A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 4/17/23

American colleges and universities welcome many international students with open arms each year. And with these students come major funding opportunities. But given the notable presence of authoritarian countries like China, Qatar, Russia, and more within American higher education, it’s worth a closer look into the reach of their funding and influence. Do we know the full implications of our academic partnerships with foreign entities?

In the 2019–2020 academic year, American colleges and universities opened their doors to roughly 1 million foreign students, with over half coming from China and India. Foreign students only make up about 5% of the total college student population, but account for roughly 28% of tuition revenue overall. At first glance, this partnership seems mutually beneficial. But as Ian Oxnevad, senior fellow for foreign affairs and security studies at the National Association of Scholars (NAS), writes in a recent article for The Hill, “foreign influence and funding in higher education is deeper and more nefarious than most imagine.”

Let’s begin with a specific example. China first made its mark on American higher education in 2004 through the founding of Confucius Institutes (CIs). Through extensive research and reporting from 2017 to the present, the NAS has exposed CIs as “little more than Beijing-run influence operations backed by funding and prestige.”

It's worth noting that since our efforts began in earnest to expose CIs across the nation, 108 CIs have closed or are in the process of closing (we’ve been keeping track). But sadly, the decline of CIs hasn’t fixed the problem of Chinese influence in American higher education. CIs have either been rebranded, replaced by a similar program (like Portland State University has done), or disbanded, with American institutions maintaining close ties to their previous Confucius Institute partner.

CIs and similar China-funded higher ed programs do not accomplish what they purport to do … and therein lies the rub. They are an extension of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that teaches a narrow and biased perspective of Chinese history—one that glazes over the atrocities and human rights abuses of China’s political history. Not only this, but CIs also exert soft power in American colleges and universities, which exploits higher educations’ reservoir of innovation for the benefit of the CCP. Oxnevad puts it succinctly, “foreign-funded language programs, study centers and technology partnerships in science and engineering not only allow foreign states to access technologies vital to developing the American economy, but also endanger national security.” It’s not a surprise that CIs and other proxy programs are rearing their ugly heads at top research institutions—specifically ones that partner with the U.S. government for the research and creation of critical military technology. Just like New York’s Alfred University, which “recently partnered with the U.S. Army to help develop technology related to hypersonic missiles. Perhaps not coincidentally, Alfred University also has a Confucius Institute.” And this occurrence is by no means unique.

While college and university budgets have come to depend on the $12 billion in tuition paid by Chinese students, they have also come to rely on the millions of dollars in gifts they receive from China each year, which has direct ties to the CCP. Though this level of funding is a boon for colleges and universities, it’s tied to a foreign nation known for its coercive methods and ulterior motives. This partnership ultimately benefits China, not our colleges and universities, nor our nation as a whole.

The proliferation of seemingly innocent (yet actually detrimental) foreign influence in American higher education is aided by a lacking enforcement of foreign gift disclosure laws. This month, Congress asked the Department of Education to restart enforcement of foreign gift disclosure laws. Many colleges and universities have largely ignored the laws that demand foreign gifts and contracts exceeding $250,000 per year be disclosed—an issue we’ve been tracking for years. Over $6.5 billion in undisclosed gifts were uncovered in October 2020, both Georgetown University and Texas A&M came under investigation in 2019, and Texas A&M was exposed again in 2022 for attempting to hide foreign gifts, among other instances.

Unchecked, foreign gifts and contracts will lead to further corruption, damage to higher ed’s research integrity, and threats to U.S. national security. American colleges and universities must be held accountable. Their institutional integrity and our security depend on it.

Don’t be fooled by this wolf in sheep’s clothing. Stay vigilant.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by JD8 on Adobe Stock

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