Columbia University failed to report a list of foreign donors to the New York State Department of Education — including a $250,000 donation from an unidentified Saudi Arabian — more than five months after it was required to do so by law.
Under a state education law, universities must file to the state Education Department all gifts from foreign governments, persons, and legal entities no later than 30 days after the final day of the fiscal year of the institution.Columbia filed to the department on January 16, missing the deadline by 170 days. "I don't know why we were late in filing. But the important thing is we filed, and we tried to make an effort to meet all regulatory requirements," said a spokeswoman for Columbia, Susan Brown.
It is unclear if Columbia failed to disclose its foreign gifts from previous years. Columbia's acting treasurer and controller, whose office handles foreign gift filings, Richard Ruttenberg, did not return repeated calls.
Scrutiny surrounding foreign donations to universities has heightened since September 11, as fears have grown that governments and people hostile to America are funding programs or professors sympathetic to their views.
"Universities have a fundamental obligation to reveal foreign funding, especially of foreign area studies,"the editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author of "Ivory Towers on Sand," Martin Kramer, said.
On his Web site, martinkramer.org, Mr. Kramer has accused Columbia of concealing funding of the Edward Said chair of Arab studies, which is occupied by Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute and a harsh critic of Israel. Columbia has refused to disclose a list of donors to the chair.
"We all believe we are entitled to know whether a tobacco company has funded a particular academic research project on the health effects of smoking.For exactly the same reason, we are entitled to know whether Chinese or Saudi sources have funded American academic research on China or Saudi Arabia," he said.
Last year, Harvard Divinity School came under pressure to return a $2.5 million donation from the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, after a student discovered that an Arab think tank bearing the president's name promoted anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial propaganda. Harvard put the money on hold after the UAE shut down the center.
A copy of Columbia's filing shows that an unnamed Saudi gave Columbia $250,000 for "social science research" on May 7, 2003. Columbia's disclosure listed funding from 17 other countries. The most money from any one country came from Canada, which gave about $1.5 million through its government, two corporations, and a foundation.
Columbia's delay in filing also points to holes in the Education Department's disclosure laws. Though the law has been on the books for almost 19 years, the Education Department has a record of Columbia's foreign gifts for only the fiscal year ended 2003.
Filings are supposed to be directed to the Education Department's office of college and university evaluation.
The office has records of only three other schools in New York State. It has filings for fiscal year 2003 and 2001 from New York University and 1999 through 2002 from Cornell University. It also has a 2001 disclosure from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
A department official told The New York Sun the office has no way of knowing if universities and colleges are complying with the state law. Section 207-a of the education law does not specify any penalty for noncompliance.
The official said the department does not enforce its law. "Checking up could mean that we would have to check up on every institution every year. And we simply don't do that," the official said. The official said it also possible that the Education Department lost the records during a consolidation of department offices over the last few years. "When those things happen, it is always possible that those things could be misplaced," the official said.
State Senator Kenneth LaValle, chairman of the Education Committee, proposed a bill in 2002 that would have penalized schools up to $5,000 for not disclosing their foreign gifts. Mr. LaValle said in 2002 his office discovered little compliance with the existing law. "While we have a system that tracks foreign contributions to universities and colleges, the measures I propose will ensure compliance with the law and require additional information be disclosed," Mr. LaValle said.
The bill passed the Senate in 2002,but never came up for a vote in the Assembly.