US universities face federal crackdown over foreign financial influence

Students walking up the steps of Widener Library, on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 1, 2018. Colleges and universities have found themselves in the crossfire of US President Donald Trump administration's aggressive
Students walking up the steps of Widener Library, on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 1, 2018. Colleges and universities have found themselves in the crossfire of US President Donald Trump administration's aggressive immigration and US foreign policy.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The 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 summer that it was investigating whether Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell and Rutgers universities were fully complying with a federal law that requires colleges to report all gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceed US$250,000 (S$347,000).

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 thousands of records that could reveal millions of dollars in foreign aid for campus operations overseas, academic research and other cultural and academic partnerships.

Department officials have not said that they believe anything is amiss, but in communication with the schools, they have cited "security, academic freedom and other concerns associated with foreign funding".

"Our biggest concern is transparency," said Ms Liz Hill, a spokesman for the department. "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. Our investigations make it clear that the department expects institutions to take their reporting obligations seriously."

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 United States, particularly potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or Fara, which requires lobbyists and others to disclose any work they do to further the interests of foreign governments.

Last week, the Justice Department announced 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 a larger role in protecting against undue foreign influence by enforcing laws that require colleges and universities to be more transparent about their foreign relationships.

Last year, in a Senate Intelligence hearing examining Russian influence in US elections, the FBI director, Mr Christopher Wray, pointed to some "naivete on the part of the academic sector" about how vulnerable campuses were to national security and counterintelligence risks posed by China.

He acknowledged specific concerns about Confucius Institutes, cultural and language programmes that are funded and largely operated by Beijing - and hosted by nearly 100 American campuses and schools.

In February, an investigation by a Senate subcommittee into Confucius Institutes found widespread 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.

The investigations are the latest example of how colleges and universities have found themselves in the crossfire of the Trump administration's aggressive immigration and US foreign policy.

International enrollment has declined, visa delays have increased, and foreign students and staff members have been denied entry.

This week, a Palestinian student headed to class at Harvard said he was denied entry into the country after a Customs and Border Protection agent demanded to see his phone and objected to the social media activity of his friends. Amid pressure from lawmakers and an escalating trade war with China, a number of colleges - including Texas A&M - have shuttered their Confucius Institutes.

But the most recent charge by the Education Department has rattled those in higher education. The investigations, disclosed in the Federal Register, were the first time in recent history that the department had publicly announced that it was scrutinising specific schools.

Those notices detailed extensive information - including tax records and wire transfers, communications between professors and foreign governments, and information about overseas campuses - that the department wanted.

The department is also seeking comprehensive records on China and Qatar. The department's notices repeatedly cite high-profile organisations, such as 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, also known as "Hanban", which runs Confucius Institutes; and Huawei, the largest telecommunications equipment producer in the world, which the Trump administration deems a national security risk, and which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called "an instrument of the Chinese government".

The Education Department investigations have caused friction between the department and several higher education groups, which have urged it to clarify the rules around an obscure provision, called Section 117, in the Higher Education Act.

They say that university relationships with foreign entities have become more complex and voluminous since the section was added three decades ago. In the absence of any formal regulation from the department, schools have reported based on their best interpretations of the law, the groups say.

"This is what happens when you pass a law that nobody looks at ever again," said Mr Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 college and university presidents and higher education executives.

Seven higher education groups argued that it was "patently unfair to enforce requirements that do not exist in writing." Certain reporting requirements were vague - such as whether the US$250,000 threshold is met with an individual gift, or an aggregate amount, and whether the definition of an "institution" includes foundations that may route money to the universities, the groups said.

"It's not like schools are trying to hide something here, they want to do the right thing," Mr Hartle said. "They're now being investigated without any regulatory framework. The Department of Education is basically saying, 'The law means what we say it means when we investigate you.'"