The Ceaseless Quest for Security,” also neglected to mention the CIA funding.
Safran’s 1982 contract with the CIA said that the intelligence agency had the right to review and approve the book before its publication, and that its role in funding the book would not be disclosed.
Although Lockman said that he found the book to be unbiased, secretly taking funds from a government agency compromised the academic impartiality of Safran’s work.