Dictators & directors

When does a boss admit his/her mistakes and resign? In India, Chief Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas has had to be “sacked” by the Supreme Court; chief honcho of the Commonwealth Games, Suresh Kalmadi, has refused to give up his perch on the International Olympic Committee; A. Raja, former telecom minister, stuck on till the very last moment.

Ministers have been named and shamed by the courts as having interfered in the course of justice but go on smugly. Even charges of corruption are often not enough to force anyone out of the door. Usually they are carried out kicking and screaming and often take the doorpost with them.
Here in London, we have seen a completely different example in the resignation of the director of the London School of Economics (LSE), Sir Howard Davies, following a student upheaval at that famous institution of Laski, Tawney, Hayek and Robbins. Partly this has been due to events in Libya, which have reverberated within LSE. Students are angry that the university has taken money from Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Seif al-Islam was once a student at LSE, and completed his MSc and PhD degrees there.
Further, thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that the LSE had, in a million-pound deal with the rulers of Libya, agreed to train Libyan civil servants, and the director of the LSE even advised the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Libya. Moreover, far too many embarrassing links and financial dealings with Libya have been revealed, which were not known earlier, publicly.
However, ironically, when Seif al-Islam was at the LSE, from 2003 to 2008, from his academic reports, he appeared to have followed all the rules, even getting his academic advisors to actually comment that the only difference between him and the other students was that he had bodyguards. But that was a very different time. This was during the Tony Blair premiership, and it was not a bad thing to cosy up to the heir of Libya. Now, not only has there been the Jasmine Revolution and human rights violations, but there is a different government in the UK as well. And this one is not speaking in terms of rapprochement with Col. Gaddafi, but more in the language of no-fly zones and sanctions.
When Seif al-Islam appeared on Libyan TV threatening to shoot Libyans who were unhappy with the regime, LSE students saw red. What began as a complaint about whether Seif al-Islam had receive special treatment (why did he donate £1.5 million after he had graduated?) turned into a full-scale indictment of LSE’s Libyan links. WikiLeaks fanned these flames and the result has been dramatic.
Sir Howard has resigned and taken responsibility for the damage done to LSE’s reputation. He did not blame his subordinates, the academic staff involved in teaching Seif al-Islam or accepting the money. He did not blame the media even. He has just stated the facts, apologised that he had encouraged such close ties with Libya and quit.
This has sent ripples through the academic community as now an investigation has been ordered into various issues which have been raised by the student community and others regarding LSE’s Libyan links. There is also an inquiry into the vexed question about whether Seif al-Islam had plagiarised his thesis?
It has been a difficult question to answer so far. Seif al-Islam had been given a supervisor and an academic advisor at the LSE, and he had already completed his MSc, so he was familiar with the rigour of the institution. The supervisor and advisor did not find any plagiarism at that time. Many other reputed academics from other universities had also advised Seif al-Islam on the thesis and were unaware of any plagiarism in the thesis as well.
Seif al-Islam’s two examiners in 2007, Prof. Tony McGrew of Southampton University and my husband, Prof Meghnad Desai, from the LSE (though he had retired by then) had taken the final oral test. They were evaluating academic merit, and were not tipped off that there could be plagiarism, nor did they suspect any. Now, of course, there is a great new software, Turnitin, which is used to check any suspect thesis and is reputed to spot any hanky-panky quite easily. One wishes the software had been used earlier and the issue could have been resolved!
Professors McGrew and Desai treated Seif al-Islam as they would any other student, and, in fact, rejected the thesis when it was first presented, as being too idealistic and unrealistic. He had to re-do it, and it was accepted the second time round.
However, many people are now going through the same thesis with a fine comb given the volatile situation and hatred for the Gaddafi family. It is best to settle this issue at the earliest. So far, however, nothing substantive has been found, and Sir Howard himself has said in his resignation letter that: “The degrees to Seif al-Islam were correctly awarded and there was no link between the grant and the degree”. The LSE has rightly said that it takes these things very seriously, and so it should because it has an enormous reputation to maintain, as do it’s very renowned galaxy of academics.
Ultimately, of course, it was not the thesis but the larger involvement and financial dealings with Libya which forced Sir Howard to resign. We will all miss Sir Howard, as he was an extremely dynamic director. I personally found him to be very engaging and positive, especially, about LSE’s Indian links.

Kishwar Desai can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

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