Home / Articles / The Academic Confidence Man and What It Says about the University Sector
Herman Melville first understood that the essence of the modern world is confidence. Confidence permeates all corners of public life. Financial markets and global banking depend on it; central bankers and other policy wonks do their utmost apparently to maintain it; opinion writers agonize over the loss of trust in elected leaders and hazard guesses as to whether democratic institutions can withstand daily assaults from Donald Trump’s demotic twitter feed. In 1857, business and politics were already among the targets of Melville’s satire, The Confidence Man, which dissects the follies of those desperate to be believed alongside those determined to believe.
I met Mifsud on four occasions during my time working at the University of Stirling, which had a short-lived partnership with the London Academy of Diplomacy (LAD) he directed. Do not be surprised if you have never heard of it and do not expect to find much information about it: traces of its existence are quickly disappearing from the internet. The point was that it sounded credible at the time, and its flashy website reinforced this impression, as did its glossy brochures featuring what may or may not have been its students. In April 2015, I travelled to London to give a talk at LAD about David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership if he won the upcoming election; the event was part of a bi-monthly Diplomatic Forum to which academics, ambassadors, and other interesting speakers contributed. LAD occupied a nice modern building close to Liverpool Street station, there was an intelligent crowd numbering around 30, and I got treated to a three-course meal in a swanky restaurant nearby. So far, so normal.
Dinner conversation was dominated by The Professor, with his never-ending flow of anecdotes involving international leaders and events where he had had the privilege to brief them or pick up snippets of how they approached global problems. There’s nothing unusual about academics puffing themselves up by regaling an audience with stories about who they know: it’s a standard part of the job that reflects the power dynamics between senior and junior professionals and the associated self-importance of rank. What was striking in this case was the complete absence of an academic hinterland of research and publications to justify access to the upper echelons of power.
When I was told in 2014 that my university would be collaborating with Mifsud’s diplomacy outfit, my first reaction was to go online for some information because I had no idea with whom we were dealing. Apparently, he held multiple honorary positions bestowed by international institutions of standing and travelled the world speaking at events. That kind of resume is not a red flag in of itself. One of the perks of (and possible motivation for) forging an academic career is precisely to be in such demand as an authority or policy advisor on various subjects. But Mifsud’s PhD was in Education, obtained at Queen’s University Belfast, not an obvious stepping stone to the world of diplomatic intrigue.
So, what lies behind his mysterious ascent to the rank of professor with a myriad of ties to the international set? In fact, it is all quite banal – although perhaps counter-intuitive – and relatively simple to explain. He is a networker who understands that connections beget connections. There is an academic article from 2002 referencing one of his early roles as a Maltese education official in charge of projects financed by the European Union. It describes him as “a powerful actor whose knowledge of EU procedures, systems and networks has thrust him into a supranational epistemic community as one of Malta’s main representatives in the EU.” That quote says it all; Mifsud grasped that by helping to develop projects of international collaboration and by becoming a conduit of information for different stakeholders, he could increase his own importance. That does not mean his trajectory must have been easy or that anyone could accomplish such a feat. Far from it, because doing all that takes dedication, a gift for languages, and a genuinely warm personality allied with an unerring focus on self-promotion.
The mystery of Mifsud’s success cannot be elucidated by asking how it was possible for someone without a record of published work in international affairs to jet around the world lecturing on diplomacy. The only way to generate interesting answers about this whole affair is to question whether those associated with him – and I include myself here – either didn’t want to know about his lack of credentials or perhaps just didn’t care that he was an empty shell. What mattered to individuals such as Papadopolous, or institutions such as the University of Stirling, was that Mifsud could potentially be useful. If anything, they are probably more suspicious of what Melville called “the destroyers of confidence and gloomy philosophers” who contradict the brilliant visions of confidence men.
I certainly cannot pretend that I was duped. It was clear when I first encountered the big delegation from LAD who visited my campus that there was a complete mismatch between words and deeds. How could he be a professor (and of what?) if the institution for which he worked could not award degrees? Mifsud and his cronies excelled in offering glimpses of what could be achieved by partnering with them—recruiting international students bringing high tuition fees, lucrative contracts to train foreign diplomats, or providing advice to policy makers. But there was never a realistic plan to meet such objectives. I kept asking myself why none had been realized under LAD’s previous arrangement with another British university? The bonanza obviously never materialized, and the fact that within fourteen months the plug was pulled on this link-up tells its own story.
Looking back, it could seem that the people and institutions in Mifsud’s orbit did not want to enquire too much into the specifics, preferring to live in the moment of wonderful promises facilitated by some lavish hospitality and intriguing conversation. That’s part and parcel of networking, academic or otherwise: sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. Yet there’s more to this story than just a gamble that did not pay off (for Papadopolous and his erstwhile boss Paul Manafort, the cost could include the loss of liberty). If Mifsud could be useful to certain people, then it stands to reason that they in turn could serve his own agenda, which patently had nothing to do with traditional academic research and dissemination.
The tentacular reach of Mifsud across universities and international organizations thus points to a more fundamental problem of accountability among those responsible for maintaining institutional respectability. Due diligence does not appear to have been the order of the day. He was hired in a personal capacity by my old university after the LAD relationship ended in failure. I cannot have been the only one to have my doubts, but still this academic with the flimsiest of credentials only stopped riding the crest of his wave of networking when the FBI got involved in a drama with an ever-expanding cast of characters, including a Russian associate of Mifsud who Papadopolous mistook for Vladimir Putin’s niece.
Ultimately, the whole episode requires deep reflection on the institutions connected to Mifsud and their management practices as much as on the man himself. The quack herb-doctor in Melville’s story insists that the sick man “must have confidence, unquestioning confidence” in the medicine he proffers. Yet in the case of the affable Maltese academic I barely knew, he was not really the one asking for confidence. It was the university top brass and their equivalents elsewhere who expected unquestioning confidence in their own decision to work with him. That was his confidence trick: he could rely on making connections with important people uninterested in asking too many questions because – short of law enforcement getting involved – there was little way their judgment could be scrutinized. There is probably more to come from the FBI in this sorry saga about shadowy Russian interests and their intermediaries. What is already clear, though, is that for the public to have trust in academia, just as in politics or business, there needs to be more accountability, which starts by recognizing that confidence is something earned and, as Melville demonstrated, always open to question.