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Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007 | University boards of education aren’t allowed to meddle in academic issues, and for good reason. Unlike elected officials to public school boards, many appointees to the UC and Cal State boards of education are fat cats — wealthy political campaign contributors who donate to politicians who reward them with board appointments.

Imagine if such appointees could tell professors what to teach.

One board member of the Cal State Board of Trustees doesn’t see things that way.

Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, son of one of the wealthiest men in California, is bringing the full force of family money and connections to the Democratic Party, the Greek-American lobby and the Greek government to bear on San Diego State University. The family doesn’t like SDSU’s exchange program in the Turkish part of Cyprus.

The Cal State Board, which overseas the largest university system in the nation, votes on the matter in two weeks, and Tsakopoulos, an appointee of Gray Davis, is calling in some chits. Son of Angelo Tsakopoulos, the largest individual contributor to the Democratic Party in California, Kyriakos has many friends in high places.

Phil Angelides, to whom Angelo Tsakopoulos was the largest individual contributor last year, didn’t win the governor’s race, but many of the family friends did win: Nancy Pelosi and John Garamendi, for example. Cruz Bustamante lost his race, but was still on the Cal State Board in November and supported the decision to investigate SDSU’s Cyprus program. Sen. Barbara Boxer has weighed in with a letter to Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed questioning the program.

SDSU’s exchange program in Cyprus is an academic matter. The California Education Code states: “The California State University shall be entirely independent of all political and sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its Trustees and in the administration of its affairs.”

The Greek-American community, the Greek government, the Republic of Cyprus and all of the Tsakopoulos’ friends in high places may not like the idea that SDSU has begun a summer program in Turkish Cyprus, but neither their sectarian preferences nor all the money the family gives to Democratic officials can do a thing about it.

Not, that is, unless the Cal State board, at its coming meeting on Jan. 23, takes the unprecedented step of violating the California Education Code and bows to this blatant political blackmail. So who’s Tsakopoulos going to give his money to if the board turns him down — Republicans?

With some 180 overseas exchanges involving some 1,400 students, SDSU’s international programs are as comprehensive as those of any American university. The Cyprus affiliation is part of the university’s program for International Security and Conflict Resolution and last year sent 26 students for the first summer program at the Eastern Mediterranean University, which happens to be in Turkish Cyprus.

That campus was chosen as the best qualified after SDSU faculty members went to the island last year to investigate sites on both parts of the island. The summer program was a success.

The Greek-Turkish conflict is as old as the Iliad, as old as the battle between Hector and Achilles. More recently, however, the flames have cooled, and Greece and Turkey find themselves partners in NATO. Perhaps, one day, they will be partners in the European Union. Cyprus remains divided, however, largely because the Greek part of the island rejected the 2004 Annan plan for reunification, though the Turkish part accepted it.

The United States recognizes the Republic of Cyprus (the Greek part), and has friendly relations with the Turkish part. There are no restrictions on Americans traveling to either part of the island. The State Department has enthusiastically endorsed SDSU’s exchange program. A State Department letter to SDSU states:

“We support the easing of the economic and social isolation of Turkish Cypriots as a way to reduce disparities between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities and thereby facilitate reunification of the island. The U.S. government also pursues reunification by encouraging educational and cultural exchanges with members of the Turkish Cypriot community.”

At a meeting of the Cal State Board in Long Beach in November, Kyriakos Tsakopoulos first raised the Cyprus issue. Angelo, the patriarch, a big fish in the Greek-American community, is founder of AKT Development, the largest real estate developer in Sacramento. (He is also the man whose company’s environmental violations carried all the way to the Supreme Court in 2002, where Justice Anthony Kennedy, of Sacramento and a family friend, recused himself, and Tsakopoulos lost the case.) Bustamante, a lame duck member of the board following his defeat in the Nov. 7 election, backed Tsakopoulos at the meeting, and the board set up a subcommittee to look into it.

At a raucous subcommittee meeting last month with both Greek and Turkish-Americans present, Greek representatives and their lawyers — including Stuart Eizenstat, a former official of both the Carter and Clinton administrations — called the SDSU exchange program “illegal and immoral.” In a letter to Chancellor Reed, Eizenstat, now a private Washington attorney, compared the situation on Cyprus to apartheid in South Africa, an outrageous charge in view of the State Department’s support for Turkish Cypriots and in light of the Greek Cypriot vote rejecting the Annan reunification plan.

Both SDSU students and faculty defended the program at the meeting, and the subcommittee declined to suspend the program. A final decision, however, was put off until the full board meeting, on Jan. 23, giving Tsakopoulos six more weeks’ time for his friends to lean on Cal State board members.

Democratic politicians should drop this flimflam before their fingers are further burned. Kyriakos Tsakopoulos is in clear violation of the education code in bringing a personal, political and sectarian issue to the board and using family connections to pressure board members. Imagine a trustee wanted evolution removed from biology class or brought personal bias to bear on the way Middle East history is taught.

The Tsakopoulos aversion to things Turks should be barred from the classroom.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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