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International interests in U.S. education

Colleges fail to report billions in donations from foreign actors

Students at the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Ben Margot (file)

International interests in U.S. education

U.S. Education Department officials reported in late October that the country’s colleges and universities failed to disclose more than $6.5 billion in funding and resources from foreign nations. Some came from countries with hostile or tense relations with the United States such as China and Russia.

Foreign nations often give gifts for research projects or exchange programs, but other arrangements have drawn criticism in recent years. For example, numerous U.S. universities host the Confucius Institute program. Critics claim the Chinese-funded institutes spread communist propaganda under the guise of teaching Chinese language and culture. And earlier this year, federal officials indicted a prominent professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University on charges that he lied about money he received from the Chinese government to establish a nanotechnology lab at the Wuhan University of Technology.

“American higher education is a critical human and technological strategic resource,” wrote the authors of a blistering report chronicling the Education Department’s attempts to enforce a 1986 law that requires U.S. colleges and universities to publicly account for foreign gifts greater than $250,000. “Foreign actors know this, and over many decades made plays for influence over classroom curriculum, or even outright intellectual property theft and espionage.”

Universities are supposed to report large foreign financial gifts annually, but decades of lax enforcement by federal officials created an environment where noncompliance seemingly became the norm.

The Education Department put schools accustomed to nonreporting on notice in 2019. It opened investigations into Georgetown and Texas A&M universities over claims they grossly underreported foreign gifts from Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China. In the ensuing months, the department added 10 other high-profile universities to its investigation list, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos characterized the manner in which the colleges avoided reporting their foreign entanglements as “pervasive noncompliance.”

The Department of Justice will handle any follow-up investigation of inappropriate foreign funding.

Not everyone applauded the report’s release. Officials for the Association of American Universities complained the government failed to respond to “repeated requests for clarity, transparency, and guidelines.”

The authors of the Education Department’s report said their main goal—and that of the 1986 law— is accountability: “For too long, these institutions have provided an unprecedented level of access to foreign governments and their instrumentalities in an environment lacking transparency and oversight by the industry, the Department, and our partner agencies.”

Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich.



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