Letter to the Editor: Why won’t NU return Saudi blood money?

Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Ronan Farrow revealed that the MIT Media Lab and its director, Joi Ito received $1.7 million in donations from convicted sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein and deliberately hid this financial relationship. Ito promptly resigned. One of the lab’s advisors, journalist and author Anand Giridharadas, stepped down in protest. “Universities should know better than to be drive-through reputational laundromats,” he declared.

This situation raises questions for Northwestern as well. Last year, information from the U.S. Education Dept., revealed that several professors accepted donations from the King Abulaziz City of Science & Technology, a Saudi Arabian government agency. Over the course of 5 years, a total of $14.4 million dollars have been accepted as donations. The disclosure followed the death of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in a Turkish consulate. Strong evidence linked top Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the murder. Unlike the MIT situation, NU administrators did not try to conceal the funding source. However they have not, as far as I know, identified the professors and academic departments who used the money for research projects.

President Morton Schapiro said that NU professors will “reconsider” their relationship with the Saudi government, but won’t return the money they received, because their work benefits the scientific community. “Scientists in our labs get to do transformative research,” he stated. Creating a traffic management plan for visitors to the city of Mecca was among the projects cited by Provost Jonathan Holloway.

While such research may indeed be “transformative,” it doesn’t justify, in my view, why an elite university that hosts one of the world’s leading journalism schools refuses to return funds donated by a regime implicated in the murder of a prominent journalist. NU’s position, in my view, reflects a value system in which Riyadh’s riches outweigh Evanston’s ethics.

During an interview with the Daily, President Schapiro said he wasn’t “horrified” by the fact that the Saudi government paid for NU professors’ scientific research. But he should be horrified, and so should all concerned NU students, faculty and alumni. Elite academic institutions like NU and MIT cannot claim to aim their ethical values at the North Star while allowing their moral compass to point directly to the bottom line.

I welcome readers’ feedback.

Dick Reif, MSJ 1964