Vice-chancellor defends Durham’s ethical funding policy

by Jack Battersby &

Vice-Chancellor Chris Higgins has defended the University’s ethical funding policy following the revelation that the U.S. State Department provided over £300,000 for a series of projects aimed at gathering information on Iran.

In an interview with Palatinate, Prof Higgins stated that “Drawing the line is always a difficult decision when you’ve got controversial issues, but we’ve got a very strong framework which I hope indicates we get that as right as we possibly can.”

Last month, the University faced criticism from students, staff and the media after a diplomatic cable sourced from the U.S. Embassy in London and released by Wikileaks stated that seminars had been used to offer “U.S. Government observers a useful look inside Iranian politics at a grassroots level.”

Referring to the leaked document, Prof Higgins sought to defend the methods used by the School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA) to source funding to host such international events.

“We intend to be as transparent as possible, and I think we are. There were many funders for these particular seminars, and they were all freely available if someone has asked. The fact is that we get thousands of funders from around the world.”

“It’s just not possible for us to list all of our sources – for example in the case of scholarships.”

However, the vice-chancellor went on to admit that greater steps should have been taken to ensure participants in the seminars were aware of the U.S. Government’s financial contribution.

“I think you’re probably right – in that case it should have been made a  little bit more transparent. I can fully accept that those individuals are a little concerned they didn’t know, but it wasn’t deliberately hidden from them.”

The University Ethics Committee is responsible for issuing guidance to academic faculties on the receipt of external funding for research and education. The group is chaired by Dean of Durham Michael Sadgrove, and students are represented by the DSU President, who also sits on the University’s Senate and Council.

The committee’s main objective is to ensure that any gift or grant received from private or governmental sources does not bias the outcome of research or teaching.

“Our School of Government has contact with governments in countries all around the world. This doesn’t mean we necessarily support what those governments are doing,” said the vice-chancellor.

Last week, students from the London School of Economics demonstrated in protest at their university’s financial ties to Libya. In 2009, a £1.5m donation from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation was made to the LSE.

Prof Higgins remains adamant that the UK’s leading universities should continue to seek funding from around the world. “We need to make sure that we continue to produce research which makes a difference. Wherever the funding comes from, we need to make sure that it is used properly.”

“Very few people give money to a university for pure altruism. Everyone has a purpose, and the U.S. Government may or may not have had one in putting this money in to generate the seminars. Our duty is to make sure that the source of the money does not bias the outcome of the seminars.”

An article by Prof Chris Higgins will appear in the final issue of Palatinate this term – out Tuesday 8th March.

5 thoughts on “Vice-chancellor defends Durham’s ethical funding policy

  • Hang on a second, I think I can smell something…

    Doesn’t sound as if the so called “ethics committee” is actually looking at ethics at all. If its main preoccupation is to “ensure that any gift or grant received from private or governmental sources does not bias the outcome of research or teaching” it should be called the bias assessment committee, not ethics.

    Is anyone else concerned that the Vice Chancellor (sic) doesn’t seem to care where the money comes from or what damage it’s doing? He seems hell bent on dragging Durham’s reputation through the sewers.

    I wonder what else is rotting in one of Old Shire Hall’s closets…

    Hope my degree is worth something when I leave…

  • As Brian says, Higgins really dodged the question here. Is it morally right to accept money from the U.S. or Iran for these seminars, given the agendas?

    He’s essentially stated that he doesn’t care where it comes from, provided they get the money. And the ethics committee, as Brian stated, is anything but.

    Intriguing. Disappointing. But not surprising, somehow.

  • Okay guys. I really want to stay away from slightly ad hominem arguments, but the temptation is too great.

    Brian, your opinion is odious enough to mask anything rotten coming from Old Shire Hall, of which I would be surprised if there was, indeed, anything at all. Since I’ve been here, I routinely visit Old Shire Hall and am frankly quite glad to see so many people working so hard and with evident integrity for Durham’s students. And what damage did the money do? It paid for intellectual engagement and capacity-building in Iran. Shock horror! Even though I’m relatively new here, I find nothing wrong with the source and nothing wrong with the project. But don’t worry about the degree. Given your blinkered way of thinking, you’re likely to not graduate! Or, good luck anyway.

    And Chris! ‘Morally right”? Get thee hence to the Cathedral or to a parish church. Who are you to preach morality? The only ‘agenda’ that matters is that the University’s values of academic freedom and integrity are not compromised, which they haven’t been.

    Also, I know several students here who might not otherwise be at Uni because of scholarships they received, and that’s thanks to Old Shire Hall. As well, I’ve seen buildings and programmes we all benefit from because of the generosity of Durham’s alumni and other donors.

    I guess what I’m saying is that before you make statements that sell the University down the river, why don’t you actually get to know what the University’s ethical framework is for receiving gifts from external sources? I feel we have nothing to be ashamed of, but if feeling shameful is a natural disposition of yours, well, that’s very telling.

  • Well done Mimi – good response?!
    And you don’t work at Shire Hall of course, do you?!!!

    Still haven’t addressed Brians point that the Vice Chancellor doesn’t know the difference between bias and ethics or ‘academic freedom’ and ‘moral fibre’ though, have you?

    Shady as fcuk….

  • Hello “Oops”, who is so full of moral fibre that he/she can’t use his/her own name. I would like you to know that I’m a fellow student. Also, that the easy road is to be cynical and distrusting. Grow up.


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