Reed Rubinstein, senior counselor at the America First Legal Foundation (AFL), spoke to a May 8th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about AFL's investigation of foreign investment in U.S. colleges and universities. When he served as general counsel at the Department of Education (ED) under the Trump administration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made the issue a priority. The following is a summary of Rubinstein's comments:
Instead of regarding foreign-funded universities as schools, it is more accurate to describe them as "hedge funds with a small educational operation attached." If U.S. universities receive foreign funding, whether or not they are Ivy League schools, they "don't really conceptually consider themselves as American institutions in any meaningful sense of the word." Operationally, they are "multi-national corporations" looking for money, much of it overseas.
A "bipartisan problem," foreign funding poured in from the People's Republic of China (PRC) following the ED's decision under the Bush administration allowing universities to "anonymize the identity of foreign donors." Over sixty percent of the foreign money to U.S. universities comes from China, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar. AFL found that undisclosed foreign funding to U.S. universities ranged from $15 to $17 billion.
Foreign influence reached as far as the Penn Biden Center, where in 2016 emails from Hunter Biden's laptop discuss "wealth creation" options for the Biden family. In 2015, then-University of Pennsylvania (Penn) President Amy Gutmann met with high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials in Beijing. Afterwards, "Chinese money began flowing" to the center and then Vice President Joe Biden received approximately $1 million for four visits to the campus. Biden's is not a unique case where such "influence pedaling operations" afford foreign donors "access to U.S. decision makers."
There are "compelling" indicators that foreign funded centers have "a strong correlation between what is taught" and who is paying for them. During the early 1970s and late 1980s, Congress enacted the "foreign reporting requirement" in response to the "petro dollars" pouring into such Middle Eastern studies programs as those at Harvard and Yale. Middle East countries sought to influence America's "political attitudes and behavior" regarding Israel and the region. After 9/11, a Saudi prince established the Alwaleed Center at Georgetown University. The center has "nothing to do with academics" and is no more than a "propaganda operation" set up to "access" and influence Western diplomats and journalists.
In the case of China, college administrators show a "sensitivity" regarding any critique of the CCP once their institutions receive CCP funding, yet they remain silent about Uyghur concentration camps in western China. In 2018, Senate investigators of Beijing-run Confucius Institutes, which operate at many U.S. universities as cultural and language centers, found that they are actually "soft power" mechanisms functioning as CCP "propaganda centers." The CCP is primarily interested in U.S. universities because of America's "robust" scientific research programs there — much of it federally funded.
Foreign funding of American universities affects far more than just the curricula. University administrators who receive foreign funding from the Gulf or CCP rarely speak negatively of the donor countries. On the contrary, "at approximately the same time the president of Yale was issuing a statement, this is the spring of 2020, claiming that what happened to George Floyd was an indictment of each and every American, he was yucking it up with Xi Jinping in China, knowing that Chinese are running full on concentration camps and engaging in all sorts of horrific human rights abuses."
Documents regarding contracts and gifts to Texas A&M University, which specializes in the nuclear and petroleum engineering fields, reveal that it received $460 million from the Qatar Foundation. The university's branch in Qatar admits students from across the Middle East, raising "national security implications" for America. Over the past three decades, most Middle East studies programs have become "hyper-political" with an anti-Israel and antisemitic point of view. AFL investigated the Duke University/University of North Carolina's Consortium for Middle East Studies for its "horrific" antisemitic programming. As the university receives Title VI federal funds for foreign language instruction, the most effective way to push back is to starve it of funding and "cut the money off entirely."
Universities such as Harvard, Yale, Penn, Texas, and Michigan have the wherewithal to hire professionals who establish "intermediary organizations" that make it hard to track where money goes. Cornell University has two foundations — one in the U.S. and one in Britain — where Gulf Arabs bank. The ED partnered with other government agencies such as the Office of Foreign Asset Control, the Department of Treasury, and the Department of Justice's National Security Division, which have the "resources and expertise" to track the flow of foreign money. Unfortunately, the ED is not set up to take on the "complex" challenge of analyzing, processing, and mining financial records because it is "functionally a check writing agency [that] is almost 100 percent captured by the institutions it's supposed to regulate."
AFL's investigative letters on the ED website list only a portion of the organization's initiated projects because the Biden administration shut many of them down. The current law on the books is sufficient to tackle the problem, provided there is a "federal government that's committed to enforcing" the more than "ample" congressional oversight statutes. Congress is looking into ways to improve the "reporting statute" by moving "programmatic enforcement responsibility" to those agencies that can see the process through.
Although universities try to justify their lack of scrutiny by claiming that scientific knowledge grows when it is shared, the lack of scrutiny of foreign donors who use America's "openness for nefarious purposes" and undermine our country is inexcusable. Professors who use their affiliation with a university to engage in outside consulting are legally obligated to report "private income," but the CCP will target professors in a particular discipline and incentivize them to go to China with offers of labs, graduate students and millions of dollars for their research.
State governments have a role to play in thwarting foreign funding. In particular, state universities, with their "massive bureaucracies and ... bloated salaries," are taxpayer subsidized through federal student loans "to the tune of $1.6 trillion." State universities run their operations like multinational businesses and "ought to be subject to state legislative oversight" despite calling themselves "nonprofits." "It's, frankly, outrageous to ask a policeman, a plumber, or a store clerk to subsidize these institutions with their massive bureaucracies and, frankly, bloated salaries to say nothing of the students who take out massive loans, and then expect other people to pay them back. "
To stop foreign influence over U.S. universities, the federal government must first do its job. Next, state governments need to prioritize investigations into state universities. Finally, parents, students, and taxpayers need to "dis-enthrall" themselves from the idealized images universities portray to dazzled consumers. The "so-called 'elite universities'" that evoke fond memories serve a function, but now prioritize "profit-making" above all, with many "overtly hostile" to the American ideal.
The problem has reached the point that if free speech and freedom of religion are a parent's and student's priorities, they will avoid these "elite" universities. The "hypocrisy," cynicism and irresponsibility of university administrators who must know that "what they represent ... and what they are are not the same thing," are producing "generational consequences" that are playing out on American campuses today. Treat these institutions like the businesses that they are. Hold universities and regulators accountable.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.