An Interview with the AUM’s John Ryder
This series of articles by Lizzie Eldrige is based on a 2 hour recorded interview with Professor John Ryder, recently retired Provost of the American University of Malta. The interview was conducted on 23rd July 2019.
Imagine you got offered a brand new job in a country where you’d never been before. You’d do some research, wouldn’t you, even if you weren’t an academic with over 30 years in the field, I mean, you’d do your homework, wouldn’t you? Particularly if it was a whole new venture which, or so you believed, ‘was an opportunity to create a university’. You’d want to make sure you weren’t being hoodwinked into some scam in a country where illusions might be its stock-in-trade and deception its raison d’être. You’d check things out a bit, wouldn’t you, just to be on the safe side?
Not Professor John Ryder, recently retired Provost of the unfailingly controversial American University of Malta and author of one sole original academic book with its title drawn from Hamlet – The Things in Heaven and Earth. Ryder’s apparent philosophical curiosity doesn’t extend to the bowels of hell otherwise known as Malta and, despite having been here for three years, Ryder still, or so he claims, knows nothing.
Meeting Ryder in the flesh brings to mind another quote from Shakespeare about that ‘poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.’ With all his blustering contradictions, feigned ignorance and occasional outbursts of anger, Ryder has to be an example of one of the poorest players, spinning a tale told by an idiot signifying…Well, that’s what we’re going to find out.
By chance, the name of Hamlet cropped up early on in our conversation in relation to a previous position Ryder held in Baku. When I joked about the connection with the title of his book, Ryder blanked and still didn’t get it when I spelt it out for him. Perhaps ghostwriters are busily at work in the Mary Celeste of erudition.
Hamlet Isakhanli is the founder of Khazar University, Baku, and, following the termination of Ryder’s job after 30 years at SUNY Cortland, Ryder got word that Hamlet was ‘looking for someone to serve as rector…so that’s when that happened.’ According to Ryder, a new chancellor at SUNY brought in someone from Cincinnati who ‘had different ideas about international stuff than we did’ so he was ‘let go’, leaving him ‘kind of available’ for the post at Baku.
In terms of the moral and ethical implications of working in Azerbaijan, Ryder said:
‘Oh, I had plenty of discomfort about the government and the state of corruption and all the rest of it…Awful…Just awful…I don’t, as a general principle, I don’t think that working in a place, living in a place, means one has to endorse its general character. Nor do I think that one is under any moral obligation to avoid a particular place because you don’t like the way it’s governed or its economics.’
He described the corruption in Azerbaijan as ‘awful…Nothing like that I encountered in the Emirates or here. That isn’t to say there isn’t corruption anywhere else…I don’t know the half of it, I’m sure…What goes on in Azerbaijan is a whole different order.’
He seems to know a great deal about Azerbaijan, corruption being ‘one of the reasons I left by the way’, and has spent his entire life in the field of international relations, including being President for the Alliance of Universities for Democracy. When it comes to the intimate interconnections between Malta and Azerbaijan, however, Ryder claims to know very little. With SOCAR, for example, he says ’I don’t know anything about SOCAR’s relation to Malta but of course I know about SOCAR.’
The connections between Pilatus Bank and Azerbaijan also appear to have bypassed him. Despite the fact the majority of its clients hailed from Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family, mention of Pilatus was met with ‘I don’t follow this kind of stuff. It doesn’t interest me.’
Even sheer coincidence seems to have slipped his radar. Ali Sadr, granted a license to operate in Malta, was arrested in Ryder’s home country during the AUM’s first and turbulent academic year, a mere 5 months after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia who had reported extensively on Pilatus’ corrupt political practices and money laundering activities which were intertwined with Azerbaijan and included the infamous Egrant.
Implicated in all of this is, of course, the government, which, as Ryder accepts, plays a key role in the AUM’s affairs: ‘We certainly are connected to the government. We are – we have been – supported by the government.’
When asked for his reaction to the government’s behaviour in response to Caruana Galizia’s assassination, Ryder distanced himself immediately as he did throughout this interview:
‘Actually, I don’t pay much attention to that. If you’re looking for me to attack the government, I’m not particularly interested. I actually purposefully stayed away from paying attention much to arguments for or against the government. You know, I come from New York, I was born in Brooklyn, I grew up just outside of New York. That’s a rough town…Being around political controversy, being around very very tough political fighting is not unusual for me…And I have never seen a place as politically charged as Malta…Never. New York is a kindergarten compared to this place.’
So he doesn’t know much about Malta except it’s a ‘politically charged country’ in which he’s prepared to live and work while knowing nothing about it in order to, as he keeps insisting, ‘create a university’.
When pushed further on Pilatus, Ryder replied:
‘I don’t pay attention to those things. I’m sorry. If that makes me somehow evil or a fool or something then so be it…There are 2 million details about this country. You pay attention to those prominent important ones and I’m not. I pay attention to other things…I don’t actually pay attention to Malta’s place nationally or internationally, relationship between Brussels and this…’
On the basis of this, what ‘ideas about international stuff’ could possibly have provoked the termination of his job at SUNY other than glaring inadequacy?
The same air of insouciance emerged when quizzed about Adrian Hillman, Ryder’s colleague (sitting 2 people to the right of him in the main photo of the inauguration) who’s not only steeped in massive money laundering allegations but these include Pilatus Bank:
‘There are allegations. I don’t know if they’re accurate or not. I’ve no idea. I wouldn’t have any way of knowing whether they’re accurate but I know there are allegations.’
When I made reference to Malta having failed Moneyval’s review of its anti-money laundering regime the day before we met, Ryder refused to make any connection:
‘We’re just talking about Adrian. I don’t know about Malta in general or Adrian either so I don’t know.’
Given that Hillman’s named in the PACE resolution adopted by the Council of Europe last June – an event at which Azerbaijan again popped up in Malta’s failed defence – it’s difficult to take Ryder’s assertions seriously:
‘I don’t know if any of that’s true or not. If it’s true, I would hope the government would deal with that and would remove him, I would hope, from that Board [of Trustees] and I would hope the members of that Board would insist on it if it turned out to be true. I don’t know if that’s true. Is there evidence for it?…So he’s been convicted for it?’
Ryder’s performance could easily be construed as a cynical ploy. Sticking to his theory that allegations are merely allegations – thus towing the line of the government which supports the institution he works for but who he claims to know so little about yet here posits as a paradigm of democracy – Ryder has accepted the invitation to sit on the Board of Trustees following his retirement:
‘I am not in a position to refuse to associate myself with the government’s representative on the Board. That is not my place. I could quit, I suppose. I could have quit. I don’t associate with…I don’t refuse. I am not in a position to do so. I’m trying to build a university.’
His repeated insistence throughout the interview that ‘My role here is to build a university’ takes us back to Professor Taranne, the eponymous character of Ionesco’s absurdist drama where the first part of my investigation began. There’s a whiff, too, of ‘The Lady doth protest too much.’
Further justifying his decision to sit alongside people embroiled in massive money-laundering scandals, Ryder’s defence is that he didn’t quit his job at SUNY after discovering that one of the most influential people in the state of New York was a crook. When asked if this man had been brought to trial, Ryder replied, almost sheepishly, that he had. Given that SUNY is a public university and presuming Ryder didn’t work for this criminal, the parallel doesn’t exactly stand up in court.
Another lynchpin in the AUM is Chris Cardona, recently placed under criminal investigation for his role in Vitals, also involving money laundering. Cardona has been there from the start, present at the original signing of the heads of agreement between the government and Hani Salah in April 2015, giving the greenlight for the AUM to begin.
Despite Cardona’s ongoing connections with the AUM, Ryder insists he doesn’t know him:
‘You keep mentioning all these names. I know Adrian. I know Joe Muscat a little bit, but I know Adrian better than the others…Cardona, I don’t really. I know the name but…I don’t even know what the man looks like. As I said before, I heard his name but I don’t know who he is. I don’t know what he looks like…I’m not inclined to defend him. I don’t know anything about him…Adrian, I know…Interactions through the Board and I see him around here and so on.’
‘Adrian’ and ‘Joe’ but not ‘Cardona’. Unless he’s suffering the same memory loss exhibited at the mention of his one and only book, Ryder is lying, although it’s always good to discover in passing that Hillman does spend time at the AUM. As, too, does Cardona according to an ex-staff member who was one of the many dismissed as part of the mass firings:
‘Chris Cardona was absolutely at AUM. I met him personally when Hani was giving a tour to him and another gentleman – whose name I don’t recall – Hani [had them introduced to] the entire AUM staff…This was in July before AUM was to open the doors to the first intake of students.’
The ‘entire AUM staff’ but ‘Cardona, I don’t know’ claims Ryder, the head of this team. Who did he think Cardona was when he came into vision alongside Ryder’s friends ‘Hani’ and ‘Joe’ in the promotional video screened at the inauguration ceremony?
Does Ryder’s state of blissful ignorance mean he didn’t notice OPM staff trying to prevent Hillman being seen with Muscat during a tour of the campus after the surprise announcement by Prince Jean of Luxembourg that Hillman was now the government representative on the Board of Trustees?
During this tour, ‘distinguished American academic leader, Dr Lewis Walker, President of the American University of Malta’ explained ‘how the new gaming and animation laboratory represents the state-of-the-art equipment that the University is providing for technically cutting-edge participatory learning.’ Useful for Hillman who was soon after appointed to manage the reputation of the Malta Gaming Authority.
Perhaps the Prince and AUM President would share the same response as Ryder to the news that Malta’s reputation couldn’t be much worse:
‘I don’t know about that,’ said Ryder.
Yet he didn’t question the statement that Malta isn’t a democracy, overturning his previous depiction of the government as the paragon of virtue:
‘I’ve lived in other places that aren’t democracies, too…Do I work and live in places where there’s corruption? Yes…Is Malta corrupt? I don’t…Yes, I suppose. You, and others who pay more attention to it than I do, tell me that is and I don’t have any reason to doubt you in that regards. Yes, there’s corruption all over the place. Does that prevent me from living and working in in ways that I think are morally acceptable in corrupt environments? No, it doesn’t stop me from doing that.’
And then back again he scuttles, like an ostrich:
‘Being accused is one thing…A lot of people can be accused of things…I don’t listen to it from the government…I don’t pay attention to the details… Maybe it’s not defensible but…’
Indefensible is his reply as to how he felt about the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. You can listen to it here:
After describing it as ‘awful’, dredging up the only word in his repertoire to register shock, he bangs something on his desk, begins to laugh and then continues laughing as he says, ‘What do you think I’m going to say? It’s awful.’
‘The question of what it means to be human’ is, apparently, the subject of Ryder’s forthcoming second book: Knowledge, Art and Power: An Outline of a Theory of Experience.
Throughout this interview, he aims to create the impression that he shies away from experience, is bereft of knowledge and lives ‘in a bubble’. If we accept his account, we’d be left with an empty vessel, floundering around in some ‘serious academic institution’ which, with all the desperation of a drowning man, he repeatedly insists that he’s created. But as he gasps for air, all that can be heard are contradictions.