Yale was passed over last month when controversial Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal announced he would donate $40 million to further Islamic studies at Harvard and Georgetown universities instead.
The two $20-million donations from the billionaire investor were announced Dec. 12, after Alwaleed discussed providing financial support for Islamic studies with leaders of several top American universities, including Yale. Georgetown and Harvard were selected by Alwaleed and his business, Kingdom Holding Co., based on the schools’ proposals for bolstering their existing programs. The donations have been accepted by both universities, but the schools have faced some criticisms from both outside and within their institutions because of the Saudi family’s record of funding known terrorist organizations.
Yale President Richard Levin declined to address those charges, but he said two University proposals had been in the final running.
Harvard will use the donation — one of the 25 highest in the university’s history — to support existing programs in Islamic studies, rather than to create an entirely new program. The money will pay for four new professorships, including one named for the prince. It will also be used to preserve Islamic documents as part of Harvard’s “Islamic Heritage Project,” Harvard spokeswoman Sarah Friedell said.
Similarly, Georgetown will use the donation — the second largest in its history — to reinforce and promote its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which has been renamed in Alwaleed’s honor.
“We will strengthen what we already do, and the money will give us more resources for outreach and relations with the media,” said John Voll, the associate director of the center. “The important new thing is that it gives us more resources to support scholars in the Muslim world who want to study [in the United States].”
Georgetown’s center focuses on studying Islam on an international level, Voll said, especially in its relationship with Christianity and the West.
Though some within the two universities’ communities said they support increased education on the Muslim religion, they said they are concerned about how the source of the donation will affect the funded programs.
Harvard junior Amy Zelcer, president of Harvard Students for Israel, said she is uncomfortable that Alwaleed is behind the donation, though the organization has yet to publicly address the issue.
“We really support the establishment of some classes on Islamic studies or the Middle East,” Zelcer said. “We feel it’s a very important topic that needs to be addressed more at Harvard, but we feel that there are other sources of money that do not have terrorist ties.”
Zelcer said that while her organization would much rather that Harvard not accept the donation, she said that if Harvard does accept the money, it ought to have full discretion regarding its use.
“The money must be separate from the man,” Zelcer said.
Both Friedell and Georgetown spokesman Erik Smulson said their respective universities have the final say regarding the money’s use, but outside the university community, some politicians and activists said the grants are inappropriate on principle. U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) — the author of the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act — wrote to the presidents of both universities, urging them to keep their “hands … clean of any relationship with individuals associated with terrorism.”
Voll said that he has not received many complaints. He also cited other donations that Alwaleed has made in the past year promoting cultural understanding between the Muslim and Christian worlds, including an approximately $20 million donation to the Louvre in Paris to support Islamic art.
“He has also given substantial money to the American universities in Beirut and in Cairo to promote American studies,” Voll said. “He also believes the Muslim world doesn’t have an understanding of the West. There are some people who automatically jump at the name Saudi, but I don’t think it’s as substantial with someone like Prince Alwaleed.”
Gerhard Bowering, a professor of Islamic studies at Yale who was not involved in any communication with Alwaleed, said Islamic studies at Yale and other American universities is lacking.
“Islam is the second largest religion world-wide … It is an international cosmopolitan phenomenon,” Bowering said. “If you had read the newspaper before you were born, you would not see it in the news. Now you see it every day.”
Bowering said that the study of Islam has been greatly underrepresented at Yale, though it has always emphasized the study of Arabic. He said that in order for Yale to expand Islamic studies significantly, it would have to adopt a fund-raising initiative similar to the one it conducted in the 1980’s to promote Judaic studies, which resulted in about $10 million.
“I understand that Yale has an interest in and is strong in Judiaic studies, and that in North America Judaic studies are important,” Bowering said. “In size, internationally, there is no comparison between Judaism and Islam.”
Other Islamic studies scholars at the University said Yale’s programs, while small, are among the best in the country.
“The courses in Islamic studies are one of the best kept secrets among Yale undergraduates,” said Joseph Cumming GRD ’06, the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture’s Reconciliation Program. “It seems to me to be critically important in the 21st century for Yale students, future leaders, to learn about Islam.”
Bowering and Zelcer both said they would like to see Alwaleed fund university programs promoting intercultural understanding in his home country, as well.