A Giving Tree's Unknown Clauses


Three weeks ago, NAS President Peter Wood sent a letter to George Mason University President Angel Cabrera, urging him to include the university's Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute in his investigation of potentially compromising gifts. After NAS obtained copies of one gift agreement between George Mason University and the Chinese government, Dr. Wood sent another letter to President Cabrera, reiterating our concerns regarding the Confucius Institute and urging President Cabrera to hire an external investigator.


May 18, 2018


President Ángel Cabrera

George Mason University
5100 Alan and Sally Merten Hall
Ffx, MSN: 3A1

Fairfax, VA 22030

Dear President Cabrera,


On May 4th, I mailed to you a letter urging you to scrutinize the George Mason University Confucius Institute as part of your review of all gift agreements. I write now to reiterate that call, to commend your stated commitment to transparency and intellectual freedom, and to urge you to hire an external agency to conduct the review of all gift agreements.

First, I reiterate my call for George Mason University to scrutinize its Confucius Institute as part of its investigation of donor influence. As noted in my previous letter, Confucius Institutes have been known to undermine academic freedom and permit the Chinese government influence over what colleges and universities teach about China. These problems have not been limited to the text of gift agreements in support of Confucius Institutes, but have been pervasive in the entire set-up of Confucius Institutes.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act request, my staff and I have reviewed one of the agreements that George Mason University signed with the Confucius Institute Headquarters of China. We are waiting for the university to release the additional documents we requested, but already we see cause for concern that deserves further investigation.

For instance, the 2008 agreement with the Confucius Institute Headquarters requires that the university “must accept the assessment of the Headquarters on the teaching quality” of the Confucius Institute. It also provides for the Confucius Institute Headquarters to select and “send” to the university teachers to be appointed to the Confucius Institute. These stipulations go far beyond anything the Charles Koch Foundation asked from George Mason University. And in this case, George Mason University accepted these stipulations, as far as we can tell, without demur.

The Confucius Institute courses, although not typically offered for credit at George Mason University, appear under the university brand and are part of the academic experiences of numerous George Mason University students. These students deserve an academic experience that is subject to the same principles of intellectual freedom that apply to the rest of the university.

Second, I want to express my support for your commitment to transparency and intellectual freedom, as enunciated in your article, “How George Mason Will Take the Controversy Out of Its Gift Agreements,” published this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Providing transparency, within the limits of donors’ legal privacy, is important for giving the public a means of holding George Mason University accountable to its mission. George Mason University must live up to the principle you invoked in your article: “As a general principle, however, I agree wholeheartedly that we shall provide as much information as possible.”

Likewise, I commend your stated commitment to intellectual freedom: “The idea that we ought to apply an ideological litmus test to determine who may or may not donate to the university would run counter to the tenets of academic freedom.” George Mason University must not engage in a witch hunt to weed out donors whose viewpoints are out of favor with the administration.

Third, I urge you to hire an external investigator to review all gift agreements. I am alarmed to learn from your Chronicle article that you intend to form a committee to review existing gift agreements that support faculty positions. In order for this review to have credibility, it must be undertaken by an external reviewer, preferably by a law firm that specializes in the areas of donor intent and higher education philanthropy.

Any internal committee will necessarily be compromised by George Mason University’s institutional self-interest. In order to enjoy the confidence of the public and to establish the credibility of the committee, the investigation must be handled by an external party.



Peter W. Wood

Image: George Mason School of Public Policy by Ron Cogswell // CC BY 

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