Almost 17 years ago, an article by David Halberstam in Vanity Fair(1) should have warned us of the rise of the academic and intellectual mercenary. However, back in those go-go years of the new gilded age, most of us were not listening.
Halberstam focused on Henry Kissinger, once a protege of New York Governor and then US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who became the infamous President Nixon's National Security Advisor, then Secretary of State:
Kissinger’s capacity to be all things to all campaigns—an overt Rockefeller man, a semi-overt Humphrey man, and a covert Nixon man—reflects the emergence of the rootless operator in the modern superstate. Kissinger was the first—though there were others to follow—of the wildly ambitious agents of opportunity set loose in the wilds of Washington and other capitals. They are interchangeable men, singular in their ambitions, unhampered by traditional loyalties or affiliations. They are men so cool and detached in their geopolitical views that they sometimes seem to be part of a new international elite, readily transferable to the governments of allies and adversaries alike.
Two recent dramatic stories show how prevalent academic mercenaries, another breed of "rootless operators," or "wildly ambitious agents of opportunity," have become.
Promoting Iceland: Columbia Professors' "Inside Job"
The Academy Award winning documentary film, "Inside Job," suggested that one cause of the Great Recession was the wrong-headed deregulation of the financial industry deceptively promoted by academics who failed to disclose they were being paid by those who stood to benefit from deregulation. (See our post here.)
Reconsideration of the roles of two of the academics cited in the film who are faculty at Columbia University shed more light on how public policy was influenced by academics hired to do public relations. The Columbia Spectator just published a three- part series on the local controversy with global implications.
At least a few Columbia faculty realized that it did not look good for their colleagues to do public relations while pretending they were delivering disinterested academic opinions:
[Columbia Economics Department Chair Michael] Riordan added that it is important that Columbia protect its reputation and the public’s trust in its professors’ expert opinions.
'What does the university stand for but if not for the quality of the ideas that come out of that university?' he asked. (2)
Teachers College professor Kathleen O’Connell ... called the film 'appalling' and said that 'the Columbia professors were even more appalling.' She said she was especially surprised considering Hubbard and Mishkin have both had high-ranking government jobs—Hubbard was at one time a top economic adviser to former President George W. Bush, and Mishkin was a governor of the Federal Reserve.
'I was shocked at the lack of ethics that they displayed. They are in really powerful positions—they have been in powerful positions in the Federal Reserve and the President’s economic advisors,' O’Connell said.(3)
However, there was much resistance to change. Just as we have seen in arguments about conflicts of interest affecting medical faculty, there were those who denied that being paid to consult could affect any faculty member's thinking about the source of the payment:
But some, including Business School professor and University Senator Frank Lichtenberg, oppose the disclosure of consulting to the University. Lichtenberg said that many factors besides money can influence professors’ academic opinions.
'There are lots of other sources of bias and non-neutrality in academia anyway,' Lichtenberg said. 'People often have predispositions for or against different hypotheses, and unfortunately, those sometimes prevail.'
Some professors question whether paid consulting positions influence researchers at all. Business School professor Bruce Greenwald said that the economists featured in 'Inside Job' have 'long espoused and long promoted' pro-market ideas and would have made the same arguments regardless of financial ties.(4)
So we have economists denying the effect of economic incentives?
Beyond that, there were arguments that public disclosure of conflicts of interest would violate faculty members' privacy.
But full public disclosure is not likely to gain much traction in the debate over a University-wide policy. Steele said that it is not necessary to publicly release disclosures made privately to University officials.I suppose that would have made some sense if the faculty member had not made any public pronouncements that could have been influenced by the undisclosed conflicts. However, the contention in "Inside Job" was that conflicted academic economists publicly advocated on behalf of their undisclosed clients. For example,
'I don’t think that the public needs to have access to forms that people fill out and all the materials that go into that,' [Provost Paul] Steele said. 'That would be onerous at least, and there might be other objections … that you are invading people’s sense of privacy and freedom.'(2)
In 2006, the Iceland Chamber of Commerce paid Columbia Business School professor Frederic Mishkin $134,858 to co-author a report on Iceland’s economy and banking systems. In the report, titled 'Financial Stability in Iceland,' Mishkin painted a bright picture of the country’s economic future, but he did not disclose who was paying him to write it.
'Although Iceland’s economy does have imbalances that will eventually be reversed, financial fragility is not high and the likelihood of a financial meltdown is very low,' Mishkin wrote.
Two years later, Iceland’s economy collapsed. Its major banks failed, its currency lost much of its value, and thousands of its citizens lost their jobs. The New York Times wrote at the time that, to Icelanders, 'the collapse came so fast it seemed unreal, impossible.'(2)
Harvard Professors' Paid Apologia for Moammar Khadafy
Praising Iceland's economy was one thing. Praising brutal Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy as democratic was another.
In March, 2011, Mother Jones disclosed(5) how a consulting group run by Harvard professors was hired in part to burnish the image of Moammar Khadafy, who since has ordered brutal attacks on protesters within his country.
In February 2007 Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., who developed the concept of "soft power,' visited Libya and sipped tea for three hours with Muammar Qad'afi. Months later, he penned an elegant description of the chat for The New Republic, reporting that Qaddafi had been interested in discussing 'direct democracy.' Nye noted that 'there is no doubt that' the Libyan autocrat 'acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas—including soft power—with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy.' The article struck a hopeful tone: that there was a new Qaddafi. It also noted that Nye had gone to Libya 'at the invitation of the Monitor Group, a consulting company that is helping Libya open itself to the global economy.'
Nye did not disclose all. He had actually traveled to Tripoli as a paid consultant of the Monitor Group (a relationship he disclosed in an email to Mother Jones), and the firm was working under a $3 million-per-year contract with Libya. Monitor, a Boston-based consulting firm with ties to the Harvard Business School, had been retained, according to internal documents obtained by a Libyan dissident group, not to promote economic development, but 'to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi.' So The New Republic published an article sympathetic to Qaddafi that had been written by a prominent American intellectual paid by a firm that was being compensated by Libya to burnish the dictator's image.
Monitor also sponsored trips to Libya for scholars from other universities who also later wrote positively about Khadafy's and his reign over Libya, presumably after they had received their large consulting fees.
The Boston Globe reported(6) in more detail about a proposal by Monitor to write a laudatory book about Khadafy:
It reads like Libyan government propaganda, extolling the importance of Moammar Khadafy, his theories on democracy, and his 'core ideas on individual freedom.'
But the 22-page proposal for a book on Khadafy was written by Monitor Group, a Cambridge-based consultant firm founded by Harvard professors. The management consulting firm received $250,000 a month from the Libyan government from 2006 to 2008 for a wide range of services, including writing the book proposal, bringing prominent academics to Libya to meet Khadafy 'to enhance international appreciation of Libya' and trying to generate positive news coverage of the country.
As further documented in the Globe article, it was very clear that Monitor was paid not just to provide consultation, but to do public relations work on behalf of the Khadafy regime.
Yet an article in the Nation(7) made it clear that the prominent academics it hired did not disclose who paid them, or the purposes of those payments:
Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School wrote in The New Republic in 2007 that Muammar Qaddafi was interested in discussing 'direct democracy.'
Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics wrote in the Guardian the same year that Libya under Qaddafi could become 'the Norway of North Africa.'
Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University wrote in the Washington Post, also in 2007, that Libya under Qaddafi could become 'the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government.
Great minds think alike? Actually, no: all were being paid by Libyan money, under a $3 million per year contract with a consulting group which promised to 'enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Quadhafi' in Britain and the US.
One more thing: none of them said in The New Republic, the Guardian, or the Washington Post that they were being paid by Libyan money.
So here again we have the elements of what Wendell Potter (see this post) called the "third party strategy." A public relations company hires outside "experts" with veneers of academic or professional credibility to promote the interests of its clients, without disclosing that the "experts" have become paid flacks. Again, this is bad enough when it is done on behalf of health policies favorable to commercial insurance companies. It is worse when it is done on behalf of brutal dictators.
More recently, the Globe discovered(8) that the Monitor Group negotiated with the head of the Libyan intelligence service who had been implicated in various violent acts,
He is Moammar Khadafy’s brother-in-law and his most trusted aide, convicted in absentia for the 1989 bombing of a French airliner and implicated in the 1996 massacre of 1,200 Libyan political prisoners.
But in 2006, Abdullah Al Sanusi was also the man who arranged the services of a noted Cambridge consulting firm in a very different project: revamping Libya’s reputation on the world stage.
Sanusi, a longtime head of Libya’s intelligence services, oversaw initial negotiations with the Monitor Group, which was vying for a contract with Libya to bring prominent Americans to speak to Khadafy as part of an effort to improve ties and nudge the pariah country toward reforms.
'We believe that your commitment to creating a program of mutual education and relationship building with the Unit ed States remains of critical importance at this turning point in Libyan history. We remain privileged to be trusted with this work,' Monitor’s chief executive, Mark Fuller, and project director, Rajeev Singh-Molares, wrote to Sanusi in 2006.
However, so far, Harvard leadership has if anything been more defensive about its faculty members' stealth public relations work for a brutal dictator than was Columbia's leadership about its faculty member's stealth public relations work for Iceland. As reported(9) again by the Boston Globe,
A prominent Harvard professor and former university administrator urged Harvard President Drew Faust during a faculty meeting yesterday to express 'shame'’ on behalf of the university at the disclosure of financial ties between a senior academic and Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.
Saying nothing would send the wrong message to students, giving them the impression that personal financial gain could come at the expense of ethical conduct, said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor who formerly served as undergraduate dean.
'Shouldn’t Harvard acknowledge its embarrassment, and might you remind us that when we parlay our status as Harvard professors for personal profit, we can hurt both the university and all of its members?' Lewis asked Faust at the monthly gathering of the arts and sciences faculty.
Faculty meetings are closed to outside media, but Lewis provided the Globe a written transcript of his statement, which he sent to Faust several days ago.
Faust — who, according to Lewis, told him she did not want to be 'scold in chief' — said she supports the wide discretion of faculty members to pursue the directions of academic inquiry and outside engagements they choose.
How low once proud institutions have fallen was demonstrated by a Harvard President who could not bring herself to "scold" faculty who were paid to provide public relations for a brutal dictator while hiding behind their Harvard titles. Her action was not just "a weak standard for an institution of global leadership,"(10) but failed to erase "a distinctive odor, one that emanates from the corruption of academic reputation."(11)
Since before we first started this blog, we wondered somewhat despairingly how medicine, and particularly academic medicine, had become so badly lead. Since the global economic collapse/ Great Recession it belatedly became clear that health care has just been swept along by the waves that drove larger social, economic and political institutions. In particular, when we wondered how conflicts of interest had become so pervasive in medicine, we did not realize how pervasive conflicts of interest and corruption had become throughout the world. The fact that leaders of previously revered educational institutions like Columbia and Harvard still cannot bring themselves even to admit the need to disclose conflicts, much less "scold" people for selling out to brutal tyrants indicates how deep the rot has gone.
Fixing the great problems of health care will require fixing the greater problems of society at large. We must learn to discredit, not honor the "wildly ambitious agents of opportunity" that have been sent out to dominate the new gilded age.
1. Halberstam D. The new establishment: the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire. Vanity Fair, October, 1994. Link here.
2. Poliak S. 'Inside Job' prompts new look at conflict of interest policy. Columbia Spectator, April 13, 2011. Link here.
3. Poliak S. After documentary, B-school rethinking ethics. Columbia Spectator, April 15, 2011. Link here.
4. Poliak S, Roth S. 'Inside Job' sparks three separate reviews of disclosure policy. Columbia Spectator, April 14, 2011. Link here.
5. Corn D, Mahanta S. From Libya with love. Mother Jones, March 3, 2011. Link here.
6. Stockman F. Local consultants aided Khadafy. Boston Globe, March 4, 2011. Link here.
7. Wiener J. Professors paid by Qaddafi: providing 'positive public relations.' The Nation, March 5, 2011. Link here.
8. Stockman F. Top Khadafy aide helped craft deal with local firm. Boston Globe, March 30, 2011. Link here.
9. Jan T. Harvard leader confronted on professor's ties to Libya. Boston Globe, April 6, 2011. Link here.
10. Anonymous. Yes, Harvard chief should scold profs who worked for Khadafys. Boston Globe, April 11, 2011. Link here.
11. Barrett PM. The professors and Qaddafi's extreme makeover. Bloomberg BusinessWeek, April 6, 2011. Link here.