NEW YORK • Harvard and Yale universities are under investigation by the US Education Department for allegedly failing to report gifts and contributions from countries including China and Saudi Arabia.
Yale may not have disclosed at least US$375 million (S$521 million) over the past four years, and Harvard may lack appropriate controls to track money it receives, the department said in a statement on Wednesday.
"This is about transparency," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. "If colleges and universities are accepting foreign money and gifts, their students, donors and taxpayers deserve to know how much and from whom. Moreover, it is what the law requires."
The United States is seeking to collect more information on overseas money provided to colleges for grants or contracts, and wants better reporting of that funding. It has become apparent that there is "widespread non-compliance across US universities", said an Education Department spokesman.
The agency has written to the universities requesting records related to gifts or contracts from a foreign source. The letters were posted on the Education Department's website.
According to a Bloomberg analysis of US government data, Harvard led all US colleges in gifts and donations from China. Collectively, the schools received almost US$1 billion from 2013 to June last year. Harvard and Yale's endowments are the biggest among US private schools at about US$41 billion and US$30 billion, respectively.
Representatives for Harvard and Yale said the universities are reviewing the Education Department's request and are preparing a response.
The Education Department told Harvard it was opening an administrative investigation because it was aware of information suggesting the university "lacks appropriate institutional controls". As a result, its reporting may not include the entirety of gifts or contracts from foreign sources.
The agency requested records of gifts from foreign sources, including China and Huawei Technologies, as well as the governments of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It also requested documents related to China's Thousand Talents Programme, a Chinese government programme to recruit overseas researchers.
The department sent a similar letter to Yale, saying the college appeared to have failed to report a single gift or contract from 2014 through 2017, and asked for records related to all its foreign sites and gifts from countries including Saudi Arabia and China.
Last month, a Harvard chemistry professor was accused of lying about his connections to China and concealing payments to him from a Chinese university. That probe is part of a US crackdown on intellectual property theft allegedly sponsored by China and linked to Thousand Talents.
Centres for Chinese language and cultural education have proliferated at US universities, drawing students eager to learn about the Asian country. These Confucius Institutes have drawn fire from US lawmakers, who contend they give China an opportunity to infiltrate universities and co-opt students and professors.
A Senate sub-committee's report last year found that nearly 70 per cent of US schools that received more than US$250,000 from Hanban, the Chinese government-run Confucius Institute headquarters, failed to properly report that amount.