American universities are awash in foreign money, with at least $12 billion in gifts and contracts reported from 2013 through June 2019. Research by Congress and the Department of Education (DoE) demonstrates that no one knows exactly how much foreign support academe has received or to what ends it has been used. Acting in concert, the Biden administration and Congress could end this influx of dark money by requiring universities to be transparent in their reporting of any foreign support.
Instead, Joe Biden has just ensured that Americans will remain in the dark regarding a major source of those funds: China.
In one of his first national security-related acts, Biden withdrew a Trump-era rule requiring universities to disclose their terms of agreements with Confucius Institutes, which act as Chinese Communist Party outposts on American campuses. His action restores the corrupt status quo ante in which universities accept billions in foreign aid under rules that, even when enforced, fail to reveal key details.
This bodes ill for ongoing bipartisan congressional efforts to bring much-needed transparency to academe’s reporting of foreign donations. Decades of willful neglect by politicians and bureaucrats of both parties allowed universities to rake in billions from abroad with literally no accountability. Nations hostile to American interests leverage gifts and contracts to support espionage against America’s scientific and technological knowhow, spy on nationals and regime opponents, and propagandize American students and others, often through ostensibly innocuous foreign language and cultural programs.
Decades of willful neglect by politicians and bureaucrats of both parties allowed universities to rake in billions from abroad with literally no accountability.
Current legislation, even if followed, is inadequate to keep taxpayers informed about universities’ relations with foreign nations or protect U.S. national security from spying. Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 requires universities to report gifts and contracts of $250,000 or more. Critically, there are currently no requirements to divulge the ultimate beneficiaries of donations. Will foreign gifts support above-board research projects and scholarships for rigorous studies, or influence operations run by politicized or corrupt faculty peddling disinformation or seeking financial gain? Currently, there’s no way to know unless a university chooses to disclose far more than required. Congress should therefore mandate that universities disclose the recipient(s) of any gift/contract — individuals, departments, programs or centers, publications — and the exact purposes for which they’re intended.
But reform won’t matter if rules aren’t enforced. Under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, DoE clarified and, following decades of neglect, implemented reporting regulations. Its seminal October 2020 report, “International Compliance with Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965” (“Compliance”), revealed that for 34 years Congress and DoE failed to apply reporting rules. The level of noncompliance was shocking: “approximately 60 of the institutions who filed a Section 117 disclosure report through the Department’s new reporting portal are ‘new filers,’ meaning that between 1986 and June 2020 these institutions had not previously submitted any reports.”
Enforcing the rules “catalyzed disclosure of $6.5 billion in previously unreported foreign money” — over $1 billion higher than Harvard’s annual operating budget. Between June 2019 and January 15, 2021, DoE launched investigations of 19 universities — including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford — for failure to properly report foreign gifts and contracts.
This culture of defiance harms America’s national security in myriad ways. “Compliance” made official what many have argued for years: “there is very real reason for concern that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.” Misuse of funds from China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar demonstrate why greater oversight and increased transparency should be top priorities.
China’s quest to displace America as the preeminent world power is advanced by its practice of spycraft as statecraft, devised to shorten its path to superiority by stealing scientific and technical knowledge from abroad. Academe provides a target-rich environment for achieving its goals. To that end, Bloomberg News reports China has given American universities over $1 billion since 2013. The need for scrutiny of such gifts was made clear by the arrest of Chinese-sponsored scientists at Stanford, Harvard, Emory, and Boston University, among others, for lying about their connections to the Chinese government.
Confucius Institutes at American universities masquerade as language and cultural resources, but they are in fact Chinese-sponsored propaganda and espionage outposts for Beijing. DoE has called them “tools of malign PRC influence and dissemination of [Chinese Communist Party] propaganda on U.S. campuses,” and notes they can “provide an institution with financial and other incentives to abstain from criticizing PRC policies” and “pressure the institution’s faculty to censor themselves.” Following their exposure, 55 Confucius Institutes at U.S. universities closed or are near closure, but an equal number remain operational.
Influence peddling from the Middle East also has deep roots. “Compliance” notes that “Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until today, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and non-state actors targeted U.S. institutions and Middle Eastern study centers as platforms for the global advancement of certain Islamic religious and political beliefs.” For example, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s $20 million gift to Georgetown University in 2005 made the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding an Islamist island in the heart of the nation’s capital. “Compliance” states that 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 as required by Section 117.”
Saudi Arabia’s bitter enemy (and Iran’s ally) Qatar made some $1.8 billion in known donations to American universities between 2013 — 2019, making it the No. 1 source of foreign funds. Although DoE redacted the names of some universities in “Compliance,” the magnitude of Qatar’s previously unreported support is staggering. To cite but one instance, the Wall Street Journal identified Cornell as the school that “failed to document its institution in Qatar in previous reports to the department” — a concealment of $760 million.
Qatari money is often funneled through the Qatari Foundation (QF), which is controlled by the ruling Al-Thani family. “Compliance” states that QF prevented a “Lebanese band with an openly gay band leader” from speaking on Northwestern University’s Doha campus. This episode “illustrates the power of foreign agents to censor or silence speech and quell academic freedom,” according to “Compliance.”
Like the Saudis, the Qataris are getting what they want from Georgetown, one of six American universities with satellite campuses in Doha’s “Education City.” The dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar is Ahmad Dallal, a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, both U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. The pro-BDS Dallal attributed 9/11 in part to America’s support for Israel and, before the Iraq war began, signed a letter warning that Israel could use it as a pretext for the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians.
American universities’ lack of scruples in their pursuit and use of foreign gifts and contracts and their eagerness to ignore or fudge reporting requirements endanger U.S. national security and demonstrate the need for increased federal vigilance. Bipartisan congressional support for greater transparency in reporting and penalties for failing to comply should proceed apace, especially in light of Biden’s decision to weaken regulations for ongoing Chinese influence operations in Confucius Institutes. If the administration chooses to defend dark money in higher education, it should be forced to state its case to the American people.
Winfield Myers is the director of academic affairs at the Middle East Forum and director of its Campus Watch project.