Power, knowledge and the universities

In higher education, donors can often exert substantial influence over the curriculum.

Private donors can fund academic posts or even entire new faculties at universities [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – What is the relationship between knowledge and power?

When we think about this question, we normally assume that knowledge – that which we take to be “truth” – is separate from power. The problem is when “money” or “politics” influences knowledge.

Such an outlook forgets that it takes power to produce knowledge in the first place.

Institutions concerned with producing knowledge, whether universities, publishing houses, news media, think tanks, and so on, require power to do their work. They need money, of course, but also a legal and political framework that allow them to operate.

Even an individual blogger needs an internet connection, a computer, a place to live, support for basic necessities and so on.

All the knowledge we have, all the ideas that circulate in our heads, has a “material base” of this kind. Power is productive of knowledge. This does not necessarily make any given set of ideas bad or wrong. That is a matter for judgement. But it does mean that the knowledge that we have at any given time is power/knowledge.

Consider for example the “super PACs” in the US. Because of a Supreme Court decision protecting the rights of corporations and wealthy individuals to “speak freely” but anonymously, millions of dollars have been flowing into political campaigns and organisations loosely associated with them.

As a result, many if not most of the ideas being debated in the Republican primaries have been created and given a presence in public life by the “material base” of undisclosed donations from powerful rich folks. This is more than ‘influencing’ politics in the US; it is creating a certain kind of politics, focusing attention on certain issues, not others.

Power and ideas are in intimate, constitutive relations with one another.

So when it comes to universities, the question is not one of separating them from power. Universities are embedded within the power relations of contemporary society. Obvious examples include the close relationship between industry and the technological and scientific research that goes on in universities.

Less obvious examples include the way in which law, business and public policy schools have come to dominate much of university life outside the sciences. Such schools train the staff who go on to work in private corporations and for the state. Their faculty and students are profoundly informed by the values and interests of these clients.

Universities have developed relatively robust and transparent frameworks to manage their relations with power and money. Private donors can fund academic posts or even entire new faculties, but normally speaking they cannot directly influence academic appointments. That is, what is being studied is determined by power, but who is studying it is determined by university procedures for appointing academic staff – which ideally means the independent judgement of relevant scholars.

An example is the rise of “Israel Studies”. In order to counter what is seen as the anti-Israeli bias of “Middle Eastern Studies” wealthy individuals sympathetic to Israel give money to universities to create posts in Israeli studies. But it is the universities and their Middle East experts who typically select the holders of these posts.

One can, however, imagine the informal relations by which donors influence who comes to occupy the positions they fund. A university that appointed Joseph Massad professor of Israel studies is unlikely to receive further donations from wealthy friends of Israel.

Another country that has sought to shape the ideas circulating about it through university donations is the People’s Republic of China. It has founded some 320 “Confucius Institutes”, like the two established in Germany during a visit there by the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in 2006.

As the Chinese President Hu Jintao remarked in a 2007 speech, these institutes are intended to improve China’s reputation. Accordingly, they are prevented from discussing issues like Tibet. It was precisely for this reason that Stanford University reportedly turned down a £2.5m ($3.9m) donation to establish such a “Confucius Institute”.

The University of Cambridge has chosen to behave differently. It has recently accepted a £3.7m ($5.8m) donation from something called the “Chong Hua Foundation” to endow a professorial chair in “Chinese Development”.

The Chinese characters for Chong Hua translate as “admire China or Chinese culture”.

In a highly irregular move, Cambridge has also named the first occupant of the chair, Professor Peter Nolan, without even the appearance of an open, competitive search. Nolan has very close links with the Chinese government and appears to have played a central role in organising the donation. He has co-authored articles and a book with Wen Jiabao’s son-in-law and even tutored the Chinese premier’s daughter according to some reports.

The son-in-law is a member of an economically powerful family and serves on the China Banking Regulatory Commission, the state agency responsible for the banking sector in the PRC.

Like the anonymous rich folks who donate to US campaigns, the Chong Hua Foundation has no apparent address. No one can find any information on this “mystery foundation”, as the Daily Telegraph recently reported. Cambridge won’t even disclose what country the foundation is based in, much less who funds or manages it other than to say they are “wealthy individuals who wish to remain anonymous”.

Nonetheless, a member of this mystery foundation, along with Professor Nolan, will sit on the board managing the endowment for the chair at Cambridge. A key question that must be put to Cambridge and Professor Nolan is whether his so-called “transfer” from his current chair in the Judge Business School to the new chair involves a substantial increase in salary.

Quite unbelievably, Cambridge claims there are no links between the Chong Hua Foundation and the Chinese government. How Cambridge determined this to be the case is simply not clear. Such a lack of transparency in the wake of the LSE/Libya affair is both astonishing and reckless.

One wonders whether Cambridge has considered what all this will look like when the PRC once again violently suppresses a democracy movement, or clamps down on its restive minorities.

Notably, the chair set up by the Chong Hua Foundation is in “Chinese Development”. Although the PRC is a major world power, as well as a one-party dictatorship, it prefers to present itself as a “developing country”, especially when explaining away its human rights violations, such as the continuing detention of Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Currently, the PRC is the world’s second largest economy in GDP terms. The UK has recently slipped into seventh place, behind Brazil. Perhaps it is time for anonymous “wealthy individuals” to create chairs in “British Development” in universities around the world. In so doing, they could reshape the reputation of the UK as a place in need of assistance.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.