Give Me That Old-Time Infiltration

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 6/19

It’s easy to tune out of discussions about foreign funding in higher education. A few million from China here, a few million from Russia there—what’s the big deal? American universities receive funding from all different types of sources, and they often seem set on doing their own thing no matter what. What difference do a few foreign funding sources really make? 

The answer, of course, is that foreign dollars equal foreign influence. International entities do not choose to donate to American universities simply out of the kindness of their heart, nor do they possess some special fondness for the American educational system that drives them to write those big checks. They donate to particular universities and programs because they believe that those institutions have the ability to advance their interests—and that their big-dollar donations will guarantee that they do so. Foreign gifts always come with strings attached; the only question is where they lead. 

The universities receiving foreign funding know what’s being asked of them—and they know that it compromises their public mission. That’s why many universities do everything they can to evade foreign gift disclosure requirements and to keep the American public in the dark about their ties to foreign entities. University administrators want to keep the money flowing, whatever the cost to their research integrity or to American national security.

Just this week, the National Association of Scholars published two new examples of the ways that universities manage to evade disclosure requirements and maintain lucrative ties to foreign governments, despite the threat they pose to American national interests. 

In an article published by the Wall Street Journal, NAS Senior Research Associate Neetu Arnold analyzes publicly available documents that reveal Texas A&M failed to disclose “more than $100 million in research funds originating in Russia and Qatar.” University administrators claim that they were not obligated to report the funds because the research was facilitated by the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), even though TEES is designated as part of the Texas A&M university system by Texas education law. TEES, which “focuses on the commercialization of engineering and technology research on cybersecurity, nuclear nonproliferation, and artificial intelligence,” received funds from Russian entities for projects on hydrocarbon reservoir modeling and from the Qatari government for projects aimed at advancing Qatari technical capabilities in areas such as cybersecurity and oil-recovery. 

Arnold concludes the article by urging the Biden administration to protect America’s national interests, not least by enforcing the foreign gift disclosure requirements that are already on the books. She writes: 

Foreign funding disclosure is necessary to protect U.S. national security and to promote transparency, especially in security-relevant research areas like those at TEES. Americans should know if foreign countries—and which ones—are vying for influence at top U.S. research institutions. The Biden administration’s lax enforcement of Section 117 continues to send a message to universities that foreign funding disclosure doesn’t matter.

But we shouldn’t be so naive as to assume that merely enforcing the existing transparency laws will bring an end to foreign influence in American higher education. Universities will take advantage of every loophole in the law to avoid disclosing the extent to which their programs have been shaped by foreign interests.

Our second newly published example reveals just how difficult it is to shut down foreign actors once they have taken root in American universities. This morning, NAS released a report titled After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education, which follows up on our groundbreaking 2017 report exposing China’s use of Confucius Institutes to exert influence on American college campuses. After Confucius Institutes reveals that, even after pressure from state and federal agencies and legislatures led to the closure of 104 of the 118 existing Confucius Institutes in America, 64 of those universities have reopened a Confucius Institute-like program under a different name or have otherwise maintained close relationships with their Chinese sponsors. 

The report authors conclude that the best way to counteract this subterfuge is to add teeth to the existing laws combating foreign influence in higher education—but also to institute new laws designed to make foreign funding less attractive in the first place. 

Even so, no new law can single-handedly bring an end to universities’ evasion efforts, nor to foreign entities’ attempts to infiltrate American higher education. Fighting back against foreign influence is a long-term project that requires careful attention and dogged determination. But America’s universities—and our national security—are worth the fight.

Until next week.

P. S. Our launch event celebrating the release of After Confucius Institutes took place just a few hours ago. If you missed it, you can watch the recording online here.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Christian Lue, Public Domain

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