A Virginia Congressman raised questions this week regarding potential pro-Saudi bias at a Georgetown University center funded in large part by a Saudi prince.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va., LAW '65) sent University President John J. DeGioia a letter on Feb. 14 requesting information on the allocation of funds within the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
In the letter, Wolf asked the university to account for how a $20 million donation, the second-largest in Georgetown history, made in December 2005 by His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia to the center, affects its teaching and scholarship. The center was renamed after the prince following the donation.
Wolf focused on the possible influence that the Saudi Arabian government has on the center, highlighting his concerns about its government.
"Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, there also have been reports of individuals and institutions associated with the Government of Saudi Arabia financing activities that allegedly support Islamic militants and extremists throughout the world. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals," he wrote.
In addition, Wolf questioned whether the center has produced any report or analysis critical of Saudi Arabia or examined alleged Saudi links to extremism and terrorism.
"Finally, I request information on whether any of the Saudi-source funds have been used in the training, briefing or education of those going into or currently employed by the U.S. government," the letter said.
The Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding was founded in 1993. According to the Center's Web site, its mission is "to improve relations between the Muslim world and the West and enhance understanding of Muslims in the West."
In 2005, Harvard University received a matching $20 million gift, which it has used to create a similar center.
John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies and director of the center, said that Prince Alwaleed, an American-educated businessman who is currently ranked 13th on Forbes's list of the world's billionaires, has a strong record of philanthropy.
"After 9/11, he was concerned about better understanding between the Arab/Muslim world and the [United States]," Esposito said.
He also said that Prince Alwaleed began by establishing Centers of American Studies at the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo in 2003.
"He then decided to fund the other side of the equation," said Esposito, and Prince Alwaleed began exploring founding Centers for Muslim-Christian Understanding at various American universities. Esposito said many top universities were considered, but Georgetown and Harvard emerged as the final two.
"It was so close and the programs were so different that [Prince Alwaleed] decided instead of funding one center, he would fund two," he said.]
Wolf is not the first congressman to question Prince Alwaleed's philanthropy. In December 2005, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) first urged Georgetown and Harvard to return the gifts. "August institutions like Harvard University and Georgetown University should not accept funding from a family that bankrolls terrorist organizations," Weiner wrote in a letter to then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers and DeGioia. "Harvard and Georgetown stand at the forefront of American academia. Their hands should be clean of any relationship with individuals associated with terrorism."
Esposito said that he was in no way deterred by Weiner's statements.
"Congressman Weiner is frankly someone who has concerns all the time," he said. "He expressed his concerns in the New York Post and requested that we return the funds without any kind of rationale."
Despite the criticisms, he said that Georgetown followed standard procedure in receiving the donation.
"There have always been concerns about universities accepting money from any government, including the American government," he said.
He said that Georgetown did not take these concerns lightly but that the university followed the same procedure it follows with any gift.
"It's a fairly standard agreement that is used by most major universities — very clear wording protects against any undue influence by the donor," he said.
Esposito added that, since receiving the donation, he has had only limited interaction with Prince Alwaleed.
"The only contact I've had with [Prince Alwaleed] was one meeting that I initiated," he said. "He's primarily a businessman. This is only one small part of his life."
According to Esposito, Prince Alwaleed is not directly involved in the workings of the Saudi government.
In addition, Esposito said that the center had existed for 12 years before Alwaleed's 2005 donation, and, since then, its programs have not substantially changed, although they have grown. "[Now] we are able to do more of what we want to do," he said. In recent years, the Center has increased faculty and student resources, including expanded travel and research opportunities for faculty.
The center currently offers courses in the Arabic, history and theology departments.
Each course offered by the center is subject to the same guidelines as every other course in the university, Esposito said. Courses are approved by the School of Foreign Service Curriculum Committee and many are cross-registered in other departments. Esposito said the center's faculty do not teach exclusively within the center, but belong to departments. "Most of my professors have joint appointments," he said.
In response to Wolf's inquiry into the center's freedom to be critical of the Saudi government, Esposito said it has and would continue to react to relevant issues in Saudi Arabia, citing a recent opinion piece co-authored by him and the center's Associate Director John Voll that criticizes the treatment of a 19 year old charged with rape in Saudi Arabia in November.
"I've been consistently critical when it is appropriate," he said.
Dan Scandling, Wolf's chief of staff, said a recent article in The Washington Times brought this issue to the Congressman's attention.
"There are some questions about whether Georgetown has been compromised," Scandling said.
Although Alwaleed gave Harvard University matching funding to create a similar center, Wolf "did not contact Harvard," Scandling said, "but he is not a graduate of Harvard."
"I was surprised that he didn't speak to the president or me privately," Esposito said when asked about Wolf's recent letter. "I don't know where the congressman is coming from."
Esposito said, however, that he would not personally respond to Wolf's request.
"The [university] president will be responding to the congressman, and we have been consulted on that, but we've only been involved indirectly," he said.