An Education Department investigation revealed universities failed to report more than a billion dollars in foreign funding, which officials believe is only a sliver of the unreported overseas donations flowing onto campuses.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told the Washington Examiner she had launched a preliminary investigation into six universities but already turned up an alarming $1.3 billion in foreign funding over the past seven years from nations such as China, Russia, and Qatar that the schools hadn't told the federal government about, despite their legal requirement to do so.
"It is already a reporting requirement for schools to report all foreign contributions. From my perspective, it's a simple requirement: Report all foreign money you get." DeVos said. "We're going to continue to raise the flag on this, and we think, just given what we've seen scratching the surface, there's a lot there that has gone undetected."
DeVos said foreign funding is an administration-wide national security concern.
"We're raising this issue and letting schools know that we're going to be paying attention in ways that hasn't happened before," she said.
In a seven-page letter to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Education Department said the six investigations, still in their early stages, have revealed what acting general counsel Reed Rubinstein called "disturbing facts." Rubinstein did not name the universities associated with each finding, citing the department's general policy not to comment on the status or results of current investigations. But the universities under review are Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell, Rutgers, the University of Maryland, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
China's secretive influence on campus figured most prominently.
Senior Columnist Fred Barnes on the expanded Washington Examiner magazine
"One university received research funding from a Chinese multinational conglomerate to develop new algorithms and advance biometric security techniques for crowd surveillance capabilities," Rubinstein said.
China has developed advanced surveillance technology, often with international funding from U.S. companies. The country has drawn attention for its capabilities during recent high-profile incidents such as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and surveillance of the country's Muslim minority population, especially ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province, where 1 million or more have been sent to reeducation camps.
The Education Department investigation also revealed five of the six universities had or have contacts with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company that the U.S. intelligence community deemed a national security threat, the FCC banned from federal broadband subsidies, and the Justice Department is prosecuting for allegedly evading sanctions, stealing trade secrets, and obstructing justice.
The investigation also showed one university had multiple contracts with the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, and one university also received gifts from a foundation "suspected of acting as a propaganda and influence front" for the Chinese government. Another promotes a Thousand Talents Program, which the FBI deems a Chinese form of "nontraditional espionage," through a Chinese company with close ties to China's government.
And China wasn't the only country of concern. The investigation showed one university had a relationship with Kaspersky Lab, a Russia-based cybersecurity company whose products the Trump administration has banned government agencies from using amid concerns it worked with Russian intelligence. The attorney also cited court filings that show Qatari donations are made strategically to advance Qatari interests and that secrecy is often part of the agreement in receiving those funds.
"Apparently, similar provisions are often part of foreign money agreements," Rubinstein wrote. "Unfortunately, the Department cannot confirm whether donors and recipients use such provisions to justify nonreporting and nondisclosure of foreign source donations to the U.S. government and the American taxpayers."
The investigation also revealed "one university accepted funds from the arts of a foreign government to create an 'academic' center expressly for the dissemination of propaganda and to conduct other 'soft power' information activities" without specifying the country.
"The evidence we have reviewed to date tracks congressional findings that American colleges and universes have provided unprecedented access to foreign governments, corporations, and persons without adequate oversight," Rubinstein told the senators.
Sens. Rob Portman and Tom Carper, who lead the subcommittee, released a 109-page bipartisan report in November concluding foreign countries "seek to exploit America's openness to advance their own national interests" and "the most aggressive of them has been China." It revealed China used its Thousand Talents Program over the past two decades to exploit access to U.S. research labs and academic institutions. "China unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain," they said, criticizing the federal government's failure to combat the problem.
"These failures continue to undermine the integrity of the American research enterprise and endanger our national security," the senators on the subcommittee said.
The subcommittee released an initial report in February warning about foreign funding and Chinese influence both in K-12 classrooms and university campuses nationwide. The report concluded that "the Department of Education does not conduct regular oversight of U.S. schools' compliance with required foreign gift reporting." In response, the Education Department sent letters in May to the roughly 3,700 universities, reminding them of their "important obligations" under the law.
The department then pushed for further details from six universities this summer. The Federal Register shows the Department of Education sent letters to Georgetown and Texas A&M in June, Cornell and Rutgers in July, and the University of Maryland and MIT in September, expressing concern that reporting done by the universities "may not fully capture" all their foreign funding.