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The University of Cambridge must choose its donors wisely

24 March 2014

5:57 PM

24 March 2014

5:57 PM

Just over three years ago, when I was editor of Varsity, Cambridge’s student newspaper, we ran a story documenting how Dmytro Firtash was using his Cambridge connections to bring libel charges to British courts. Here’s an extract:

‘A billionaire donor to the University of Cambridge has filed a libel lawsuit against a Ukrainian paper, the Kyiv Post, citing his donations to the University as one of the reasons he has chosen to pursue the case through the British courts.

Dmytro Firtash, a gas-trading oligarch with strong connections to the President of Ukraine, has donated on a number of occasions to the University to help fund Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, based within the University’s Department for Slavonic Studies.

His most recent donation was in October 2010, when he donated £4.3m to fund the creation of two permanent academic posts central to the Ukrainian Studies programme.

On July 2 2010, the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s leading English-language publication, published an article online about Ukraine’s natural gas sector. Following the publication of this article Mr Firtash issued libel proceedings in London against the Kyiv Post.

Talking to Varsity, the Kyiv Post described the decision to file the lawsuit in London “as without merit and frivolous”.

In court documents seen by Varsity, Mr Firtash is detailed as “a prominent businessman who lives in Ukraine but also enjoys a reputation in the UK”.

In the documents, Mr Firtash’s solicitor cites his donations to the University of Cambridge, as well as the fact that he attended a dinner with the Queen in 2005, as explicit reasons as to why he has a reputation to protect in the UK. When questioned upon the issue of Mr. Firtash’s donations to Cambridge being used in such a way, a spokesman for the University simply confirmed the receipt of the donations.

When we spoke to the Kyiv Post, they claimed that the University’s “acceptance of funding from Firtash was enabling him to try and curb media freedom in the Ukraine”.’

So, should the University have been involved with such a person? In our editorial, we suggested not. But the University had no problem with this. They stressed that all decisions regarding potential investments are made in view of their ethical guidelines, which include the stipulation that the investment will not ‘damage the University’s reputation’.

Three years have ticked by. And now, in the past few weeks, the FBI has detained Dmytro Firtash in Vienna on charges of bribery and forming a criminal organization. On Friday he was released on bail for €125m.

He may stink; he may not (Firtash describes the case as a ‘misunderstanding’ and his detention as ‘without foundation’). But, as the Roman emperor Vespasian said ‘pecunia non olet’. Last week, Dmytro’s wife Lada Firtash, joined the Cambridge University’s Guild of Benefactors – a select group whose members have each donated more than £1 million. In 2011, Dmytro was also made a member of the Guild, thanks to his donations.

Cambridge University should not be buttering up people like this. The ethical guidelines state:

‘In the case of unproven allegations of criminality against a potential donor, no account shall be taken of mere rumour, but care will be exercised in accepting any benefaction, or continuing negotiations towards a possible benefaction, where there is a risk of significant damage to the University’s reputation.’

There are no two ways around this: the money-snatching association with Firtash has damaged Cambridge’s reputation. As Varsity noted three years ago:

‘Firtash is no newcomer to scandal. In the past, he has been accused of having connections to one of the world’s most wanted criminals.

He is alleged to have connections to Semyon Mogilevych, a suspected Ukrainian mobster, who is currently listed on the FBI’s top-ten most wanted website.

In cables released by WikiLeaks, the US ambassador to Ukraine said Firtash “acknowledged ties to Semyon Mogilevych stating he needed Mogilevych’s approval to get into business in the first place”.

A statement released on 2nd December in response to these allegations stated, “Mr Firtash has stated many times, publicly, privately and on the record that he knew Mr Mogilevich but has never had any partnership or other commercial association with him”.’

In 2011, we questioned whether the University was upholding its ethical guidelines. In 2014, the same question stands. Ethics, it would seem, play a negligible role in determining whose money is accepted. When Lada arrived in Cambridge, she was greeted by angry students brandishing placards demanding that the University ‘spring clean’ its donations. They are, as before, right.

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