University President John J. DeGioia defended the academic integrity of a Georgetown center funded largely by a Saudi prince after a congressman claimed that the center may be partial to Saudi Arabia.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va., LAW '65) sent an open letter to DeGioia on Feb. 14 asking Georgetown to account for how His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia's $20 million donation, made in December 2005 to the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, affects the center's teaching and scholarship. The center was renamed after the prince following his donation, the second largest in university history.
"I want to reassure you that I am completely confident that the center's work, to borrow your words, ‘maintains the impartiality and integrity' that we expect of all research conducted at Georgetown," DeGioia wrote in his letter, dated Feb. 22. "Since Georgetown University accepted the gift in 2005, all activities of the center have been conducted in the most appropriate manner and with no outside interference of any kind."
In his letter, Wolf asked whether the center "has ever produced any analysis critical of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." DeGioia responded that the center does not focus on Saudi Arabia, or any other country in particular, saying that it "is not organized in such a way as to be home to scholars and researchers who are country-specific experts," but cited works by center faculty members John Voll and Amira Sonbol that have "not shied away" from addressing issues of human rights and Islamic fundamentalism and extremism.
DeGioia said in the letter that the federal government used the center as a resource both before and after Prince Alwaleed's donation.
"Multiple U.S. government departments and senior officials — particularly ones with extensive sophistication in issues of international concern — have relied upon the center's scholars for their expertise," he wrote. "Clearly, many high-level government officials have recognized the high quality of the center's scholarship and have confidence that it maintains its integrity and impartiality."
Dan Scandling, Wolf's chief of staff, said, "We've seen the letter, and are preparing a response." He said, though, that he was unsure whether this response would be made available to the public.
John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies and director of the center, said in an e-mail yesterday that he was "consulted but was not actually involved in preparing [DeGioia's] response."
"It is unfortunate that …. Wolf relied on a Washington Times article and wrote his letter, which was given to the press before first checking directly with the [president]'s office or with us," Esposito said. "However, perhaps under pressure since this is a tough re-election year, his staff was looking for a story that would give him media coverage."
Esposito said that Wolf's office has never contacted him or the center directly.
"[The] only inquiry I received was from Pat Robertson's [Christian Broadcasting Network] requesting an interview," he said. He added that the interview has never occurred.
Esposito said he has not heard from Prince Alwaleed regarding the controversy. "I sent [Prince Alwaleed] a copy of the congressman's inquiry and then later a copy of … DeGioia's response after it was posted on the GU Web site," he said. He said he received confirmation that the letters were received but "no direct response" from the prince.
Georgetown contacted Rep. Wolf privately first, before making the University's response public – the typical protocol for congressional correspondences.
"Georgetown's response to Rep. Wolf was made public after we first provided it to him, as we do [with] nearly all correspondence with congressional offices," said university spokesperson Julie Bataille. "We think it is important, for a clear understanding of the issue, that both perspectives [in this case Rep. Wolf and GU] be available for those interested."