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Foreign Governments Pay U.S. Colleges Billions

Graduation hat and dollar banknotes
Graduation hat and dollar banknotes | Image by Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Since 2012, U.S. universities have received over $12 billion in funds from foreign governments, at least according to publicly disclosed sums.

According to the documentary Covert Cash by the Clarion Project, some U.S. universities are under investigation after allegedly failing to report funding they received from foreign governments. Since 2012, Qatar has sent a disclosed $2.9 billion to American colleges, China has sent $1.2 billion, Saudi Arabia has sent $1.1 billion, and the United Arab Emirates has sent $469 million.

In the documentary, Ryan Mauro, national security analyst and director of Clarion Intelligence Network (CIN), said, “The countries that are donating the most money to American schools are countries with terrible human rights records.”

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) launched an investigation into the Ivy League institutions of Yale and Harvard after they reportedly failed to disclose $375 million in gifts and contracts from foreign donors.

Reed Rubinstein, DOE’s principal deputy general counsel at the time, sent a letter to Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, that same year claiming the university “failed to report a single foreign source gift or contract in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.” Despite its failure to disclose, Yale purportedly boasted in a now-deleted website entry that it had “considerable success” in setting up “jointly run laboratories with Chinese universities … funded by Chinese granting agencies” and “solicited and received directed foreign contributions advancing specific religious and ideological priorities.”

Rubinstein also sent a letter to Harvard’s then-president, Lawrence Bacow, expressing concerns that Harvard was not reporting all gifts or contracts from foreign sources. The letter stated that the DOE was “aware of information suggesting Harvard University lacks appropriate institutional controls.”

The year before, in 2019, the DOE sent similar letters to Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Cornell University, Rutgers University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Maryland, per NPR.

“When you have foreign funding, obviously it comes with an agenda,” said Raheel Raza, president of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, in the documentary.

China alone has pumped almost a billion dollars into America’s education system, especially via its Confucius Institutes. These institutes are programs on U.S. college campuses designed to teach Chinese language, history, and culture.

Although Confucius Institutes are based in American universities, they are funded by the Chinese government and offer programming for K-12 students. China picks the curriculum and guest speakers while eliminating certain information from classrooms that may invoke an opposing viewpoint to its messaging.

There are 500 reported Confucius classrooms in K-12 schools throughout the United States. Locally, Highland Park ISD was found to have “active” affiliations with China, as previously reported by The Dallas Express. A report by Parents Defending Education found that Highland Park High School “received a $10,000 grant from the Confucius Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas … to be used ‘in support of [the campus] Confucius Classroom 2018 Annual Operation Funds.’”

Highland Park Middle School also received a grant from the same Confucius Institute. It totaled $20,000.

In August of 2023, Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was sentenced to two days in federal prison and two years of supervised release after being caught lying about receiving over a million dollars from the Chinese government and attempting to conceal his ties to the People’s Republic of China’s Thousand Talents Program.

“There are some entities within universities that are more aggressive about seeking money, and much less about aggressive about where it comes from,” Michael Sokolove, a contributor for The New York Times, claimed in the documentary. “The MIT media lab, in retrospect, is certainly one of those.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) partners with the Russian research institute Skoltech. In the documentary, Mauro claimed that the Clarion Project discovered that MIT had received over $83 million from Russia. Half of these funds allegedly came directly from oligarch Victor Vekselberg, who was sanctioned by the United States for attempting to “destabilize Western democracy.”

“When we see the Russians buying up influence in our education system, it does raise up a lot of eyebrows,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in the documentary.

“The reality is that colleges in the United States today like to have flashy campuses, they like to have big programs, and that costs money,” South African investigative journalist Lara Logan chimed in.

Saudi Arabia also has close ties with the U.S. higher education system, which it strengthened with endowments of hundreds of millions of dollars. Saudia Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, visited both Harvard and MIT in 2018 during his first official tour of the United States.

Salman is notorious for allegedly approving the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi embassy in Turkey. He was said to have been murdered in the building by Saudi agents who dismembered his body with a bone saw.

The crown prince’s campus visits were met with protests by Harvard and MIT students, who expressed their distaste for him being greeted as a respected leader rather than a war criminal.

“I think in many cases the issue with foreign funding is what it usually buys is silence,” Ben Freeman, director of Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, said in Covert Cash. “It’d almost be crazy to assume that a foreign power is going to give money to a university that critiques that foreign power repeatedly.”

In Canada, Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian minister of finance, expressed sympathy for Samar Badawi, a human rights activist who had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudia Arabia,” said Freeland in a post on X. “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

Saudi officials reacted by ending scholarships for 16,000 Saudi students studying in Canada. The Times Higher Education called the move a “warning shot” to the United States and United Kingdom.

Because some universities have apparently been concealing their financial agreements with foreign governments, the public is not generally aware when undue censorship or academic freedom violations occur in the classroom.

“If you’re a parent and your child is going to a university, you can’t really know which foreign governments are at least partially helping to fund that education,” said Freeman.

Qatar has allegedly spent billions of dollars influencing U.S. higher education, specifically through a joint Duke-UNC program that trains K-12 teachers.

“We have been able to discover that it is a curriculum provided by a theologically motivated government,” said Brooke Goldstein, a human rights attorney, in the documentary. “It is not objective.”

“We’ve even seen foreign countries go to court to stop Americans from learning about these donations,” said Mauro.

Texas A&M is under investigation for receiving hundreds of millions in funding from Qatar. Lawyers filed an open records request with Texas A&M asking how the funding was being used and what stipulations were attached. Qatar sued the State of Texas to block the release of the contract.

The university claimed it refused to divulge the contract due to a secret agreement it could not violate.

“How can you argue, as a public university, that your sources of funding and possible influence are confidential?” asked Marc Greendorfer, the lawyer who filed an open records request at Texas A&M, per Covert Cash. “There should be total transparency.”

“It’s a very strange thing when you begin to see foreign countries from the Middle East suing the attorney general of a state in a democracy for the release of information that should be public,” said Schanzer.

Many universities hold separate campuses in foreign countries that supply them with funding. For example, Duke has a China campus, Northwestern has a college in Qatar, New York University has an Abu Dhabi branch, Yale has a location in Singapore, and over 70 other colleges have similar arrangements.

“This is a war of ideas, we have said this all along,” said Raza. “It is not a war of weapons, it is a war of ideas.”

“Our democracy is for sale,” claimed Mauro. “When you go to buy cigarettes or a health supplement there’s always those warning labels. But when you pick a class, or pick a professor, those labels aren’t there.”

The Clarion Project created covertcash.com, a search engine that shows how much universities have received in foreign funding.

According to the database, the University of Texas at Dallas has received millions of dollars in payments from China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar since 2013. The University of Texas at Arlington has received similar payments from China and Ethiopia.

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