The recent hubbub surrounding pro-Palestinian and anti-Jewish demonstrations at major universities and colleges in the U.S. has again drawn attention to the massive, and unaccounted donations made to those institutions, including by foreign governments and other sources; contributions that have become an increasingly important part of the schools’ budgets.
However, if critics are looking for either Congress or the administration to do anything to improve the almost total lack of transparency regarding such money flow, they are in for a long wait.
Uncle Sam has been asleep at that switch for decades, and the Biden Administration has made clear it has no interest whatsoever in continuing its predecessor’s modest effort to enforce long-standing requirements that institutions of higher learning simply report major foreign monetary donations, especially where Communist China is concerned.
Congress has not done much better. A measure that would have strengthened the federal government’s power to examine large foreign gifts to, and contracts with American universities, was stripped out of a bipartisan bill two years ago that was designed to strengthen American innovation. The reasons for the measure’s demise included opposition by the very same universities and colleges that receive significant money from foreign donors, including China, which reportedly had donated more than $400 million in the two years before the measure was deep-sixed in 2021.
Adding to the demise of the extremely modest reporting requirement in the “innovation” legislation, was a jurisdictional turf dispute between two Senate committees with concurrent jurisdiction over the measure.
The reality is that since 1986, when Section 117 was added to the 1965 Higher Education Act, colleges and universities have been required to report foreign gifts and contracts. It was not until 2019, however, that the Department of Education, under the leadership of Secretary Betsy DeVos, got around to actually ordering the schools to start doing what they were supposed to have been doing for more than three decades.
As President Trump’s Education Secretary, DeVos issued a report in October 2020 stating that some 95% of colleges and universities had for years simply ignored the foreign gift reporting requirement. The report also noted that successive administrations and Congresses had failed completely in their responsibilities to enforce the law’s reporting requirement.
The DeVos report threw cold water on the excuse given by the universities for their failure to comply with the federal law – that the reporting requirement was unclear and burdensome. It explained that the schools “manage to track every cent owed and paid by their students” and already report extensively to the IRS on their financial undertakings.
The 2020 report made clear that enforcement of the reporting requirements for institutions of higher learning was not to “police” or stop foreign contributions to American universities, but simply to bring a necessary degree of transparency to the public and to “alert” other government agencies with jurisdiction over aspects of such “entanglements.”
DeVos’ concerns that significant financial “gifts” to U.S. universities come with strings attached and can indeed influence both the education missions of the institutions, as well as potentially harming our national security, are not misplaced. As noted in the report, and elsewhere, the torrent of money flowing into our schools in recent years especially from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and China, has increased dramatically. A 2011 FBI report focused on just such security concerns, but even that did not awake the Justice Department from its slumber.
In the three years since DeVos issued her report and at least began to demand our universities and colleges report major foreign gifts and donations, the problem has only worsened.
Not only has Biden’s Education Department deliberately stopped enforcing the long-standing law requiring schools to report foreign contributions, but has halted the initiative by Trump to crack down on Chinese espionage more generally, his “China Initiative.” Biden’s Justice Department concluded that Trump’s efforts to identify and limit China’s growing influence in American academia and businesses, was or might be perceived as “racist.” The absurdity of this conclusion has led to a number of important national security prosecutions against Chinese influencers in our country being dropped completely.
So long as our own government continues to turn a blind eye to foreign monetary influences in major U.S. universities and colleges, foreign governments will continue their efforts to influence educational policies and also to steal important technology from us.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.