The Rogues of Academe

Making dictators an offer they can't refuse


The repertoire of methods employed to rid nations of their undemocratic or loathsome rulers is at once familiar and limited. There is assassination, coup d'état, and war. There are economic sanctions. On the rare occasions when elections come into the picture, there is sometimes an international effort to ensure that the elections are fair.

Now Boston University is experimenting with a new approach—the Lloyd G. Balfour African Presidents in Residence Program. The idea, simply put, is that democratically elected African leaders might not be so prone to overstay their welcome as chief executives (or to keep meddling in local politics after leaving office) if they had a well-endowed university sinecure in the United States to look forward to. The first President-in-residence is Kenneth Kaunda, who served as the President of Zambia under less than democratic circumstances for twenty-seven years, but ultimately left office of his own accord when an election was held and he lost. Kaunda will receive a presumably generous stipend (the amount is undisclosed) and live in a Back Bay home overlooking the Charles River. Boston University will become the repository of his papers. Charles Stith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and the director of the university's African Presidential Archives and Research Center, told The Wall Street Journal, "It sends a message to some of these other folks who are reluctant to step aside that there are a set of options, and when they do the right thing, good things can happen."

The Balfour program has its eye on a number of future candidates, including Uganda's longtime President, Yoweri Museveni. According to newspaper accounts, officials at Boston University would especially welcome the chance to entice Robert Mugabe away from Zimbabwe, where his two-decade rule is spiraling toward catastrophe.

The management dilemma posed by the world's dictators is acute. Many of them simply don't want to leave office, and those who might want to leave often have no place to go where they will be safe from legal badgering and physical reprisals. I addressed the problem in this space some years ago (in the April 1992 Atlantic), proposing the establishment of an exclusive community called The Last Resort, a prosecution-free zone on an island in the Indian Ocean for dictators needing that one final incentive. Of course there were certain conditions (you could never leave), and the rules of the island were subtly designed to exact, over time, a terrible toll in retribution.

Boston University's scheme represents an important new development, one that reflects recent changes in expert thinking about penology. Prisons around the world are overcrowded, and analysts raise legitimate concerns about the long-term effects of prison culture on inmates. (Authorities in Kentucky, for instance, recently discovered that satanic worship services were being held under official auspices at the Green River Correctional Complex.) Inevitably, more thought is being given to ways in which certain kinds of malefactors can remain at large in society, albeit subject to strict rules and intensive monitoring. The Balfour program extends the concept to the international level, and the recruitment of Kenneth Kaunda (Charles Stith somewhat inaptly termed it a "coup") will give the effort a high profile.

The program also invites speculation about ways in which the general idea might be broadened, in order to match the diverse talents of some of our longest-serving world leaders. The State of Florida, for instance, found itself in need of a new secretary of state last summer, when Katherine Harris announced her resignation in order to seek a congressional seat. Harris, a Republican, was the Florida official who oversaw the recount effort in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, an effort that ultimately awarded the state (and the presidency) to George W. Bush. Surely the prospect of this sort of opportunity in state government would lure Aleksandr Lukashenko, the only dictator left in Europe, from his position as President of Belarus (the former Soviet Republic of Belorussia). Lukashenko is clearly up to the job: it has been alleged that during a crucial 1996 referendum he and his forces added a million paper ballots to the voting boxes at the last minute, bending the outcome to their will.

Other world leaders could heed the siren call of entertainment. Two years ago the critic Roger Ebert, the host of television's most influential program about movies, welcomed a new partner, Richard Roeper, to take the place of the late Gene Siskel, Ebert's colleague of twenty-four years. But Ebert & Roeper and the Movies still needs the occasional guest host—a chance to persuade Kim Jong Il, North Korea's "Dear Leader" and dynastic despot, to leave Pyongyang behind. Kim would be perfect. Every capsule biography makes reference to his deep interest in film: he owns some 25,000 movies, and as both auteur and producer has been intimately involved with nurturing North Korea's film industry. At least locally, Kim's own work has won wide critical acclaim (unanimous, in fact). And he's apparently up to the banter and byplay that a co-host role demands: the North Korean government described Kim a few years ago as "a great maker of witty remarks."

For all the opportunities in other fields, the visionaries at Boston University are probably correct in their hunch that academe is the most suitable enclave for the world's potential presidents-for-life.

For instance, the University of Virginia has recently been in the news because of questions raised about its vaunted honor system. Critics say that the venerable set of procedures, overseen by students, is highly capricious, levying severe penalties on some students while dealing lightly with others for similar offenses. The proceedings are also prolonged and mysterious. These flaws would become a thing of the past if Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader and former ruler of Afghanistan, were placed in charge. Mullah Omar was known for his severity (summarily hanging miscreants from the barrels of tanks, or burying them alive) but never for delay (he brooked no appeals) or capriciousness (he spared no one). Omar has been in hiding since last October, and has probably missed the newspaper reports about UVA. But if the Air Force is still dropping emergency food supplies in the remoter parts of Afghanistan, it should consider including some copies of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Harvard could very well get to Robert Mugabe before Boston University, and with a better offer. Harvard spent much of the 1990s secretly buying up parcels of land in Boston, through a front company, in order to facilitate the university's expansion in the twenty-first century—a subterfuge that sparked outrage among city leaders and community activists. In recent years Mugabe has made a specialty of land expropriation in the face of local opposition; what is more, he has done so in broad daylight. Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, might even learn a thing or two from Mugabe.

The political turmoil within certain academic departments at some prestigious universities is intense, and on occasion administrators have actually had to bring in scholars from outside the school to chair departments that have disintegrated into warring camps. Columbia University's English department—torn by internecine conflicts among traditionalists and multiculturalists, feminists and deconstructionists—was effectively placed in receivership last year, and a professor from the University of Pittsburgh, Jonathan Arac, was put in charge. Such divisions, of course, would be deemed a mere trifle by someone like the ophthalmologist-turned-strongman Bashar al-Assad. For three decades the Assad family has brutally checked the centrifugal forces (Druze, Christians, Alawite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians) that would otherwise tear apart "Syria"—a mental construct no less laughable than "English department" can sometimes be. Assad would be more than a match for any cabal of post-structuralists and semioticians.

It is hard to overestimate how much good the Balfour program could ultimately do if it takes hold. And there's no reason why the effort should not run in the other direction as well. It cannot have escaped notice in the program's home precincts that Boston University itself has been governed by someone who seems to have become a president-for-life—the authoritarian and irascible John Silber. Yes, he has had his eye on the Taliban job; but his assumption of even the Zambian presidency would cap a remarkable career, and would be widely endorsed at home.