WASHINGTON • The US Education Department has begun cracking down on universities that fail to disclose donations and contracts from foreign governments, hoping to give far more scrutiny to funding that has washed into the United States' higher education institutions from countries often at odds with American policies but eager to tap the country's brightest minds.
The department announced this year that it was probing whether Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell and Rutgers universities were fully complying with a federal law that requires colleges to report gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceed US$250,000 (S$346,000).
In letters sent to the universities in July, department officials wrote that they were seeking records dating as far back as nine years, outlining agreements, communication and financial transactions with entities and governments in countries such as China, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Schools were expected this month to turn over records that could reveal millions of dollars in foreign aid for campus operations overseas, academic research, and cultural and academic partnerships.
In their communication with the schools, the department officials have cited "security, academic freedom and other concerns associated with foreign funding".
"Our biggest concern is transparency," said Education Department spokesman Liz Hill. "We expect colleges and universities to provide full, accurate and transparent information when reporting foreign gifts and contracts. Our national security depends on it and it's required by law. "
The crackdown comes amid increased scrutiny of foreign influence in recent years, be it Russian meddling in US elections, Chinese economic espionage or outsider efforts to sway American think-tanks.
The Justice Department recently announced that it would escalate its crackdown on illegal foreign influence operations in the US, particularly potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists and others to disclose any work they do to further the interests of foreign governments.
The department announced last week that federal officers had indicted a researcher at the University of Kansas for working full-time for a Chinese university while also being paid through US government contracts to conduct research.
The Education Department has faced pressure in recent months to take on a larger role in protecting against undue foreign influence by enforcing laws that require colleges and universities to be more transparent about their foreign ties.
Last year, in a Senate Intelligence hearing examining Russian influence in US elections, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray pointed to some "naivete on the part of the academic sector" about how vulnerable campuses were to national security and counter-intelligence risks posed by China. He acknowledged specific concerns about Confucius Institutes, cultural and language programmes funded and largely operated by Beijing - and hosted by nearly 100 US campuses and schools.
In February, an investigation by a Senate subcommittee into Confucius Institutes found financial under-reporting by colleges and universities that host them on campuses.
"Foreign government spending on US schools is effectively a black hole," the report concluded.
The same month, Education Department officials revealed in congressional testimony that fewer than 3 per cent of 3,700 higher education institutions that receive foreign funding reported receiving foreign gifts or contracts exceeding US$250,000.
But the most recent charge by the Education Department has rattled those in higher education. The investigations were the first time in recent history that the department had publicly announced it was scrutinising specific schools. The notices detailed information - including tax records and wire transfers, communications between professors and foreign governments, and data about overseas campuses - that the department wanted.
The department is also seeking comprehensive records on China and Qatar. Its notices cite organisations like the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, which helps fund US satellite campuses in the country; the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which runs Confucius Institutes; and Huawei, the world's largest tele-communications equipment producer, which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called "an instrument of the Chinese government".