Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education alleges it unearthed massive, previously unreported financial ties between foreign entities and American colleges, which it says undermine research efforts and national security.  

  • The agency released a partially redacted report Tuesday summarizing parts of its investigations into a dozen colleges’ foreign connections. The department said these institutions collectively did not disclose roughly $6.5 billion in foreign money as they should have under federal law.

  • Over the last year or so the department has cracked down on colleges’ involvement with foreign organizations, which is expected to continue.

Dive Insight:

The White House and Education Department have intensified scrutiny of colleges’ relationships with other countries and foreign organizations, in particular beefing up enforcement of the federal law that requires colleges to tell the department about donations and contracts from outside the U.S. that amount to $250,000 or more in a year. 

A Senate subcommittee last year reported that many institutions didn’t disclose payments meeting that threshold from Hanban, an educational arm of the Chinese government. The department subsequently instituted new reporting standards and an online portal for submitting the information. 

It has also been investigating 12 colleges — including Georgetown, Cornell, Harvard and Yale universities for potentially not reporting funds from foreign sources.

In conjunction with Tuesday’s report, federal officials held an event during which they pledged to ensure colleges were open about their foreign gifts and deals. 

This lack of transparency would jeopardize those schools’ academic freedom and research integrity, they said.

“Universities need to have that integrity to compete for government funding,” Bucky Methfessel, senior counsel for information and technology in the department’s Office of the General Counsel, said during the meeting.

Higher ed groups, however, have complained the department’s new reporting mandates push the bounds of federal law, Section 117 of the Higher Education Act. And they said officials have declined to answer clarifying questions on the matter. 

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, repeated this criticism Tuesday, calling the investigations “punitive.”The administration repeatedly refused to meet with colleges to discuss compliance, he said, adding that schools want to follow federal rules.

The department could have used the time spent on the event “to answer some of the questions that we have been asking for the last four years,” Hartle said.

The report mostly conceals the names of colleges, their foreign connections and their reporting processes. However, it notes many did not adequately disclose foreign funding. Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, which the department began probing in May, failed to share any foreign gifts or contracts for more than 12 years, it states. The university declined to comment.

Nearly all of the investigated colleges had at least one contract with or donation from Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant that the Trump administration has been at odds with, the report notes.

It also states that the Education Department isn’t accusing institutions of criminal activity, nor does it mean it would refer them to the Justice Department. However, the report notes that the Education Department plans to work with the Justice Department “regarding potential enforcement against specific institutions.

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