Reputation Laundering and Universities: Implications for Democracy and Freedom of Expression

June 29, 2021
10:00 am - 11:00 am


about the event

Kleptocracy flourishes when kleptocrats and their associates use and protect their ill-gotten gains in open settings with accountable and transparent institutions. Kleptocrats look to embed their stolen money within rule of law-based systems, for instance by acquiring high-end real estate or other luxury goods. Increasingly, however, kleptocrats also use their wealth—and other forms of engagement in open societies—to launder their reputations. The positive publicity and influence they derive from being associated with major institutions in democratic settings both enable their corrupt practices and entrench their power at home.

Universities in democracies are a particularly attractive target for reputation laundering schemes. Through financial gifts, high-profile speaking engagements, and preferential admission to prestigious universities, kleptocrats gain international legitimacy while deflecting attention away from their venality and repression at home. The rapid internationalization of the higher education sector makes academic institutions vulnerable to this form of transnational kleptocratic activity. The International Forum for Democratic Studies hosted a discussion with Alexander Cooley, John Heathershaw, Tom Mayne, and Tena Prelec, authors of a working paper entitled “Paying for a World Class Affiliation: Reputation Laundering in the University Sector of Open Societies,” to learn how such activity facilitates transnational kleptocracy, the ways in which universities are targeted, and its influence on freedom of expression and democracy around the world.



Alexander Cooley, Columbia University

John Heathershaw,  University of Exeter

Tom Mayne, University of Exeter

Tena Prelec, Oxford University


moderated by

Melissa Aten, International Forum for Democratic Studies


About the participants

Alexander Cooley is the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. His research examines how external actors—including international 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.

John Heathershaw is professor of international relations 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 founding member of the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group which undertakes research and has drafted a model code of conduct for U.K. universities.

Tom Mayne is a freelance researcher and writer from London. After graduating from Oxford University with a degree in Russian and Czech, he worked for twelve years as a senior campaigner for Global Witness, an anti-corruption NGO that works to end the exploitation of natural resources. Since leaving Global Witness, he has continued his research on the ruling families of Central Asian autocracies, and currently holds a research fellowship at the University of Exeter where he is researching money laundering in the U.K. real estate sector.

Tena Prelec is a research fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations 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 international 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.

Melissa Aten is a senior program officer in the research and conferences section of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, where she manages the International Forum’s combatting kleptocracy portfolio. She is the author (with Christopher Walker) of “The Rise of Kleptocracy: A Challenge to Democracy,” which appeared in the January 2018 Journal of Democracy, and serves on RUSI’s Taskforce for a Transatlantic Response to Illicit Finance. She holds a master’s degree in Central European politics and U.S. foreign policy from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and an undergraduate degree in English literature from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.


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