Through Section 117 of the 1965 Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) a balance between academic freedom and national security was maintained by REQUIRING U.S. universities to declare contracts or gifts from foreign sources totaling more than $250,000 in a year. Under the leadership of Betsy DeVos, the Trump Administration Department of Education noticed that many higher education institutions were failing to disclose billions of dollars received via “foreign contracts or gifts,” so they began an investigation.  Previous administrations had failed to enforce this law.   

Yesterday, October 20th, Education Secretary DeVos released a report of their investigations and detailed an astonishing $6.5 billion in previously unreported money making their way into US higher education institutions. Devos stated, the threat of improper foreign influence in higher education is real. Our action (to enforce section 117) ensures that America’s students, educators, and taxpayers can follow the money.” She also highlighted a portal to a searchable database of foreign gifts and contracts reported by U.S. universities. The portal includes only the gifts and contracts reported since June of this year, but will be vital going forward to keep institutions on their toes, and in compliance with the law.  

For some idea of the money involved, here are some stats:  

Top 20 Universities in terms of gift/contract money received from China.

Top 20 Universities in terms of total foreign monies reported. A total of $19.6b from foreign sources by US universities. 

These are the top 20 countries in terms of amounts given as reported by the US Schools. With the exception of England, the top four are countries with terrible human rights records.

DeVos says, her landmark report produced by the Office of the General Counsel gives American taxpayers the insight they deserve about the relationships between taxpayer-supported institutions and foreign actors, who may not have the best interests of students at heart.

How does the money affect the education? What strings are attached?

Two weeks ago, DeVos and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised concerns about US K-12 classrooms and universities being the goal of some Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations. They specifically referenced Confucius Classrooms and Confucius Institutes. The letter stated, “over the last decade, the authoritarian government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has sent curriculum and PRC-trained teachers into hundreds of U.S. K-12 schools through a program called Confucius Classrooms. Styled as a language and culture program, Confucius Classrooms are in reality an important element of the PRC’s global influence campaign, now reaching tens of thousands of U.S. schoolchildren every day.” 

The Departments of State and Education alerted State Commissioners of Education that, “it may come as a surprise to many educators that hundreds of U.S. schools make use of a curriculum developed by an authoritarian government and taught by teachers who are vetted, supplied, and paid by that same government, in partnership with American schools and school districts”. They were concerned that approval from an institution affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education is generally required when filling teaching positions associated with Confucius Classrooms, and that “any arrangement that suppresses the open exchange of ideas in our classrooms or elsewhere is inconsistent with our Constitution and the United States’ longstanding support for freedom of inquiry at home and abroad.” 

They pointed out the global nature of the Confucius Classroom program, and say its authoritarian tendencies have caused concern in other democratic countries too. For example, “in Australia, the state government of New South Wales ended the Confucius Classroom presence in its public schools, replacing it with Chinese language and culture programming funded and managed by Australians. The Canadian province of New Brunswick recently canceled its contract with the Confucius Institute too, over concerns about communist propaganda and freedom of expression”.

Moreover, “the presence of a Confucius Institute, with the Beijing-based funding that comes with it, can provide an institution with financial and other incentives to abstain from criticizing Chinese policies, and may pressure the institution’s faculty to censor themselves.” This is the crux of the argument behind increasing transparency into foreign contracts and gifts now ENFORCED by the Trump administration.

Findings in the Report:

Case Western Reserve University failed to report foreign gifts and contracts for 12 years.  Case Western receives a huge amount of taxpayer dollars, and investigations found that it is entangled with “Chinese Talent Programs” (CTP) and other initiatives, both legal and illegal. They say that “multiple federal agencies, including the National Institute of Health (NIH), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Department of Energy (DOE), have publicly warned about the potential damage to American national security interests presented by Chinese Talent Programs.” 

Stanford University started listing gifts as “anonymous” following its sister institution being opened in Beijing, 2012. Two universities did not accurately disclose foreign contracts which funded their new campuses in Doha, Qatar. Part of this was funded by the Qatari government, who was using its influence to stifle free speech.

Huawei, the technology firm supported by the Chinese Communist Party, had financial relationships with almost all the US universities investigated.  They found contracts building relationships on issues important to national security like nuclear science, robotics, and online cloud services. The Chinese are notorious for stealing and copying ideas or intellectual property.  The report stresses that foreign adversaries are likely targeting specific institutions for their Research & Development and technologies.

More concern was raised in the report about two Chinese companies donating funds to a U.S. university to research crowd surveillance and predictive behavior technology. This was flagged as having the potential to be used by the Chinese government for nefarious purposes.

Another university received a $25,000 sponsorship from Russia’s cyber firm Kaspersky and the Moscow-based Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology to host a cybersecurity conference. The Department of Education points out that the Russian government is infamous for initiatinglargescalehacks against foreign governments and corporate entities and for ignoring international cybersecurity norms.

Finally, the report specifically named Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, in regard to a Saudi donation “empowering the Saudi Arabian government to advance a particular narrative about Islamic society to the West via a legitimate Western institution like Georgetown University.” They said, “Prince Alwaleed’s agreement with Georgetown exemplifies how foreign money can advance a particular country’s worldview within U.S. academic institutions — influence that has often remained undisclosed to American taxpayers.

For further info on this topic, see the documentary “What US universities don’t want you to know about their foreign funding.”

Carol King received a first-class BA (honors) in History and Politics from Stirling University, along with an exceptional commendation for a study on US public opinion and Foreign Policy. She also completed a year of study at University of London before taking up a Graduate Proctor Fellowship at Princeton University. She further completed a MPhil in American Politics at Dundee University. Aspiring to be a writer/commentator on American politics, she now writes for UncoverDC.

Twitter: @CarolKing561

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