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Gulf donors drawn into controversy over foreign influence at US campuses

Six US universities are under investigation for allegedly failing to report $1.3 billion in gifts and contracts from Middle Eastern and other foreign sources.
BOSTON, USA - MARCH 25: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY  MANDATORY CREDIT - "BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI KINGDOM COUNCIL / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (C) visits Innovation and Technology fair at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts, USA on March 25, 2018. (Photo by Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Multimillion-dollar donations to US universities by Arab Gulf monarchies and other wealthy Middle East donors are coming under scrutiny as Congress and the Donald Trump administration crack down on Chinese and other foreign influence operations across the country.

Since mid-June, the Department of Education has announced six investigations into some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning for allegedly failing to properly disclose more than $1.3 billion in foreign funding over the past seven years. All six receive or have received funding from Middle Eastern sources, among them the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi.

In a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s investigations panel shared with Al-Monitor, the department urges Congress to step up its own investigations. The letter mentions allegations that Qatari donations to US colleges and universities “are made strategically to advance Qatari interests” while its recipients “agree to keep the purposes and amounts of such donations secret.”

Principal Deputy General Counsel Reed Rubinstein wrote to panel Chairman Rob Portman, R-Ohio, on Nov. 27: “Congress may wish to scrutinize more closely the goals and methods of foreign money sources, the significant efforts and corporate mechanisms some colleges and universities take and use to solicit and channel foreign money, the influence and effect foreign money may have on research and curricula, and the extent to which foreign money might provide the means for access to sensitive US government research and/or create insider threats.” 

Simultaneously, the department is weighing what appear to be the first formal regulations on how to interpret the 1965 Higher Education Act’s requirement that universities disclose foreign contracts and gifts worth $250,000 or more annually. As part of its request for public comment, the department argues that “the plain language and congressional purpose” of Section 117 of the law is for the institutions to “disclose fully all foreign money to them, and for this information to be made readily available to the public.”

“Congress has determined American students, parents and taxpayers are entitled to know when institutions of higher education accept gifts from and enter into contracts with foreign sources,” Department of Education spokeswoman Angela Morabito told Al-Monitor. “Disclosure and transparency support national security, protect academic freedom and promote the integrity of educational curricula. The law is clear, and compliance is both expected and required.” 

The push comes as Congress has increased its oversight of Chinese influence operations amid concerns that Beijing’s ubiquitous Confucius Institutes have stifled debate on US campuses around delicate topics, including Tibet and the Tiananmen massacre. Last year, Republicans in the House and Senate introduced legislation to reduce the reporting threshold for foreign donations to just $50,000.

“If we want there to be free speech and honest debate on our college campuses, then we need more transparency around other countries’ efforts to push their interests on US soil,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., insisted at the time.

And this February, a Senate report took the Department of Education to task, noting that “foreign government spending on US schools is effectively a black hole, as there is a lack of reporting detailing the various sources of foreign government funding.” The department appears to agree, writing in a September regulatory filing that it estimates that 70% of all institutions that receive gifts or contracts from foreign sources are not filing the proper disclosures.

“We are, as you might expect, very concerned by this apparently widespread noncompliance,” Morabito told Al-Monitor. “The department will continue to enforce the law.”

Dozens of universities have objected to the proposed regulatory changes, arguing that they are overbroad and would disrupt the balance between academic freedom and national security achieved by the original law.

“The information request's reference to all foreign gifts and contracts suggests that the department expects institutions to report individual tuition payments from foreign students and possibly payments by foreign patients for medical care,” the University of Rochester argued in its public comments. “This reporting would not only be incredibly time consuming to make, but it would likely violate the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), each of which require student or patient consent, respectively, to the release of the information.”

The Department of Education’s notifications to the six universities indicate that the department is focusing in particular on foreign gifts and contracts with entities in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Cornell University, Rutgers University, the University of Maryland and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were all put on notice. 

The letter to MIT, which was released late last month, stands out for its focus on specific Saudi funders, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s MiSK Foundation. The crown prince notably visited MIT’s campus in March 2018. 

In addition to MiSK, the Department of Education is demanding records on the school’s relationships with the Saudi government, businessman Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, Saudi Aramco, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, SABIC, the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, the Olayan Financing Group as well as “other Saudi nationals and their agents.”

All were mentioned in a Jan. 31 review of MIT’s ties to Saudi Arabia written by associate provost Richard Lester following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Lester eventually recommended against cutting ties with the kingdom, arguing that Saudi funding is helping to provide “critical resources to support the education of outstanding Saudi students and women scientists and engineers, who will surely be in the vanguard of social change in that country.”

Not everyone is convinced. One of the few groups to applaud the proposed changes as a “marked improvement over the status quo” is the right-wing Middle East Forum, which regularly warns about perceived Gulf influence in the United States.

“Publicly available Department of Education data indicate that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are, respectively, the number one and number three largest foreign funders of American Universities,” the group wrote. “While we may occasionally share some goals with these states, America’s values and interests clearly differ from theirs in significant ways.”

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