Foreign Donations in the Higher Education Sector of the United States and the United Kingdom: Pathways for Reputation Laundering


  • Alexander Cooley Barnard College
  • Dr. Tena Prelec University of Oxford
  • John Heathershaw University of Exeter



philanthropy, reputation laundering, foreign donors, malign influence, gift policies, due diligence, compliance


We explore how the influx of foreign funding into the higher education sectors of the United States and United Kingdom has raised the challenge of “reputation laundering”—when foreign donors and individuals use donations to prestigious universities to boost their international public image and offset negative images or reported controversies back in their home country. We outline four pathways for reputation laundering—donations for academic programs/schools, naming rights, honorary degrees and board seats; and the offer of favorable admissions decisions—and examine the variety of policies, practices and safeguards that have been adopted by U.K. and U.S. universities in response. We present evidence, drawn from a survey of U.K. development officers, that university diligence procedures, which usually focus on compliance with the law, often are inadequate for filtering or deterring most types of reputation laundering.


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Author Biographies

Alexander Cooley, Barnard College

Alexander Cooley is the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College. His research examines how external actors—including inter- national organizations, multinational companies, NGOs, and foreign military bases—have influenced the development, governance, and sovereignty of the former Soviet states, with a focus on Central Asia and the Caucasus. He is the author of six books, including Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia (Yale 2017), co-authored with John Heathershaw.

Dr. Tena Prelec, University of Oxford

Tena Prelec is a research fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Rela- tions and a research associate at LSEE-Research on South Eastern Europe at the London School of Economics. Her work focuses on anti-corruption, money and reputation laundering, and rule of law reforms in democratizing countries. Her writing and commentary have appeared in numerous inter- national outlets, including the New York Times, Financial Times, Al Jazeera, and Foreign Policy. She has served as an expert and consultant numerous international institutions, including Freedom House, the British Council, the U.K. Parliament (House of Commons and House of Lords), and the Scottish Parliament.

John Heathershaw, University of Exeter

John Heathershaw is a professor of politics at the University of Exeter, where his research addresses conflict, security, and development in global politics, especially in post-Soviet Central Asia. He convenes the Exeter Central Asian Studies (ExCAS) research network and directed its Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project 2015-2020. His current research project considers the global dimensions of money laundering and ‘reputation laundering’ by African and Eurasian elites and how these are enabled by overseas professionals, especially in the United Kingdom. He is a found- ing member of the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group which undertakes research and has drafted a model code of conduct for U.K. universities.


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How to Cite

Cooley, A., prelec, T., & Heathershaw, J. (2022). Foreign Donations in the Higher Education Sector of the United States and the United Kingdom: Pathways for Reputation Laundering. Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education, 14(5), 43–79.



Winter 2022 Special Issue