Since I work at the intersection of academia and consulting, I found myself pondering the recently released information that both the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Monitor Group consulting firm had received large payments from the Libyan government of Moammar El-Gadhafi. More specifically, I found myself wondering what I would have done, had Moammar called me for some friendly co-creation advice a few years ago.
First, let’s go back to some of the facts. LSE accepted £3.7 million for a research center and for educating some of the Libyan government’s civil servants. Separately (or maybe not), it also granted a PhD degree to Saif El-Gadhafi, Moammar’s son. Moammar himself appeared on video at a major LSE event. The Monitor Group received $3 million a year “to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi.” As part of this package, some Monitor consultants also contributed field work to Saif’s dissertation.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to point to the “error of judgment” by LSE and Monitor in working with the Libyan government (that is the phrase LSE Director Howard Davies used in his resignation speech). We now know from recent events that Moammar El-Gadhafi has not changed and is still a deranged dictator with no respect for human life. With Saif El-Gadhafi’s “river of blood” speech on February 21, we also learned that his claim to be the change agent who would usher Libya into a new relationship with the global community of nations was a lie. But let us remember that until those recent events, Libya had been universally commended for voluntarily dismantling its nuclear arsenal and had been invited to sit on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Let us remember that Saif was portrayed by many, inside and outside the LSE, as the person who would bring modern values to Libya.
Many governments have unappetizing sides, particularly in emerging countries (although not exclusively). Should we expect our academics and consultants to respect some boundaries of acceptable and not-acceptable governments? And who is to draw those boundaries? There are documentable human rights violations in Russia or China, for example. Should academics and consultants be expected to disqualify themselves from work in those countries? Or should we on the contrary encourage our teachers and consultants to become pioneering change agents of those countries’ transformation to Western democratic and management values? I personally spend a lot of time teaching and consulting in emerging countries. While corruption and nepotism are present, these countries are also fantastically exciting because of the opportunities they offer to help entire populations lift themselves out of poverty. Why would Libya have been different? LSE was not asked to train Libyan civil servants to repress street demonstrations, but to prepare them for modern practices of government.
If one accepts that the true tyrannical nature of the Libyan regime may have been concealed at the time, the only ethical violation on the part of LSE was to commingle a source of financing with the granting of the degree to Saif and the public video appearance by Moammar. There is indeed something unsavory about what appears to be a quid pro quo, which compromised the academic integrity of the school by suggesting its degrees can be bought. In the larger scheme of things, though, this is not as major a violation as helping a known dictator terrorize a country’s population. It is comparable to asking whether, say, George W. Bush’s academic record is truly what earned him his admission to Yale College or Harvard Business School, or whether these two Ivy League schools granted him admission because they saw some value in having the son of a prominent family (and it turns out, a future President) among its students.
The ethics of Monitor are a bit more questionable. First, a strategy consulting firm has no particular public relations skills, thereby raising the question of why it accepted a scope of effort entirely built on enhancing the image of Libya and its leader. The answer to that question probably lies in the magnitude of the money involved, and this is a disturbing conclusion. If Monitor was in effect using its elite academic reputation to whitewash the dirty laundry of the Libyan government, there is indeed something rotten in the kingdom of Cambridge. Having Monitor consultants do interview work for the PhD dissertation of the Libyan leader’s son is also reprehensible, because an academically based consulting firm like Monitor – with Michael Porter of Harvard Business School as one of its co-founders – should have known better (they did acknowledge that it was “ill-considered”).
As to what I would have done had I been approached by the Libyan government to provide teaching or consulting services, we will of course never know because nobody asked me. In my moments of honesty, though, I imagine I would have done it. I have had pangs of doubt before accepting work elsewhere in the Middle East, before taking on some of Singapore’s government-sponsored growth initiatives, and before a project in Russia. In all cases, I convinced myself in the end to do it. So, yes, I probably would have said yes to working with the Libyan government. And of course, I would have been eternally sorry after that.