WASHINGTON — A federal crackdown on universities that fail to disclose donations and contracts from foreign governments has ensnared Harvard and Yale, the Education Department said on Wednesday.
In letters to the schools on Tuesday, the department wrote that it was investigating whether the two Ivy League universities had failed to report at least $375 million from countries including China, Iran, Russia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The department is seeking extensive records related to grants, gifts, contracts and overseas programming.
In a letter to Harvard, the department said it was "aware of information suggesting Harvard University lacks appropriate institutional controls," and as a result, the university's reports to Washington may not include or fully reflect "all reportable gifts" and contracts "from or with foreign sources."
In the case of Yale, officials wrote that although the university had "a considerable presence abroad, represented by sites in dozens of cities and countries," it appeared to have "failed to report a single foreign source gift or contract in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017."
The Education Department zeroed in on records related to two Chinese telecommunications companies, Huawei and ZTE, that the Trump administration has labeled security risks or sanctions violators. The Russian computer security firm Kaspersky Lab has also fallen under suspicion. The letters also named the Skolkovo Foundation of Russia, the Iran-linked Alavi Foundation and the Qatar National Research Fund, among other organizations.
The inquiry was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
"This is about transparency," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "If colleges and universities are accepting foreign money and gifts, their students, donors and taxpayers deserve to know how much and from whom. Moreover, it's what the law requires."
Jonathan Swain, a Harvard spokesman, confirmed that the university was informed on Tuesday of the records request.
"We're reviewing it and beginning to start to compile our response to the Department of Education, which is going to take some time," he said.
Karen Peart, the director of Yale's media relations, also confirmed that the university had received the request on Tuesday.
"We are reviewing the request and preparing to respond to it," she said in a written statement.
The letter to Harvard appears to have been prompted in part by an investigation into Charles M. Lieber, the chairman of the university's chemistry department, who was charged with lying to federal officials about grants he had received from China. The Education Department request asks for all records regarding Dr. Lieber's Chinese benefactors, the Thousand Talents recruitment program and the Wuhan University of Technology.
Dr. Lieber was arrested on Jan. 28 and released early this month on $1 million bond.
But the inquiry is also part of a broad crackdown that began last summer and was designed to force more scrutiny on funding for U.S. higher education institutions from countries that are often at odds with American policies but eager to tap the country's brightest minds.
The Education Department said Wednesday that since July, its enforcement efforts have prompted the reporting of about $6.5 billion in undisclosed foreign gifts, grants and contracts. Ten schools — Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Cornell, M.I.T., the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Yale — declared approximately $3.6 billion in previously unreported foreign gifts.
The department announced in June that it was investigating whether Cornell, Georgetown, Rutgers and Texas A&M were fully complying with a federal law that required colleges to report all gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceeded $250,000. In letters sent to the universities in July, department officials wrote that they were seeking records dating as far back as nine years, outlining agreements, communication and financial transactions with entities and governments in countries such as China, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The federal government demanded thousands of records that could reveal millions of dollars in foreign aid for campus operations overseas, academic research and other cultural and academic partnerships.
The investigations have caused friction between the Education Department and several higher education groups, which have urged the department to clarify the rules around an obscure provision, called Section 117, in the Higher Education Act. The provision requires colleges to report all gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceed $250,000.
Education Department officials revealed last February in congressional testimony that fewer than 3 percent of 3,700 higher education institutions that receive foreign funding reported receiving foreign gifts or contracts exceeding $250,000.
"Unfortunately, the more we dig, the more we find that too many are underreporting or not reporting at all," Ms. DeVos said. "We will continue to hold colleges and universities accountable and work with them to ensure their reporting is full, accurate and transparent, as required by the law."