Some day, Yale’s prince will come

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Danish cartoons scandal at Yale University Press is the role of the university administration. When author Jytte Klausen was summoned by John Donatich, director of the press, to hear that it wouldn’t publish the cartoons in her book about them, Donatich had company. Also present were the chair of Yale’s Mideast center, Marcia Inhorn, and Linda Lorimer, Yale vice president and secretary of the Yale Corporation. Klausen now asserts that the university effectively forced the hand of press, by collecting almost “unanimous” opinions of “experts” warning that violence would erupt if the images were republished. Klausen: “Once the university had decided to collect these alarmist reports about the consequences [of including the pictures], there was very little the press could do. That is why I agreed to go ahead with it, [although] I disagree with it.” The press has confirmed reaching its decision “after receiving the outside advice collected by the university.” And that advice was collected from on high. Islamic art historian Sheila Blair, one of the outside experts (who recommended in favor of publication), says she was approached by an assistant in the office of Yale president Richard Levin.

What prompted the Yale administration to intervene? Roger Kimball and Diana West have already suggested that Yale University is foraging for funding from oil-soaked Arab sources. Yale’s administration intervened not to prevent violence, but to prevent damage to its fundraising prospects in Araby. There’s a strong prima facie case for this, and it revolves around Yale’s courting of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Over the years, I’ve reported on Prince Alwaleed’s efforts to buy up prime academic real estate in the United States. It was six years ago, in July 2003, that Alwaleed, then the world’s fifth-richest man, announced his plan to go on what I called “an academic shopping spree.” On a stop in Britain, Alwaleed revealed that “I am in the process of establishing centers of Arab and Islamic studies at select universities in the United States.” I made a prediction:

If you want a fabulously wealthy Saudi royal to drop out of the sky in his private jet and leave a few million, you had better watch what you say.… Prince Alwaleed’s buying binge is liable to reduce the entire field [of Middle Eastern studies] to a cargo cult, with profs and center directors dancing the ardha in the hope of attracting the flying prince.… In the near future, don’t be surprised to see grinning university presidents posing with Prince Alwaleed. They will say there are no strings attached. Puris omnia pura: To the pure all things are pure.

Sure enough, in December 2005, Harvard and Georgetown universities announced that they’d each received $20 million endowments from Prince Alwaleed—Harvard for an Islamic studies program and Georgetown for John Esposito’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sure enough, a photographer captured Georgetown’s President John J. DeGioia beaming alongside the Prince, and a Georgetown administrator made the inevitable assurance: “The funds are designated, but there are no strings attached.”

The crucial thing to know about Prince Alwaleed is that he believes in “strategic philanthropy.” He’s not tied emotionally to particular universities, and he’s not interested in honors. He seeks maximum return on investment. The two $20 million gifts he made in 2005 followed a semi-secret competition, in which half a dozen institutions put on their most Saudi-friendly face. Alwaleed later named some names in an interview with the New York Times: Harvard, Georgetown, Chicago, Michigan, “and several of the Ivy Leagues” were in the running. The interviewer pressed for more names. “Please. Keep the other universities out,” said Alwaleed. “I’d rather not embarrass them.”

Who was spared embarrassment? The Yale Daily News asked President Levin if Yale had been in the race; Levin “said two University proposals had been in the final running.” Finalist, but not a winner.

But everyone assumes that Alwaleed will run another competition. He isn’t worth as much as he was a few years back, but according to Forbes, he’s still worth over $13 billion. (In March, he summoned a Forbes reporter to spend a week with him, just to prove he’s still living the opulent life. “Observing wealth on this scale, even for a seasoned billionaires reporter, was staggering.”) And he’s still in the academic market—so says Muna AbuSulayman, executive director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation: “Because of what is happening (in the markets) people might think he is stopping his philanthropy; on the contrary he is fully committed to his charity goals no matter what happens.” According to her, the Alwaleed Foundation has set aside $100 million for its Islam-West dialogue project, which endowed the centers at Harvard and Georgetown.

This same Muna AbuSulayman is also Alwaleed’s point person for his academic programs. “I used to work with him at Kingdom Holding, I was head of strategic studies, and I was given the assignment of doing the first centers in the U.S. I guess I did such a good job that he actually offered me the foundation.” You can see her in this photo of Alwaleed with Georgetown’s president, and in this one of Alwaleed with Harvard’s provost (she’s the one with the hijab). AbuSulayman continues to monitor the Alwaleed centers; in March, she convened their directors in London for their first joint planning meeting. (In this photo, she’s surrounded by the directors of the endowed centers, including Georgetown’s John Esposito and Harvard’s Roy Mottahedeh. Look carefully for strings attached.)

Now it gets interesting. In April, Yale named Muna AbuSulayman a “Yale World Fellow” for 2009. This isn’t some honorific, and she’ll reside from August through December in New Haven. (Her Facebook fan page, August 16: “I need help locating a Town House/condo for short term leasing near Yale University… Anyone familiar with that area?”) Can you imagine a better way to set the stage for a major Alwaleed gift? Hosting for a semester the very person who structured the Harvard and Georgetown gifts, and who now directs Alwaleed’s charitable foundation? A stroke of genius.

Imagine, then—and we’re just imagining—that someone in the Yale administration, perhaps in President Levin’s office, gets wind of the fact that Yale University Press is about to publish a book on the Danish cartoons—The Cartoons That Shook the World. The book is going to include the Danish cartoons, plus earlier depictions of the Prophet Muhammad tormented in Dante’s Inferno, and who-knows-what-else. Whooah! Good luck explaining to people like Prince Alwaleed that Yale University and Yale University Press are two different shops. The university can’t interfere in editorial matters, so what’s to be done? Summon some “experts,” who’ll be smart enough to know just what to say. Yale will be accused of surrendering to an imagined threat by extremists. So be it: self-censorship to spare bloodshed in Nigeria or Indonesia still sounds a lot nobler than self-censorship to keep a Saudi prince on the line for $20 million.

Yale has seen its endowment suffer billions in losses, and its administration has the mission of making the bucks back. Yale’s motto is lux et veritas, light and truth, but these days it might as well be pecunia non olet: money has no odor—whatever its source. Still, that isn’t the mission of Yale University Press, which seeks to help authors of exceptional merit shed full light on the truth. More than three years ago, I warned against “the deep corruption that Prince Alwaleed’s buying spree is spreading through academe and Middle Eastern studies.” If this is what caused Yale University to trespass so rudely against the independence of its press, then the rot has spread even further than I imagined. I’ve been a reader for Yale University Press, which I think publishes a more interesting list in Middle Eastern studies than any university press. But if editorial decisions are to be subjected to vetting and possible abortion by Yale’s money collectors, why bother?

Ignore all the denials, and watch for a hefty gift from Arabia, perhaps for another Alwaleed program in Islamic apologetics. Fat endowments speak louder than words—or cartoons.

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