Dmitry Firtash, Cambridge University and the price of ethics

Dmitry Firtash is a prominent Ukrainian businessman who has made generous donations to the University of Cambridge,” says a page created especially for him on the website of the Cambridge Trust, a charity that supports students studying at the university. Dmitry Firtash is “in ‘extradition custody’ after being held on suspicion of breaching bribery laws and forming a criminal organisation,” the Telegraph reported yesterday. As the traditional routes of university funding start to drop away, we’re going to have to get a lot more comfortable with sentences like those two sitting next to each other.

Firtash Philip

Firtash didn’t need to be arrested to prove that he was a morally ambiguous man. His shady connections have been put to the university repeatedly, by me and other reporters,  who have to my knowledge never publically shown any concern. Here is some of that report from 2011, when Firtash was trying to use his Cambridge connections to bring a court case in the UK:

In cables released by WikiLeaks, the US embassador 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 response to questions from Varsity regarding the allegations against Firtash, a university spokesperson said that the “executive committee has been briefed regarding the contents of the confidential cable.” However, they claimed that the leaked cable “added little to information which was already in the public domain and which had been considered previously by the committee in connection with its advice to the Vice-Chancellor.”

The University 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”.

Emma Widdis, head of the Department of Slavonic Studies, praised Mr Firtash’s support, and made clear that “[she], and the department of Slavonic Studies, would not have got involved unless we were satisfied that the University had gone through its proper procedures”.

Simon Franklin, of the same department, said that he was “delighted with the success of the [Cambridge Ukrainian Studies] programme”, and stressed the rigorousness of the University’s procedures.

It’s worth noting that the Conservative Party also has connections to Firtash, which have been public knowledge since at least 2008. The precise details of those – and what was given in return – are less clear.

* * *

There have been arguments, convincing ones, that in the context of this Cambridge should at the very least show some contrition, and maybe give some of the money back.

But for all his questionable connections, without Firtash there would never have been any Ukrainian studies course at Cambridge. There was no doubt, in my discussion with academics, that he was ever anything more than hands off in his dealings with the university. He was able to use them to try and bring court cases to the UK, to meet Prince Philip, to bolster his own reputation. But the donation of money is almost always an exchange: at least Firtash was honest about what he was getting out of it. Some of the grubbiness might have rubbed onto Cambridge’s mitts when it took his money; but it’s not as if any of the blood did.

Lots of people looking to bring foreign money to universities are likely to have acquired it in questionable ways: better we get over our squeamishness about that sooner rather than later, given the way that university funding has changed in recent years.

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