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US steps up pressure on universities to reveal foreign funding

SOURCE: Philip Lange/Shutterstock
Texas A&M University at the Education City Doha.

Amid growing concern of threats to national security, there is increasing attention being paid to the foreign ties of universities in the United States. With the Trump administration suspecting institutions of not being transparent when it comes to overseas contracts, the US Department of Education has opened its first investigations into the matter.

Georgetown University and Texas A&M University have been the first to be singled out in what is likely to be a broader push to monitor international money flowing to American colleges, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The two institutions have been ordered to provide a full report of their foreign gifts and contracts to the federal government. The orders were given in letters to the universities that were obtained by AP.

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The letters explained that both Georgetown and Texas A&M had failed to report contracts and donations from foreign sources totaling US$250,000 or more, as is required by federal law. Previous filings from the universities “may not fully capture” that information, according to the letters.

The Department is seeking financial records on dealings across the world, including with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and specific companies in those nations.

Both universities have branches in Qatar, but have failed to report funding related to those branches in past filings, the Department said. Qatar is a hub for US colleges to expand overseas campus and is likely to become a focal point for investigation in other university investigations.

Texas A&M University at the Education City Doha. Source: Philip Lange/Shutterstock

Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, that have been at the centre of a national security and trade spat between the US and Chinese governments, have been singled out in the investigation. They have collaborations with universities across the world and are big donors to American colleges, providing innovation centres and campus-wide technologies.

Georgetown and Texas A&M have both been ordered to disclose funding from the Chinese tech giants.

Georgetown is also being asked to detail money it received from any sources in Saudi Arabia or Russia, including Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cybersecurity company.

The investigation is the latest move to shine more light on the collaborations and partnerships universities have with questionable overseas entities.

China has been a particular focus as the foreign influence efforts of China’s Communist Party (CCP) has intensified in recent years, prompting defence and security departments to take a closer look at the myriad ways Beijing allegedly tries to infiltrate societies of friend and foe alike.

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In February, a bipartisan panel in Congress urged US colleges to cut ties with the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language program funded by a branch of the Chinese government. Some critics say it is a threat to U.S. national security and academic freedom.

The same panel found that 70 percent of universities receiving US$250,000 or more from China to operate Confucius Institutes had failed to report the funding, and that the Education Department failed to provide adequate oversight.

Both Georgetown and Texas A&M have issued statements saying they were reviewing the letter from the Education Department and are planning to cooperate, saying they take their reporting obligations “very seriously.”