Foreign Gift Disclosure Dies in Darkness

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 10/10

Amid the constant influx of American education’s COVID clashes, CRT skirmishes, and cancel culture commotion, it can be easy to put on the blinders and follow the hot stories wherever they may lead. And, indeed, it is important to do so. We must pay special attention to those issues dominating education discourse, not in a contrived effort to remain “relevant,” but because they really do matter. But we must never allow this to distract from the other, equally important topics that happen to be on the education media’s backburner.

One such topic these days, it seems, is foreign funding in higher education. This vital issue isn’t making a lot of big headlines (at least in the United States), and yet there are many developments which we ought not ignore. Recent examples include: 

  • Erstwhile University of Miami Professor Mohammad Faghihi and his family “facing federal charges related to purchasing genetic sequencing equipment from U.S. manufacturers and illegally shipping it to Iran,” while also receiving “numerous wire transfers from accounts in Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China, Singapore, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates” along with “several National Institute of Health grants.” Pop quiz: Did Professor Faghihi inform the U.S. government of his foreign financial ties? You guessed it: of course not!
  • Colorado Representative Ken Buck’s plea for American colleges and universities to close their Confucius Institutes (CIs), which he correctly calls “an avenue for the Chinese government to spread propaganda on U.S. campuses.” Rep. Buck is the latest in a small but growing contingent of legislators continuing the push to close CIs. (Click here to access the National Association of Scholars’ up-to-date tracker listing all remaining American CIs, as well as those that have closed.)
  • The French Military School Strategic Research Institute’s recognition that as CIs have come under attack, they have rebranded. In other words, it’s still important that we focus on closing CIs, but the work doesn’t stop there. As NAS’s own Rachelle Peterson points out, “while many universities have dropped these centers, the change may have been cosmetic.” This is the focus of Peterson’s latest NAS research project, “When Confucius Institutes Close,” conducted alongside Research Associate Flora Yan.

These three stories are a great reminder that foreign funding in American higher ed remains a ripe topic for discussion and reform, even if the national education media has set it aside to fry bigger fish. That’s why I want to bring to your attention the recent work of Daniel Currell, visiting fellow at the National Security Institute and former deputy under secretary and senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Education during the Trump administration. Currell is a stalwart advocate for financial transparency in higher education and has penned a handy six-part series of articles titled “Foreign Money in U.S. Universities” for NSI’s blog, The SCIF.

Throughout the series, Currell tracks the recent history of this issue, zooming in on certain key players such as China (and, in particular, Huawei), Russia, and Qatar, among others. He also details possible avenues for reform, both legislative and otherwise. For example,

[…] Congress should fix the law to clarify and expand what must be disclosed, but the Department of Education (ED) can and should audit data being disclosed, too. Institutions need to disclose money from Chinese SOEs [State-Owned Enterprises] and Chinese government agencies as being from a foreign government, and they need to provide the same treatment to money coming from agents of a foreign government. ED staff should also be reading this data closely and ensuring other agencies are seeing it. ED should then follow up with schools when the disclosures seem incomplete or wrong, and schools should correct disclosure errors or affirm the data’s accuracy.

We should start with the glaring noncompliance already rampant within the existing system: “many of the errors are so obvious that a few summer interns at ED could review the disclosures and go back to the relevant universities to request affirmations or updates in areas that look wrong.” Most importantly, ED and American legislators must get serious about foreign funding and get to work

Here’s to a truly open and transparent higher education system.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Sahand Hoseini, Public Domain

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