US counts $6.5 billion in ‘hidden’ foreign funding of academia

Universities reject Trump tally as hypocritical political stunt and call for clearer guidance

October 21, 2020
A woman takes a stash of money from the top shelf of a cupboard
Source: iStock

A Trump administration crackdown has led US universities to admit to having received at least $6.5 billion (£5 billion) in previously undisclosed funding from foreign sources, federal officials said.

The Education Department announced the tally and called it evidence of US institutions letting their lust for wealth blind them to national security threats, rising antisemitism and the well-being of their own students.

“The threat is real,” said the US secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, citing academic relationships involving China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

US university leaders rejected the administration’s complaints as misleading and overblown, saying Ms DeVos had pursued the investigation while declining to make clear what she wanted campuses to produce or do differently.

“America’s colleges and universities would have been better served,” said Terry Hartle, the senior vice-president for government relations at the American Council on Education, “if, rather than host a political event focused on China two weeks before the election, the department had elected to answer some of the questions that we have been asking for the last four years.”

The Trump administration opened the campaign more than a year ago, saying the federal government had long failed to enforce a decades-old law requiring US colleges to disclose any foreign relationships worth $250,000 or more.

Issuing a report on its efforts since then to force compliance, Ms DeVos led a parade of administration officials and allies in an online event that stressed the seriousness of the matter.

They included Yueming Zhou, a student at the University of Washington who was jailed for several months in China in 2017 after using an unauthorised internet connection to do her homework while visiting her family. She accused the university of failing to help her, being more concerned about preserving its Chinese partnerships.

“My university’s fear of losing foreign funding illustrates a theme across US universities and colleges – foreign donors can hold power over US universities and influence its actions,” Ms Zhou told the Education Department briefing.

The University of Washington called the accusation “outrageous”. The university had fully supported Ms Zhou, had pressed the US State Department to help win her release, and had worked to give her a smooth transition back to classes upon her release, said a university spokesman.

In fact, the spokesman recalled, it was the Education Department’s own billing company that refused to adjust Ms Zhou’s student loans to help her cope with the added costs resulting from her lost time.

Trump administration officials also singled out Texas A&M University for being unaware of the extent of Chinese government funding among its faculty. But a spokeswoman for the Texas A&M system said the institution was found to have a relatively small amount of under-reported foreign funding, and noted that the institution has won a Pentagon award for “excellence in counterintelligence” in two of the past three years.

US university leaders have generally accepted the idea that the governments of China and other countries have been trying to steal research information with economic and military value. But they point out that most research activity in an academic setting is meant to be shared, and warn that the administration’s broadly aggressive treatment of international scholars could harm the US overall.

Both Dr Hartle’s group, which is the main US higher education alliance, and the Association of American Universities, which represents the nation’s top research institutions, described the administration as uninterested in finding cooperative solutions.

“At one point,” Dr Hartle said, “the Education Department even deleted compliance guidance that had been on the department’s website since 2004 – the only information source that schools had available to them.”

Pedro Ribeiro, the AAU’s vice-president for communications, added: “For the department to now assert that institutions are not in compliance is dishonest and disingenuous.”

An Education Department spokesman said the $6.5 billion figure covered several years’ worth of data involving US universities. The spokesman said he had no estimate of how that amount compared to what universities already were reporting.

The Education Department event also included Andrew Lelling, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, who cited his high-profile prosecution of Charles Lieber, the world-renowned Harvard University nanoscientist charged with failing to disclose his financial ties to China.

Harvard, however, has been cooperating with Mr Lelling’s prosecution, and the AAU has cited the Lieber case as helpful to the cause of raising awareness of Chinese espionage.

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