PSU's Open Door

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 7/17/23

Partnerships with foreign countries are nothing new in American higher education. Neither is the risk they can pose to national security and academic freedom.

Back in April, I wrote to you about a few of academe’s partnerships with foreign entities. Hopefully, we’re all familiar with Confucius Institutes (CIs) at this point, whose numbers have been dwindling since we began exposing them in 2017 for what they truly are—“little more than Beijing-run influence operations backed by funding and prestige.” But some colleges and universities aren’t quite ready to give up their Chinese funding. Portland State University (PSU) may have closed its CI in January 2021, but it hasn’t actually severed its ties with China.

Ian Oxnevad of the National Association of Scholars sounded the alarm about PSU’s continued ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in an article for Minding the Campus last week. After closing its CI, PSU re-established ties with the CCP by opening the Portland Institute to facilitate collaboration with the Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications (NJUPT)—a Chinese university with deep ties to the nation’s military. But this isn’t PSU’s only continued partnership with the CCP. Oxnevad explains:

[PSU’s] Maseeh College also maintains close ties with two other Chinese universities that have their own connections to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Maseeh College’s international programs page boasts of the college’s partnerships with NJUPT, Changchun University of Technology (CCUT), and Jilin Jianzhu University (JLJU).

Moreover, PSU received a $2 million dollar grant from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2021 to “address cybersecurity issues” and help secure “smart grid infrastructure” on the West Coast. Due to these partnerships and to PSU’s designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Research by the NSA, Oxnevad believes that PSU’s ties with China “pose an immediate risk to national security.”

PSU isn’t the only institution maintaining close ties to the CCP. That’s why Republican lawmakers are pushing for more investigations into higher ed’s partnerships with foreign entities and the funding they provide—and rightly so. 

First, Republicans have called into question the Department of Education’s (ED) failure to “properly address influence on college campuses.” Under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, colleges and universities are required to report gifts or contracts of $250,000 or more per year. Unsurprisingly, the ED hasn’t enforced this closely. Many investigations into the enforcement of foreign gifts and contracts still remain open after President Biden took office.

Second, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 (H.R.2670) passed in the House and is on its way to the Senate. At first glance, the bill seems to crack down on the remaining CIs and CCP influence in higher education. But H.R.2670 has been amended to include a loophole (see page 583 of the bill for more details) allowing for colleges and universities with CIs to receive continued federal funding so long as they meet “certain requirements.”

Finally, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Jim Banks (IN-03) introduced the No Federal Funding for CCP Spying and Persuasion in Education Settings (SPIES) Act last month, which is still making its way through the Senate. If the bill passes, it could help close H.R.2670’s loophole (i.e., the Confucius Institute Waiver Program).

But why does this all matter? American academia’s continued partnerships with the CCP (or any other authoritarian state) shouldn’t be swept under the rug just because there are laws in place to “monitor” these relationships. It’s clear that where there is a will, there is a way to work around these restrictions. We cannot blindly assume that America’s colleges and universities will prioritize our national security and academic freedom. More must be done.

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 Gaël Gaborel - OrbisTerrae on Unsplash

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