After the mass terrorist atrocity along the Israel/Gaza border on October 7, we had the horrific sight of radicals on American campuses siding with Hamas. For example, some student organizations have overtly engaged in clear victim-blaming. One Cornell professor even overtly celebrated Hamas murders. This kind of extremism has caused some businesses to run for the hills; they've withdrawn job offers and threatened to never hire the students involved. Some prominent foundations and wealthy, influential individuals, including former Utah governor and ambassador Jon Huntsman, have canceled their donations to colleges and universities. Former Harvard president and Clinton- and Obama-administration veteran Larry Summers declared himself "sickened" as well as "disillusioned and alienated" by how his former university handled this issue.
It is nearly impossible to know all the factors that play a role in this sort of radicalization and pro-terrorist sentiment on campus, alongside the administrators' sympathy and acquiescence. But one thing is a simple fact: American universities receive massive sums of money from countries that openly support Hamas and terrorism more broadly, and we know very little about what these countries are getting for their money. We need transparency about these transactions. Fortunately, just days after the attack, the House Education and Workforce Committee rolled out legislation, months in formation, to help address this problem.
Make no mistake, this is a big issue. The tiny, oil- and natural-gas-rich country of Qatar is one of the most profligate Hamas-supporting nations in the world. Additionally, according to publicly available data, it is the top foreign donor to American universities. Its donations between 2011 and 2016 — more than $1 billion — top even the donations of close allies such as the United Kingdom (No. 2), as well as China (No. 4). Saudi Arabia in recent years has made significant strides in minimizing funds going to radical and terrorist groups, though it has in the past funded Hamas and other terrorists; it now clocks in at No. 3.
Yet one can only guess at the true extent of foreign influence in American universities. Current law requires universities to disclose foreign donations and contracts, but we know, based on a Department of Education investigation completed in 2020, that there has been massive under-compliance with the law. About $6.5 billion donated by foreign sources went unreported, including significant additional funds from Qatar. Even this huge figure assumes that the Department of Education uncovered all the unreported funding, which seems unlikely.
Such noncompliance stems not from inadvertent mistakes, but from a culture that refuses to take the law seriously. And why would it? No one before former education secretary Betsy DeVos had ever attempted to enforce the law, and the current penalty for noncompliance merely requires paying the government's attorneys' fees. In essence, compliance with the law is voluntary.
It gets worse. The current law is not only functionally unenforceable but requires almost nothing in terms of disclosure. A university, in theory, must report how much money it has received from any given country, but it is required to say little else. Are there any conditions on the funds, such as hiring a specific professor sympathetic to the foreign regime? Who controls the funds? Is the person in charge a terrorist sympathizer or a responsible administrator? Are donations intended to fund the mathematics department, to which few would object, or a Middle East studies center that embraces radicalism? The law requires answers to none of these questions.
Congress has been looking into this issue for some time. In 2019, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations focused on China's Confucius Institutes, and recent congressional hearings looked at Chinese influence-peddling as well. There is now well-documented evidence of China's illegal efforts to infiltrate universities for everything from propaganda to industrial espionage.
Such funds may be a cause of recipient universities engaging in highly questionable behavior with terrorist-friendly regimes. We know, for example, that Northwestern University has a campus in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and has received hundreds of millions in foreign donations. One of its instructors, Khaled Hroub, appeared as a guest on NPR's On Point show and gave credence to the demonstrably false conspiracy theory that Hamas did not kill any women or children in its most recent attacks in southern Israel. NPR pulled that hour of programming from national distribution, saying, "Today's episode of 'On Point' did not meet our editorial standards."
Additionally, Northwestern has an active internship program with the Al Jazeera TV network, which was wholly owned by the emir of Qatar before he offloaded his shares to a shell company owned by a relative. Congress has noted that Al Jazeera is constantly on the wrong side of laws regulating the registration of foreign agents and is among the most significant vectors of radicalization and terrorist propaganda anywhere. In one broadcast, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Qatar, thanked a radical cleric for his "support of martyrdom operations," alluding to the fact that the cleric had given religious cover for suicide bombings.
The Defending Education Transparency and Ending Rogue Regimes Engaging in Nefarious Transactions (DETERRENT) Act — introduced by Representative Michelle Steel (R., Calif.) and co-sponsored by Education and Workforce Committee chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.) and a dozen others, including Higher Education Subcommittee chairman Burgess Owens (R., Utah) — would create an enforcement mechanism by imposing significant fines for noncompliance with foreign-funding-transparency laws. It would also mandate more disclosure about what any gift requires of universities and create additional methods for preventing espionage and ensuring that specific university staff are held responsible for compliance. The bill would make it much easier for journalists, watchdog groups, and law enforcement to correct and prevent bad behavior.
To be sure, the DETERRENT Act wouldn't fix every problem related to foreign radical influence in American higher ed. Countries including Iran can't give directly, but they can send former regime officials to work as academics or bureaucrats in American schools. One such is Princeton's Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who, prior to coming to the U.S. under mysterious circumstances, was a career-long Iranian-state operative. Another is Professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati of Oberlin College, a former Iranian U.N. ambassador who was complicit in covering up Iranian massacres. (Admirably, the Education and Workforce Committee has begun investigating him.) The DETERRENT Act also wouldn't address the problem of schools' receiving donations from American citizens with demonstrable close ties to hostile foreign regimes.
But the DETERRENT Act is a fantastic start. And if the past two weeks have not been a wake-up call for why this kind of law is necessary, nothing will be.
Clifford Smith (@CliffSmithZBRDZ) is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project.