RI Senate Bars Gran’s That Limit Academic Freedom

*Prompted by concern that the Turkish government is using educational gran’s to distort history and deny its genocide of 1.5 million Armenia’s–the Senate passes the bill.

BY JONATHAN SALTZMAN From the Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE–Alarmed by accounts of Turkey influencing academic research through donations to American universities–the state Senate yesterday [Tuesday] passed a bill that would bar Rhode Island’s public colleges from accepting gran’s with stipulations that limit "academic freedom and integrity."

The move drew praise from members of Rhode Island’s active Armenian-American community. They contend the Turkish government has used endowmen’s and research gran’s elsewhere in the country to distort history and deny its genocide of about 1.5 million Armenia’s in 1915.

"It’s a new venue for the government of Turkey–but it’s the same old game," said Ani Haroian–chairwoman of the Armenian National Committee of Rhode Island–which lobbies on behalf of the state’s 17,000 Armenian-Americans. She was one of several Rhode Islanders of Armenian descent who attended the proceeding.

Although the legislation passed 35 to 8–several senators said it was worded too broadly and set a policy better left to the Board of Governors for Higher Education.

So far–the Turkish government has not offered any money to the University of Rhode Island–Rhode Island College or the Community College of Rhode Island–according to backers of the bill. But they said the measure would put the Board of Governors on notice to reject any donation from governmen’s–businesses or individuals with strings attached.

"Can you imagine having a chair in Modern European History where the courses omit any reference to the Holocaust?" said Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis–D-Coventry–who introduced the bill. "Can you imagine a class on the Civil War with no mention of the evils of slavery and the profound impact it had on our nation’s development? Of course not. But we are facing the prospect of the Turkish government seeking to preach revisionist history on our campuses . . . "

In 1997–the University of California at Los Angeles declined Turkey’s offer of $1 million to endow a chair in Turkish and Ottoman history for a professor who would–in the words of the government–"maintain close and cordial relations with academic circles in Turkey."

That same year–Portland State University in Oregon accepted a similar donation from Turkey–for $750,000–to endow a chair in Contemporary Turkish Studies. The contract required the professor hired to fill the chair to have "published works based upon extensive utilization of archives and libraries in Turkey," where academic freedom is severely restricted.

Greg Arzoomanian–a Providence computer programmer and member of the Armenian-American community–said his alma mater–Princeton University–accepted $1.5 million from the Turkish government. In exchange–he said–the private university appointed a lobbyist for the Turkish government as director of the program in Near Eastern Studies.

The Senate bill said the Board of Governors could not accept money from any donor who sets conditions that "interfere with or otherwise limit the academic freedom and integrity" of the colleges and university.

It adds that nothing would prohibit a donor from earmarking money for a specific use–including research–scholarships–construction or development.

Several senators–while praising the bill as well-intended–said the two provisions seemed contradictory. Others said the term "academic freedom and integrity" is subjective–and the legislature should leave the matter to the Board of Governors.

"I think we are opening a Pandora’s Box with this bill," said Sen. Leo R.Blais–R-Coventry–who opposed it.

But Sen. Thomas Coderre–D-Pawtucket–a member of the Board of Governors–praised the bill. He said the board ordinarily doesn’t decide whether URI–RIC and CCRI should accept a gift; instead–it leaves it to the institutions. The legislation would prompt the board to assess such donations and set a policy–he said.

Raptakis said his bill would apply to other potential donors–including cigarette manufacturers that might make a donation in an effort to slant research into–say–the dangers of smoking.


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