U.S. Department of Education Launches Investigation into Foreign Gifts at Ivy League Universities

Washington, DC…Since July, the Department has uncovered more than $6 billion in unreported foreign gifts from countries including Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  The U.S. Department of Education announced today it is launching investigations into both Harvard and Yale Universities after it appears both Ivy League higher education institutions potentially failed to report hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign gifts and contracts.

In recent weeks, the Department discovered Yale University may have failed to report at least $375 million in foreign gifts and contracts, choosing not to report any gifts and contracts over the last four years.

The Department is also concerned Harvard University may lack appropriate institutional controls over foreign money and has failed to report fully all foreign gifts and contracts as required by law. This comes after Dr. Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was indicted for lying about his involvement with the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Plan and admitting that Harvard lacks adequate institutional controls for effective oversight and tracking of very large donations.

“This is about transparency,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “If colleges and universities are accepting foreign money and gifts, their students, donors, and taxpayers deserve to know how much and from whom. Moreover, it’s what the law requires. Unfortunately, the more we dig, the more we find that too many are underreporting or not reporting at all. We will continue to hold colleges and universities accountable and work with them to ensure their reporting is full, accurate, and transparent, as required by the law.”

Section 117 of the Higher Education Act requires American Title IV-eligible colleges and universities to report gifts from, and contracts with, any foreign source that exceed $250,000 in value and to disclose any foreign ownership or control, twice each year.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations described foreign spending on U.S. schools as “a black hole” because colleges and universities “routinely” fail to comply with the law, and reported foreign money can come with strings attached that might compromise academic freedom.

The Department’s records since approximately 1990 show U.S. universities and colleges have reported donations from Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in excess of $6.6 billion, but this sum may be significantly underestimated. According to investigations by Congress, GAO, and the Department, colleges and universities significantly underreport their foreign gifts and contracts.

The 2019 Senate Report found the following:

  • Nearly 70% of U.S. schools that received more than $250,000 from Hanban failed to properly report that information to the Department of Education.
  • From January 2012 to June 2018, 15 U.S. schools reported receiving $15,472,725 directly from Hanban, a propaganda arm of the Chinese government. To get a more comprehensive understanding of Hanban’s spending in the United States, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations requested financial records from 100 U.S. schools and found Hanban directly contributed $113,428,509 to U.S schools—more than seven times the amount U.S. schools actually reported (Senate Report at p. 70).
  • On average, fewer than 300 of the approximately 6,000 U.S. colleges and universities report receiving foreign money each year. The data indicates most foreign funds reportedly flow into approximately 50 large institutions.

Additional Information on the Department’s Section 117 Enforcement Actions:

  • Since July 1, 2019, the Department’s enforcement efforts have triggered the reporting of approximately $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed foreign money.
  • Ten schools, including Cornell University, Yale University, the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Texas A&M University, and Carnegie Mellon University reported approximately $3.6 billion in previously unreported foreign gifts.
  • The Department has opened eight civil compliance investigations since June 28, 2019.
  • The Department has reported its preliminary findings to Congress, including:
    • The largest colleges and universities are multi-billion dollar, multi-national enterprises using opaque foundations, foreign campuses, and other sophisticated legal structures to generate revenue that is intermingled with domestic sources of funding from tuition, grants, and the like.
    • These colleges and universities actively solicit foreign governments, corporations, and nationals for funds although some donors are known to be hostile to the United States and may be seeking to project “soft power,” steal sensitive and proprietary research and development data and other intellectual property, and spread propaganda benefitting foreign governments.
    • Although foreign money generally flows into the largest and richest colleges and universities, such money apparently does not reduce or otherwise offset American students’ tuition costs.
    • Consistent with Congressional and GAO findings, Section 117 reporting is significantly underinclusive and inaccurate.
  • The Department published for public comment a modern and robust information collection under the Paperwork Reduction Act to promote compliance and transparency. The new information collection appears in the Federal Register, and the new reporting portal will be mandatory for the foreign money reports due by July 31, 2020.

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