LSE: The Libya School of Economics
The fact that LSE professors (including former LSE director Sir Howard Davies) formally advised the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi and received thousands of pounds in research grants as compensation did not come as a big surprise to me.
Many academic institutions and individual scholars offer consulting services to governments around the world, sometimes even encouraged by their own governments. The controversy does not lie in these services per se, but rather in the disputed ethics of serving dictatorial and repressive regimes.
However, it is not so clear that academic consulting services always work to support these regimes. In some cases, advice is given on projects such as financial reform and the establishment of academic centers, initiatives that certainly benefit the government yet also serve the population at large. Like individuals, academic institutions are accountable for unethical behavior, and they should scrutinize donors and engage in selective fundraising to avoid actions that conflict with the values that the institution promotes. This said, situations are not always black or white, but rather adopt the color of their environment.
What did surprise me were allegations that Saif Gaddafi, son of Muammar Gaddafi, hired the consulting services of Cambridge-based Monitor Group to write his 2007 PhD dissertation at LSE and actually got away with it. Granted, even the most prestigious universities are vulnerable to this type of behavior despite their efforts to curb it. I can confirm that LSE students, for example, receive instructions on how to write proper references and are required to submit some writing assignments to the plagiarism detector site turnitin.com. Still, careless referencing and "borrowed" ideas are more common than institutions care to notice and much less admit.
However, a PhD thesis is a different matter. Writing a dissertation at this level requires years of rigorous research and close supervision by at least a faculty member that will become most knowledgeable of the capacity, aims and progress of the student. Therefore, Gaddafi's ghost-thesis reflects laxity in his admissions and evaluation standards, suboptimal faculty supervision and/or insufficient instruction regarding honest academic work. One can only speculate about the first, but a look at the LSE MPhil/PhD Handbook from the Philosophy Department, which awarded Gaddafi his degree, can provide insight into the relevant supervision and academic honesty structures.
According to the handbook, "school regulations suggest a total of at least 9 hours in the first year and at least 6 hours thereafter [for appointments with supervisors]." No other specific supervision guidelines are cited, and one wonders if these few hours of face-time are enough for the supervisor to form an accurate appraisal of the student's work (and ethics). Moreover, the handbook states that "footnotes and detailed references are not required when writing papers in coursework or in exam answers...give a full reference in any format you find convenient." Although these rules do not apply to the dissertation, one notices that LSE might be granting students more flexibility than the necessary to meet proper scholarly standards.
I hope that LSE can take this opportunity to revise its academic foundations and work to bring the "London" back to its name.
Maria is a guest blogger for Foreign Students. She posts regular updates of her experiences as a postgraduate student at LSE in London. Click here to see her older posts.