As President Biden takes office, America faces a new chapter in the China challenge, a major part of which involves protecting American higher education.
China’s Thousand Talents Plan has ensnared thousands of American scholars and researchers, including former Harvard University professor and Chemistry Chair Charles Lieber, indicted in June by the Justice Department for lying about China’s $50,000 monthly payments to him in exchange for research expertise.
Confucius Institutes — campus centers run by the Chinese government — spread propaganda and serve as nodes in China’s soft power campaign. What’s more, China’s People’s Liberation Army has sent some 2,500 military officers undercover as graduate students in Western universities, including in the United States.
While Biden hasn’t commented directly on Confucius Institutes, China Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda mouthpiece, is already calling for him to begin “correcting” the Trump administration’s “fearmongering of the Confucius Institute.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s pick for United Nations ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, spent a large portion of her confirmation hearing attempting to backpedal her paid speech at a Confucius Institute in 2019. Thomas-Greenfield had spoken optimistically of “Big Brother China” investing in Africa and modeling for African nations the path from poverty to an industrialized economy.
With American higher education vulnerable to foreign interference, one fundamentally necessary policy is transparency. We need transparency from colleges and universities about any gifts they receive from foreign powers.
Transparency provides the sunlight that discourages colleges and universities from entering shady foreign deals in the first place. It affords the data that makes more targeted policies possible. It helps watchdogs, like my organization, the National Association of Scholars, distinguish benign from potentially pernicious foreign gifts. It permits the public to see what foreign money is flowing into their local college or alma mater and make informed decisions about where to send their kids, where to donate, or whether to enroll.
Since the 1980s, federal law has required colleges and universities to report gifts and contracts with foreign sources when they total $250,000 or more in a single calendar year. But this legal provision — called “Section 117” for its place in the Higher Education Act — was never enforced. As a result, colleges and universities racked up foreign benefactors, frequently behind closed doors in hush-hush deals. They routinely failed to file the legally required disclosures, sometimes going to elaborate lengths to avoid public scrutiny.
Two years ago, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos launched investigations into non-compliant universities — the first time any secretary had enforced Section 117 since President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1986. Colleges and universities began to back-file old disclosure forms, with unreported sums totaling more than $6.5 billion.
The sheer scale of these numbers is staggering, amounting to $6.5 billion flowing to American institutions of higher education from foreigners. The influence and dependency produced by such sums show why transparency is so important.
Unlike many regulatory requirements, transparency requirements pose few burdens on the subject but offer great benefits for the public. Filing disclosures is not technologically difficult for colleges and universities, sophisticated entities with professional finance and accounting offices that successfully solicit and track contributions from thousands of sources with relative ease.
Last year the U.S. Department of Education further simplified the process by launching a new online portal to receive such reports. The department even found that institutions it investigated “produced data at a very high level of granularity,” including retrieving records of individual gifts totaling $100 or less, according to its most recent report issued in November.
Yet higher education has fought foreign gift transparency at every step. For years colleges simply refused to file disclosure reports. Once the Trump administration began enforcing the law, colleges and universities declared it unfair.
In a recent letter to Biden outlining its policy wish list, the American Council on Education — the strongest arm of the DC higher education lobby, as well as some three dozen co-signers — targeted Section 117 reporting requirements, calling for a “halt” in the new enforcement efforts. What are they hiding?
Back-pedaling on foreign gift transparency would be a mistake. It is imperative that state legislatures enact state-level transparency laws. Boards of regents should initiate public reports on any foreign gifts or contracts received by universities. Parents, alumni, students, and taxpayers should demand transparency of colleges and universities.
In addition to maintaining and building upon the current transparency guidelines, at a minimum, the Biden administration must:
- Retain and build on the new information collection portal introduced by DeVos to ensure that the public has access to the names of all foreign sources and donors.
- Complete the rulemaking procedure, currently underway, to allow the Department of Education to collect copies of contracts that colleges and universities sign with foreign sources. These documents are indispensable for verifying the information colleges and universities self-report and will provide meaningful transparency.
- Continue the investigations into non-compliant universities. The Department of Education opened investigations into more than a dozen colleges and universities, several of which refused to comply, clearly hoping that a change in administration would buy them a free pass. Completing these investigations will uphold the integrity of the law and signal that transparency is taken seriously.
- Lower the disclosure threshold. Current law sets the threshold at $250,000 from a single source during a single calendar year, but that is far too high. Compromising gifts can come in smaller increments.
Confucius Institutes, for example, which are busy re-naming and re-branding themselves since being exposed, typically come with around $100,000 in annual funding from the Chinese government. Several bills have been introduced to lower or eliminate this disclosure threshold. Individual states should adopt their own similar disclosure laws.
- Establish policies that help wean colleges off of foreign funding — such as drop-offs in funding for colleges and universities that receive large amounts of funding from authoritarian sources. Elsewhere I’ve proposed reducing federal funding to institutions that accept more than $250,000 from Chinese sources in a calendar year, and endorsed state-level legislation to prohibit funding to public universities with Confucius Institutes.
Now is the time to demand accountability in America’s higher education institutions. Our national security depends on it.