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The Duke/bin Laden connection

I would like to preface this column with the following: As a left-leaning independent who proudly thinks for himself, I personally hold Michael Moore in the utmost contempt. His one-sided look at the world does little to promote legitimate political discourse and only serves to further partisan bickering.

That being said, however, he would (quite legitimately) have a field day investigating one of the latest additions to the Duke Board of Trustees. Recently, four alumni were nominated by the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Alumni Association to serve on the University’s Board of Trustees for six-year terms, all of whom will take office on July 1. One of these new trustees is David Rubenstein, co-founder of the D.C.-based Carlyle Group.

For those who don’t know, the Carlyle Group was famously featured in Michael Moore’s recent documentary Fahrenheit 911. It was portrayed as a massive multinational conglomerate that is heavily invested in defense contractors and other industries that are closely tied to the U.S. government. Moore identified members of the bin Laden family and the Saudi royal family as some of Carlyle’s biggest investors and used the Bush family’s dealings with Carlyle to connect the Bushes to them.

Given the varied accounts of the malignancy of The Carlyle Group, its true nature probably falls somewhere in between Moore’s conspiracy theories and the Alumni Association’s suspiciously short description of Carlyle as “one of the world’s largest private equity firms.” And despite the disagreement about just how “evil” Carlyle is, one fact has been established: the connections between Carlyle, the Saudis and the bin Ladens are real. And so, at least by Michael Moore’s comparatively low journalistic standards, Duke now has a material connection to the bin Ladens and the Saudi government. May God have mercy on our souls.

While this is clearly an overstatement of the situation, there can be no doubt that the ascension of Rubenstein to Duke’s highest governing body is an extraordinarily significant event that carries with it numerous implications. Rubenstein, who The Washington Post recently called “the public face of The Carlyle Group,” will hold an extremely influential position within Duke and thereby publicly associate Duke and Carlyle.

And in addition to Rubenstein’s nomination as a trustee, it is also important to consider that he made a significant contribution in 2003 to help expand the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. His generous donation of $5 million allowed Duke to begin construction on a new 46,000-square-foot public policy building that will open before the next academic year and will bear his name.

However, given The Carlyle Group’s role in extraordinarily controversial aspects of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, (Carlyle is also heavily invested in the health care industry), questions are raised about how the Sanford Institute itself might be influenced by Rubenstein and about how others may view the connection.

The public perception of The Carlyle Group is that it is an unscrupulous organization that has significantly profited through dubious transactions with the Saudis, the bin Ladens and the U.S. government. Rubenstein’s contention that “making money is nice, but we’re more worried about our reputation and concerned with ethics” has done little to assuage his critics, and Carlyle is still demonized by a significant portion of the American population.

Concerns about Carlyle’s activities and the ongoing debates about divestment bring up a crucial question. If Duke has a stated interest that its investments not contribute to “substantial social injury,” should that criterion not apply to donations as well? Should Duke accept what some consider blood money?

Only one’s political beliefs can answer the question of whether Carlyle’s activities have led to “substantial social injury,” and whether it’s appropriate for Rubenstein to assume his appointment as a trustee. The Carlyle Group, however, is here to stay, and the implications of that cannot be ignored.

Only after Rubenstein assumes his position can we truly know the full repercussions for Duke.

Elliott Wolf is a Pratt freshman. His column appears every other Tuesday.

 

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