The Education Department opened investigations into Harvard and Yale as part of a continuing review that it says has found U.S. universities failed to report at least $6.5 billion in foreign funding from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia, according to department materials viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The investigations into the Ivy League schools are the latest in a clash between U.S. universities and a coalition of federal officials including law enforcement, research funders such as the National Institutes of Health, and a bipartisan group in Congress that has raised concerns about higher-education institutions’ reliance on foreign money, particularly from China.
Representatives for Harvard and Yale said their universities are working on responses to the Education Department.
The department described higher-education institutions in the U.S., in a document viewed by the Journal, as “multi-billion dollar, multi-national enterprises using opaque foundations, foreign campuses, and other sophisticated legal structures to generate revenue.”
U.S. universities have generally defended their international collaborations and said the Education Department’s reporting requirements remain unclear, which officials deny.
Universities are required to disclose to the Education Department all contracts and gifts from a foreign source that, alone or combined, are worth $250,000 or more in a calendar year. Though the statute is decades old, the department only recently began to vigorously enforce it.
Officials accused schools of actively soliciting money from foreign governments, companies and nationals known to be hostile to the U.S. and potentially in search of opportunities to steal research and “spread propaganda benefitting foreign governments,” according to the document.
In addition, while the department said it has found foreign money generally flows to the country’s richest universities, “such money apparently does not reduce or otherwise offset American students’ tuition costs,” the document said.
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U.S. officials say China uses a variety of means to target academia, including government-funded talent recruitment programs such as the Thousand Talents Plan. The arrest last month of the chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department on federal charges of lying about receiving millions of dollars in Chinese funding through the program while the U.S. shelled out more than $15 million to fund his research group catapulted the issue into the spotlight.
In a letter to Harvard dated Tuesday and posted on the Education Department website, officials cited the recent Justice Department case and asked the school to disclose records of gifts or contracts involving the governments of China, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It also requested records regarding telecommunications giants Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. of China; the Kaspersky Lab and Skolkovo Foundation of Russia; and the Alavi Foundation of Iran, among others.
The Education Department said Yale had failed to disclose at least $375 million in foreign funding after filing no reports from 2014-17, according to a document viewed by the Journal. The department, also in a letter Tuesday to the university, sought records regarding contributions from Saudi Arabia, China and its telecom giants, Peking University’s Yenching Academy, the National University of Singapore, Qatar and others. It also asked the university to detail foreign funding of Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and the new Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs.
If the schools refuse to disclose the information, the Education Department can refer the matter to the Justice Department, which could pursue civil or criminal actions.
The push for funding disclosure is being driven by concerns about foreign efforts to exploit American academia.
Trump administration officials and a bipartisan group of allies in Congress fear China and other foreign rivals are seeking to use donations or collaborative research to gain access to scientific knowledge that would allow them to achieve national strategic goals and narrow their economic or military gaps with the U.S.
Some university officials have dismissed the U.S. government’s broader national security concerns regarding foreign involvement in universities as hyperbolic, or even discriminatory, and said there should be no restrictions on unclassified research meant to be published anyway.
They have also said international collaboration—particularly with China—is essential to advancing scientific discoveries that will benefit humankind.
A February 2019 investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations called foreign government funding of U.S. universities “a black hole” and said it found that nearly 70% failed to properly report funding from Chinese government-backed cultural and language programs known as Confucius Institutes.
Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio ) and Tom Carper (D., Del.), who lead the Senate panel, said in a joint statement the Journal: “The fact that $6.5 billion in foreign gifts to U.S. institutions went unreported until now is shocking and unacceptable…We are pleased that the Department of Education is increasing enforcement efforts and taking a step towards ensuring academic freedom in America.”
Education Department officials in June 2019 launched a series of investigations into universities’ foreign funding. The Harvard and Yale investigations are the department’s seventh and eighth probes following others at schools including Georgetown University, Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Education Department officials said in the document viewed by the Journal that its investigations have prompted public and private universities across the country to come forward since July 2019 to collectively report more than $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed foreign funding.
A spokeswoman for MIT said the university’s reporting of foreign gifts and contracts has been based on “improved processes” since January 2019 and that it is committed to working constructively with federal officials.
Georgetown and Cornell didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Education Department has hit back at university groups that have criticized its recent enforcement drive. For example, in a September 2019 letter addressed to one group that represents more than 200 universities, an official called the universities’ reporting duties “plainly evident.”
He added: “You have asked the Department to ‘work with the higher education community to…balance the interests of transparency and the complicated nature of reporting.’ There is no statutory basis for any such ‘balance.’”