Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia donated $20 million each to Georgetown and Harvard for the study of Islam, and in doing so gave our university an unprecedented opportunity to make a real impact on campus and throughout the world.
Alwaleed said he donated the money in an effort to promote uslim-Christian understanding and Islamic studies, two fields in which the university has long been engaged. His gift – which marks the second-largest private financial contribution in Georgetown’s history – will endow three new faculty chairs, expand student scholarship support, and allow for new academic and research initiatives in the university’s prominent Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
The gift is an honor that the university community should be proud of. It is the result of many years of hard work on the part of dedicated faculty and administrators in a field that, while largely overlooked before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Georgetown has pioneered. When it was founded in 1993, the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding was the only center of its kind. This donation will help the center, which will be renamed after the prince, address not only religious studies, but also issues related to national security, international affairs and human rights.
With this gift, the center will have a greatly improved ability to fund such initiatives and promote the study of a field whose importance is undeniable in today’s age.
Some of the prince’s detractors have criticized Georgetown for accepting the donation, recalling the controversy over his attempt to donate $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund after Sept. 11. Then-New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected the donation after a press release from the prince stated that the United States needed to “reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance towards the Palestinian cause.”
Although this statement alone should not be reason enough to forego the donation and miss the opportunity to advance the mission of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, the university should be careful to stay impartial and pursue an objective study of the issues, which it can do under the no-strings-attached terms of the donation.
Alwaleed is not only working to expand Americans’ understanding of the Muslim world, but also Muslims’ understanding of the West. The prince also recently donated $15 million to the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo to create the first centers for American studies in the Middle East, proving that he also wants to see more formal education about America in a region where this is sorely lacking. In this sense, Georgetown is part of a larger initiative to transform cross-cultural education. With this donation, Georgetown has the ability to stay true to its founding principles of religious understanding and service to the nation.
Georgetown should carefully consider its next steps. Administrators should sit down with other educational institutions and organizations to determine how the center should proceed in order to have the greatest impact. It would be a shame not to use this donation to its utmost potential.