On retrospective virtue

London School of Economics students, who weren’t protesting in 2009 when Saif al-Islam-al-Gaddafi made his large donation to the LSE, or in 2002/2003 when the LSE first started having links with Libya, are protesting now that new aspects of Mr. Gaddafi's personal character (an aggressive reaction to political pressure) have come to light.  Why are they protesting now, when they were not protesting previously?  What do they expect their college to do—go back in time and change their past relationship with the Gaddafis?

The LSE is now investigating claims of plagiarism in respect of a PhD thesis that was submitted and approved years ago by a world-famous student.  Why are they investigating now?  Does this not implicitly admit that their previous investigations were lacking in rigour?  One would think that if it was worth investigating now, then this obvious high-risk PhD thesis would have been worth rigorous preemptive supervision and retrospective examination at the time.  What could possibly have changed their attitude?

Could their motivations be anything more virtuous than a retrospective desire to limit damage from the current political embarrassment of being associated with the Libyan regime?

From the latest BBC article:

On Monday, LSE director Sir Howard Davies, admitted he felt “embarrassed” by the university’s ties with the family of Colonel Gaddafi.
He said the decision to accept research funding from a foundation controlled by Saif Gaddafi had “backfired”.

This seems rather like a damage limitation exercise, on the part of both the college and the students.  The LSE appears to be admitting that their present investigations are motivated by political embarrassment.  It’s disappointing that professional integrity didn’t figure these things out before political embarrassment kicked in.

Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, while irrationally loyal to his family, has always been considered one of the more forward-thinking members of his country’s élite clique.  He has given several speeches expounding the virtues of greater civic freedom in Arab society; speeches that have been tacitly accepted by his father, possibly because of reciprocal family loyalties.  Accepting Saif as a student appears to have been a reasonable decision, given what they appear to have known at the time.  If it was right for the LSE to accept Saif as a student years ago, when his father's character and reputation were already well known; why can’t they defend that decision now on the basis of what they knew at the time, and more gently encourage Saif to honour the principles that he himself has been preaching in his own PhD thesis and speeches?

So the LSE is now “investigating” whether Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi plagiarised his work.  If they haven’t come to firm conclusions yet about these “allegations”, then why does the public need to know about these “investigations” before any of the allegations have been substantiated?  To save the LSE from their blushes?  Is not “innocent until proven guilty” one of the most fundamental elements of the political freedom and values enshrined by all civilised states?  Does this principle not apply to every case, no matter how grave the allegations may be?

What good can possibly come out of this obvious about-face by the LSE?

  1. More boldness from students who have once enjoyed financial benefits, and who now take upon themselves the political convenience of retrospectively rejecting those associations?
  2. More hesitation on the part of Arab ruling families, to send their sons to free-thinking Western schools that might reject them as soon as it becomes politically convenient to do so?  Where might those sons study instead?  Saudi Arabia?  China?  Iran?


If it was a matter of professional integrity to accept Saif al-Islam al-Ghadaffi as a student previously, then it should be a matter of professional integrity to stand by him now; even if one does not stand by his present actions or the attitudes betrayed by his present communications.  If it was a matter of professional integrity to accept his degree submissions previously, then it ought to be a matter of professional integrity to uphold those qualifications now; or else to explain to the public and to hard-working fee-paying students why professional due-diligence was not properly applied in the first instance, or what aspect of present circumstances has provided fresh evidence of this man's PhD thesis comprising plagiarisms.

Is it that Mr. Gaddafi's present behaviour indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of the principles of his thesis?  Even if this was the case (which the LSE does not appear to claim), it does not fully explain the LSE's apparent lapse of academic rigour in the discharge of their onerous, fundamental and well-remunerated duties to adjudicate the value of Mr. Gaddafi's postgraduate education.

The LSE’s ill-explained about-face, rather than exonerating them, looks like an admission that they lack professional integrity or rigour, and indicates that they say whatever is politically or economically convenient for the LSE at the time.

Saif is doing quite enough to damage his own reputation at the moment, without any help from the LSE.  Sadly, instead of keeping quiet and calmly explaining the situation to those concerned, they’ve got one finger pointing at Mr. Gaddafi and three fingers pointing back.  Whether or not Mr. Gaddafi's thesis turns out to have been substantially original and written by him, the outcome of this investigation can do little to exonerate the LSE's lack of procedural integrity in this case.

2 thoughts on “On retrospective virtue

  1. M. Burdon: To be fair, it is only just now that he has started bombing his own people.

    Yes.  But what does that have to do with his degree?

    OK—his current actions (which he is apparently doing at the behest of his father) might indicate a certain duplicity in his former preachings of peace, love and freedom; but if his degree was accepted previously, in good faith, and demonstrated a good understanding of the subject matter at the time, and if his tutors had reason to believe at the time that he was doing his own work; then why not, instead of trashing all of Saif’s good work:

    1. Politely remind Saif of the excellent work that he did,
    2. Explain why Saif’s degree was accepted at the time of its submission, and explain in layman’s terms what his PhD thesis teaches,
    3. Encourage Saif to stand by his excellent work?

    It seems to me that this approach would have much better results, in getting Saif to think about his actions, and in providing some degree of protection, not only to Saif, but to his people.  Get the man to think, rather than joining the angry crowd shouting him into a corner where he feels like he can only fight his way out.  That sort of behaviour doesn’t seem like true academia, or professional integrity, to me.  If his degree was right at the time, then it should be right now; regardless of whether or not Saif himself believes in it any more.

    In the news—yet more belatedly “virtuous” gestures from persons who were, until very recently, quite happy to associate themselves with the Gaddafi clan.  Perhaps this performer was prompted by her publicist to do this?

  2. The above article was originally drafted as a Facebook note on 2nd March 2011.  The LSE's director, Sir Howard Davies, has since resigned from his post, taking responsibility for his errors of judgment in doing business with the Libyan regime of Mr. Gaddafi, and agreeing to advise them.  Sir Howard Davies has been very kind to his college, whose investigations should have been conducted years ago; and very accommodating to his protesting students, whose protests should have been made years ago.  At least, one hopes that his personal integrity has concluded this ugly chapter of the LSE's otherwise distinguished history.

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