the woolf that didn’t bark: the LSE-libya inquiry

Jack Staunton, a student at the London School of Economics (LSE) looks at Lord Woolf’s inquiry into the School’s ties to the Libyan state, and the nature of ‘corporate social responsibility’. 

In May this year the LSE’s Dr Satoshi Kanazawa posted a blog entry on the Psychology Today website, entitled “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?”. Kanazawa offered an answer to this age-old question with a series of ‘scientific’ graphs and statistics. Such was the uproar that he was forced into an apology, taking a mere four months to put together a public statement.

Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi PhD, the first student ever to deliver LSE's Ralph Miliband lecture

But what did our hapless researcher retract: his racism? Objectification of women? No: he apologised for ‘causing controversy’ and ‘damage to the reputation of the School’ because he did not use ‘due consideration’ in his ‘use of language’. He was ‘not at all motivated by a desire to seek or cause controversy’, instead entirely motivated by ‘scientific curiosity’. For English readers, he meant: sorry you got upset, but I am so focused on my quest for scientific knowledge, I didn’t consider how my choice of words might hurt your sensitive feelings and the School’s ‘brand’.

Kanazawa’s promise to choose his words more carefully in future was enough for him to keep his job. What mattered to LSE was not the racist content of his outlook, but that his failure to use politically-correct language was bad for its reputation. And LSE takes its reputation very seriously. This, of course, is the same institution which, after championing the Libyan regime for eight years, abandoned it to the memory-hole in 2011 once Gaddafi’s own ‘brand’ became toxic. Media revelations as to the extent of LSE’s relations with the regime were such an embarrassment that the School felt moved to launch an investigation, the Woolf Inquiry.


There’s a scene in the political satire The Thick of It where a Blairite government department are all fearing for their jobs after a fuck-up over immigration statistics. The civil servants all anxiously wait to hear what will be done. Seeing a news announcement that there will be an official inquiry into the department, the characters jump up and down, hugging each other and cheering. Their failings will go unpunished, while some bureaucrat writes a windy report about procedures and codes of conduct.

Similar cynicism was in order this summer, when the LSE announced there would be a report on its links with Libya. The Gaddafi ‘brand’ no longer quite fit for the School after the uprising in Benghazi and NATO intervention, its Director Howard Davies resigned and an inquiry was called to determine why LSE had collaborated with the Libyan regime for eight years.

The activities under investigation included the acceptance of a £1.5 million donation to the School from the Gaddafi Foundation; LSE Enterprise’s £2.2 million contract to train the regime’s civil servants; the awarding of a PhD to Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif-al-Islam; and the Colonel himself giving a lecture at LSE via video link-up, being introduced as ‘Brother Leader’. School representatives also served as a liberal public face for the regime, for instance Emeritus Professor Anthony Giddens promising that a benign, reforming Libya would be the ‘Norway of North Africa’.

All this was abandoned after the February insurrection in Benghazi, and more specifically when Saif-al-Islam proclaimed that the regime would wreak bloody vengeance on the rebels. This authoritarian stance was apparently some great shock to Gaddafi’s (neo)liberal friends  at the LSE, even though it was well-known that the regime had previously achieved such feats as the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, in which 1,270 people were slaughtered.

Of course, what really mattered was not what was happening in Libya, but the change in the Western gaze. The key development was 2003, when the long-standing ‘mad dog Gaddafi’ suddenly became the West’s ‘ally against terrorism’ when, frightened by the invasion of Iraq, he committed to disarmament. This was agreed in return for normalised diplomatic relations with the US and UK and massive trade deals. As such Libya became one of any number of Middle-Eastern dictatorships drawn into line with imperialist strategic interests, on the path to becoming a Qatar, a Bahrain or a Saudi Arabia.

As such it was only natural that LSE would open up to the regime. With political change now a thing of the past, replaced by the global community of the free market, neoliberal Libya looked ready to join the party.  The School has other essentially similar relationships with any number of repressive governments, not least the £2.5 million received from the United Arab Emirates (hence the ‘Sheikh Zayed lecture theatre’) or the LSE’s ‘Confucius Institute for Business London’, an agency of the Chinese state.

Not only do such projects fit neatly with the School’s ideological agenda (all of us global citizens in the world market) but also provide an extra source of funding when the British government tightens the higher education purse-strings. Surely such dealings with foreign governments ought to have fallen under the scrutiny of Lord Woolf’s inquiry? Dealings not unique to LSE, but equally to Oxford, St. Andrews and the like? Not exactly.

While a possible defence of LSE’s behaviour is its need to make up for a fall in UK government funding, our investigator instead puts a positive spin on these cuts: ‘In the last decade, the UK government encouraged universities to fundraise’. The inherent neoliberal dogma of the institution and Lord Woolf’s report proclaim the necessity of such ‘fundraising’, where public services like education need to meet the needs of the private sphere of the ‘philanthropic landscape’: rich guys who want to buy influence and at the same time buy the reputation of a charitable conscience. This context is, of course, not under discussion in the inquiry.

The Woolf Report

But equally, you wouldn’t know from the Woolf Report that LSE had all sorts of such dealings with such governments. You wouldn’t know that academia is routinely prostituted to commercial and political interests able to buy favourable quotes from LSE’s top brass. In fact, you mightn’t even know LSE is an academic establishment at all: it is repeatedly referred to as a ‘global company’ or a ‘global enterprise’ having to protect its ‘brand’ on the ‘market’. Who knows, perhaps the presence of lecturers and students on campus is just a ruse to get tax breaks for LSE’s corporate-lobbyist activities.

Much of the report is simply a dry detailing of council meetings and internal reports, in the effort to isolate the particular ‘mistakes’ which led to this year’s crisis. Woolf finds instead that no-one knew the full extent of LSE’s ties to Libya, but they merely kept creeping forward and expanding into new areas through their own dynamism. While it seems the intention of this statement is to absolve any one individual from blame, it instead points to the real problem, the whole culture of universities’ economic ties, as mentioned above.

Indeed, in terms of ideology, one of the most interesting things about the report is what is mentioned in passing, but is not the direct target of criticism. For instance, the idea that LSE ought to offer Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi special one-to-one tuition; that a course would be found to ‘accommodate’ him (Blair’s Foreign Office having earlier put pressure on Oxford to do so); that his reliance on an American consultancy firm to help with his assignments was somehow understandable given his hectic political and art (!) career: never mind, as his tutor was still convinced that he was ‘very, very intensively involved’ in producing his work. While the general academic culture at LSE is harsh on failure, with no resit exams and plagiarism considered an expellable offence, the report includes an amusing reference to the dictator’s son being given ‘the benefit of the doubt’ where no reason for doubt existed:

“Mr Yahia Said, a research fellow at the LSE centre for Global Governance taught Saif  on his “Global Civil Society” course. He formed a very poor impression of Saif and described to me how he was approached by individuals who purported to work for Saif or the Libyan Embassy with questions about papers he needed to write for the course. These individuals stated freely that they were preparing the papers Saif was required to provide for his MSc and “were speaking openly about it. I don’t think they even realized it was wrong.”  Mr Said refused to continue teaching Saif.”

Yahia Said was no longer burdened with having to teach Saif, and the School simply shifted him into another class! This sub-plot is oddly smoothed over, and indeed one of the report’s key findings is that his PhD was substantially his own work and thus he should be allowed to keep the letters after his name. Aside from the question of the value of Gaddafi Jr.’s PhD (career prospects look rather dim through the bars of his TNC prison-cell) it is telling that the School would bend its supposed standards to such an extent merely to avoid embarrassing Saif. Only when Saif began proclaiming the advent of ‘rivers of blood’ through Libya’s streets did LSE suddenly launch an inquiry into whether this man had really written The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governing institutions: from soft power to collective decision making.

Authenticity and reputation

In  the second episode of Charlie Brooker’s excellent Black Mirror , an austere future society sees the population live in cubicles with TV screens for walls, constantly bombarded with the X Factor and pornography. The people slave away on exercise bikes to generate energy to power this compulsory ‘entertainment’. One of the workers gets more and more frustrated at his empty existence, and ultimately decides to go on the X Factor, since the show offers a stage for him to vent his anger. In an explosive rant he tears into the ‘Simon Cowell’ character, denouncing the system’s total fakeness and the reduction of all human activity to media spectacle. As he slows, panting and close to tears, the X Factor judges excitedly congratulate him: his heartfelt ‘’authenticity’ is a great new ‘gimmick’ which will definitely ‘sell’ to viewers.

A ‘global enterprise’ like the London School of Economics is no different, needing to be able to make ethics part of its brand in order to keep up its market share. Tellingly, the Woolf Report approvingly quotes the idea that ‘commercial corporations and universities [are] today being on “very similar lines” with regard to the management of ethical and reputational risk’: the mantra of Corporate Social Responsibility being the need to sell feel-good ‘green’ and fair-trade postures to customers in order to maintain profitability. The Woolf Report is itself an instrument of this policy: with Gaddafi dead and the Sheikh Zayed lecture theatre still open for business, some warm words about caring for ethical values earn the thanks of the Student Union and salve our democratic consciences.

Of course, the fact that LSE abandoned all its stated academic standards as to play its role in Gaddafi’s turn to the West makes a mockery of the Woolf Report’s call for new codes of conduct, ethics commitments and so on.

But that does not matter. Because the future is bright for the risk management of LSE’s hallowed reputation. Dr Satoshi Kanazawa will continue his ground-breaking research into the physical attractiveness of black women, but remember to couch his racism in creative language. He wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. LSE will continue to play host to Russian foreign ministers, princes from Dubai and the denizens of the Confucius Business Institute. But when it does hand degrees to the children of tyrants like sweets; when it offers specialists in organised repression a platform for their ideas; when it exchanges academic reputation for money in the form of glowing endorsements by esteemed professors; it won’t be anything like before. No need for the School’s staff and students to feel ashamed any more. LSE now has a ‘reputational risk code’.

3 thoughts on “the woolf that didn’t bark: the LSE-libya inquiry

  1. This is a very unfair portrayal of what happened, penned by someone who has no loyalty to the institution which allowed him to attach himself to its ‘brand’;

    It is full of sly, sweeping insinuations and half truths. LSE has been made a scapegoat for the Libyan activities, according to research, of more than a hundred other British universities and the whole affair has been hyped to a ridiculous extent: only a handful of LSE’s 10, 000 staff and students were involved with Libya, for example, but you would never guess that from the coverage or this article.

    As for the famous speech Gaddaffi made a similar addresse at Oxbridge. But no fuss about that. Why not?

    Where are the enquiries and resiginations in these other hundred universities?

    Where is the indignation about Oxford accepting Rafsanjani’s son for a doctorate. and why has the Oxford report into the matter been kept secret?

    A one sided, disloyal and deeply unfair little piece of wriitng.


  2. Clearly the entire article is a criticism of LSE management and the culture of university funding, not LSE students or whatever. Nowhere is it at all suggested that LSE students are at fault – what would that even mean?

    The management did not fall victim to ‘Libyan activities’, as if they were passive in the situation: this kind of dealing is in their DNA, because it fits perfectly with neoliberal education ideology. The Woolf Report’s superficial criticisms do not transcend this either, as explained in the article.

    The article does mention Oxford and so on and criticises the Woolf Report for not going deeper into the nature of political and business funding for all unis.

    So… what are you getting at?


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