WASHINGTON – The Training Office has begun cracking down on universities that fall short to disclose donations and contracts from overseas governments, hoping to provide far more scrutiny to funding which has washed into your United States’ larger training institutions from international locations typically at odds with American guidelines but keen to faucet the country’s brightest minds.
The department announced this summertime that it was investigating whether or not Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell and Rutgers universities were fully complying with a federal law that requires colleges to report all gifts and contracts from overseas sources that exceed $250,000. In letters sent to the universities in July, division officials wrote that they were seeking records dating as significantly back as nine years, outlining agreements, communication and financial transactions with entities and governments in nations around the world such as China, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Schools were expected this month to turn around thousands of records that could reveal millions of dollars in international aid for campus operations overseas, academic research, and other cultural and academic partnerships.
Division officials have not said that they believe anything is amiss, but in communication with the schools, they have cited “security, academic freedom and other concerns associated with foreign funding.”
“Our biggest concern is transparency,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the office. “We expect colleges and universities to provide full, accurate and transparent information when reporting overseas gifts and contracts. Our national security depends on it, and it’s required by law. Our investigations make it clear that the department expects institutions to take their reporting obligations seriously.”
The crackdown comes amid increased scrutiny of foreign influence in recent years, be it Russian meddling in United States elections, Chinese economic espionage or outsider efforts to sway American think tanks.
The Justice Office recently introduced that it would escalate its crackdown on illegal international influence operations in the United States, particularly potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires lobbyists and others to reveal any work they do to further the interests of international governments. Last week, the Justice Department introduced that federal officers had indicted a researcher at the University of Kansas for working full time for a Chinese university while also being paid through United States government contracts to conduct research.
The Education Division has faced pressure in recent months to take a larger role in protecting against undue international influence by enforcing laws that require colleges and universities to be more transparent about their overseas relationships. Last year, in a Senate Intelligence hearing examining Russian influence in American elections, the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray pointed to some “na?veté on the part of the academic sector” about how vulnerable campuses were to national security and counterintelligence risks posed by China. He acknowledged specific concerns about Confucius Institutes, cultural and language programs that are funded and largely operated by Beijing – and hosted by nearly 100 American campuses and schools.
In February, an investigation by a Senate subcommittee into Confucius Institutes found widespread economical underreporting by colleges and universities that host them on campuses.
“Foreign government spending on U.S. schools is effectively a black hole,” the report concluded.
The same month, Training Division officials revealed in congressional testimony that fewer than 3 percent of 3,700 larger education establishments that receive overseas funding reported receiving international gifts or contracts exceeding $250,000.
The investigations are the latest example of how colleges and universities have found themselves in the cross fire of the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration and American foreign policy. International enrollment has declined, visa delays have increased, and foreign students and staff members have been denied entry. This week, a palestinian student headed to class at Harvard said he was denied entry in the country after a Customs and Border protection agent demanded to see his phone and objected to the social media activity of his friends. Amid pressure from lawmakers and an escalating trade war with China, a number of colleges – including Texas A&M – have shuttered their Confucius Institutes.
But the most recent charge by the Training Division has rattled those in greater training. The investigations, disclosed in the Federal Register, were the first time in recent history that the division had publicly announced that it absolutely was scrutinizing specific schools. Those notices detailed extensive information – including tax records and wire transfers, communications between professors and foreign governments, and information about overseas campuses – that the section wanted.
The section is also seeking comprehensive records on China and Qatar. The department’s notices repeatedly cite high-profile organizations, such as the Qatar Foundation for Education and learning, Science and Community Development, which helps fund American satellite campuses in the country; the Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as “Hanban,” which runs Confucius Institutes; and Huawei, the largest telecommunications equipment producer in the world, which the Trump administration deems a national security risk, and which Secretary of State Mike pompeo called “an instrument of the Chinese government.”
The Education Division investigations have caused friction between the department and several higher education groups, which have urged it to clarify the rules around an obscure provision, called Section 117, in the Higher Schooling Act. They say that university relationships with international entities have become much more complex and voluminous since the section was added three decades ago. In the absence of any formal regulation from the department, schools have reported based on their best interpretations of the law, the groups say.
“This is what happens when you pass a law that nobody looks at ever again,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 college and university presidents and increased education executives.
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Seven bigger education and learning groups argued that it had been “patently unfair to enforce requirements that do not exist in writing.” Certain reporting requirements were vague – such as irrespective of whether the $250,000 threshold is met with an individual gift, or an aggregate amount, and whether the definition of an “institution” includes foundations that may route money to the universities, the groups said.
“It’s not like schools are trying to hide something here, they want to do the right thing,” Mr. Hartle said. “They’re now being investigated without any regulatory framework. The Office of Instruction is basically saying, ‘The law means what we say it means when we investigate you.’”
Dory Devlin, a spokeswoman for Rutgers, whose contracts with and gifts from China, Qatar and Russia dating to 2010 are under review, said that it had “been in direct talks with the section, have received clarification on the rules, and we recognize the need to quickly come into compliance with the reporting regulations.”
Meghan Dubyak, a spokeswoman for Georgetown, which was asked to produce records related to its relationships with China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Russia, said the university had used “a careful, methodical process” to catalog “gifts from or contracts with a overseas source.” She said the university had “worked with the Department of Education to provide responsive information demonstrating that it has reported all required information.”
Since 2012, colleges and universities have reported additional than $10 billion in foreign assistance, according to a database of overseas gifts maintained by the Education Department. In the 2017-18 school year, 91 institutions reported receiving extra than $1.3 billion in gifts and contracts from international governmental and nongovernmental sources in 105 nations, with China ranking as the highest donor, according to the department.
But the department said schools at times have clearly omitted documentation. Texas A&M University’s reporting, for instance, should have included Texas A&M University at Qatar, which receives millions in funding from the Qatar foundation.
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Several colleges under investigation praised their partnerships with the foundation. Cornell, whose investigation also includes its relationships with China, said that its Qatar campus had “trained and graduated hundreds of young physicians from the Middle East, Asia and many other nations around the world (including the U.S.).”
But last year, the Qatar foundation raised a red flag when it responded to a public records request regarding Texas A&M by suing to protect data on grants and donations, arguing that it was confidential commercial information “tantamount to trade secrets.”
In a statement, the Qatar foundation said that it sought only to protect specific allocations and payments of contracts and research grants, which is allowable under Texas law, not the details of its activities and projects with institutions. The organization said that its efforts to protect competitive information was never meant “to affect the disclosures that universities are required to make under U.S. law,” and that it has requested a meeting with the Education and learning Department to reinforce that position.
The organization said its better instruction initiative, called Schooling City, “has made it an important beacon for academic freedom in the region, while supporting Qatar’s vision of long-term economic sustainability,” and “always been conducted in the interests of openness, transparency, and mutual benefit.”
Michael K. Young, the president of Texas A&M, said the university had been transparent and proud of its relationship with the Qatar foundation, which helps fund its Qatar campus and has brought in about $50 million in research funding, which he says is “a vital part of the university.” He said that there was no interference by the government or the foundation, and that students receive a “totally Western training just as if they were sitting here in Texas.”
Mr. Young also said the university’s campus was transcending boundaries: Men and women take classes together, and it enrolls a bigger percentage of women in engineering program than its Texas program.
“We’re excited and proud of that campus,” Mr. Young said. “It’s wrapped into the core values of our institution.”