House Leaders Take Aim at Dark Money in Higher Ed

David Acevedo

Editor's Note: This article was originally published under the name "John David," the former pseudonym of NAS Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To learn more about why David no longer writes under this name, click here.

CounterCurrent: Week of 8/9

Undisclosed foreign funding in American higher education is one of the most pervasive threats to the academy and national security. Every day, geopolitical adversaries pour untold amounts of secret money into U.S. colleges and universities to buy influence and exert soft power from within. 

While China is likely the most flagrant offender in this area, it is far from alone. Other nations—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to name a few—play the dark money game with American colleges and universities. There’s no telling how many foreign individuals, organizations, and governments are meddling in U.S. higher education as we speak. Foreign gift disclosure reform is desperately needed.

Fortunately, it appears that change is coming from both the executive and legislative branches. Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education have recently begun investigating noncompliant universities and enforcing the foreign gift disclosure regulations on the books more seriously, rules exercised with leniency until now. These investigations have already uncovered over $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed funds since July, 2019

Meanwhile, both houses of Congress are busy creating legislation to target various parts of the foreign gift web, the latest being the CONFUCIUS Act, a bipartisan Senate bill that would require Confucius Institutes to protect academic freedom in its programs and cede complete managerial authority to their host institutions.

House Republicans are the latest to take a stand against the widespread financial opacity in American higher education. In this week’s featured article, Kery Murakami of Inside Higher Ed reports on the recent action taken by Representatives James Comer (R-KY), Jim Jordan, (R-OH), and Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who have sent letters to leaders at six universities: the University of Chicago, the University of Delaware, Harvard, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale.

In the letters, the three representatives ask for “All unredacted records of gifts from, contracts or agreements with, and restricted or conditional gifts from or contacts with foreign sources, for the period January 1, 2015, to the present, including but not limited to”: China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia. Murakami reports:

While they are hardly alone in having relationships with Chinese businesses, a Republican aide said lawmakers focused on the six universities because they received large amounts from anonymous foreign sources. In a letter to Harvard president Lawrence Bacow, they noted the university has declared 31 anonymous gifts or contracts totaling $101 million since 2015, from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia.

The representatives expected to receive the requested information by yesterday, though Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education says that “it is unrealistic to expect them to comply.” He also claims that the letters are an “unwarranted partisan fishing expedition aimed solely at schools in blue states in an election year.”

These letters build off of previous work by the House Oversight Committee and are part of a large-scale effort “to further understand the effects of adversarial foreign direct investment in the U.S. higher education system,” supplementing and, in some cases, working in conjunction with the Department of Education’s ongoing investigations. They write:

Through the efforts of the Department [of Education], the [Oversight] Committee learned that many countries use donation agreements or contracts ... to leverage their money into some type of benefit, or quid pro quo. … For example, Qatar deems all its donations to recipients to be “strategic” and “trade secrets” and precludes the recipient from disclosing the amount or purpose of the donation. … some recipients alter their decision making based on the donations received. [emphasis added]

The Department of Education and Congress are rightly concerned by the current state of affairs, and the National Association of Scholars urges them to continue pursuing financial transparency through extensive investigations and heavy penalties for non-compliant institutions. Additionally, we urge them to make long overdue changes to current foreign gift disclosure law, including lowering the disclosure threshold from the present $250,000 to $50,000. When it comes to the unbridled amounts of secret, foreign money in American higher education, we say enough is enough.

Read our recent reporting on Confucius Institutes and foreign gift disclosures here.

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

The above United States Congress photographs of James Comer, Jim Jordan, and Virginia Foxx are in the public domain. The images have been edited and combined by NAS.

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