Scrutiny of China's Donations to American Universities is Long Overdue

David Randall

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by RealClearEducation on March 18, 2020.

Sue Cunningham, president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), has just published an essay in Inside Higher Ed that argues against the recent initiatives by the United States government to require greater transparency about the gifts that foreign donors provide to American universities.

Cunningham praises foreign donors for their public-spirited gifts of approximately $50 billion dollars to American universities. She argues that, “At a time when our educational institutions are more reliant than ever on philanthropic support, it is crucial that the U.S. Department of Education and Congress do not take actions that ultimately discourage anyone who wants to make a difference by making legitimate charitable gifts to educational institutions.”

Cunningham does not directly address the reason why the government has launched this crackdown — because foreign governments have used these gifts to acquire unaccountable, undisclosed, and corrupting influence over America’s universities. The National Association of Scholars has detailed the effects on higher education of China’s Confucius Institutes, and China’s Thousand Talents Program has also come under scrutiny in institutions ranging from Harvard to West Virginia University for its use as a means to purloin America’s scientific research. The National Association of Scholars applauds the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, as the minimum effective means by which to discover what foreign powers have provided funding for which American universities.

We do not mean to cast aspersions on the truly public-spirited foreign donors who have provided money for American universities. But no such donor will be discouraged by a requirement that his gift, and its conditions, be disclosed to the American government. The only donors who will be discouraged are those with questionable intent.

Nor do we think such transparency should only go in one direction. China has every right to require transparency of American gifts to its higher education sector. So too do Hungary, Israel, and every nation. Every country has the right to make sure that its higher education system serves its own national interests. Mutual transparency regarding foreign philanthropy seems a reasonable model for a world composed of independent states, for whom friendliness to the outside world need not require naiveté about the possibility that foreign actors will seek to exercise influence by means of their gifts.

Moreover, Cunningham’s enthusiasm for philanthropy, full stop, gives pause. As Christopher Caldwell ably points out in The Age of Entitlement, liberal plutocrats increasingly use philanthropy as a means to substitute elite “governance” for popular government. (Jim Sleeper’s liberal polemic against plutocrats such as private equity titan Stephen Schwarzman is half-right — he just fails to see how much plutocracy underwrites liberalism.)

Plutocratic funding of our universities has transformed them with a toxic blend of illiberalism, progressive ideology, and managerialism. Our academic administrators can scarcely detect the corrupting influence of (for example) Chinese funding because they have already the Chinese model of authoritarian bureaucracy.

Our federal and state legislators may respond by choosing to fund our universities less generously than higher education bureaucrats desire. They may require those bureaucrats to say precisely how much of our birthright they have sold for a mess of foreign pottage. Our legislators represent the people, and the people possess the prerogative to tax and spend as they see fit.

Philanthropic civil society is one of America’s fairest features, but republican self-government is its heart. We are no republic if we let the plutocrats and the bureaucrats manage our colleges for us, as they have done, to America’s detriment, for far too long.

David Randall is Director of Research for the National Association of Scholars.

Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash

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