US Investigates Foreign Influence at Two of Its Top Universities

    15 February 2020

    The United States Department of Education has launched an investigation into Harvard University and Yale University. Earlier this month, the agency announced the schools had failed to report hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign gifts and contracts.

    Yale University is in New Haven, Connecticut. It may not have reported at least $375 million in foreign money over the last four years, officials said in a statement. They are also concerned that Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, may not have fully met reporting requirements.

    "This is about transparency," U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "If colleges and universities are accepting foreign money and gifts, their students, donors, and taxpayers deserve to know how much and from whom."

    Federal law requires most colleges and universities to report gifts from and contracts with foreign sources twice a year, if the amount is more than $250,000.

    Reed Rubinstein is the head of the Education Department's legal team. He recently sent a letter to Yale President Peter Salovey. The letter accused the university of not reporting "a single foreign source gift or contract" from 2014 to 2017. Yet the school operates in many countries.

    FILE - Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Sept. 9, 2016 photo.
    FILE - Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Sept. 9, 2016 photo.

    Reed Rubinstein sent a similar letter to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow. Rubinstein said the Education Department knew "of information suggesting Harvard University lacks appropriate institutional controls."

    The letter comes shortly after an investigation into Charles M. Lieber, the head of Harvard University’s chemistry department. Lieber was arrested on January 28 and released early this month on a $1 million bond.

    The investigation of Yale and Harvard is part of a larger examination by the Department of Education. The agency says since July its enforcement efforts have led to the reporting of nearly $6.5 billion in formerly undisclosed foreign money. Much of that money came from China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

    "This sum may be significantly underestimated," the education department said.

    Karen Peart is a spokeswoman for Yale University. She confirmed the school had received a request from the department for records of some foreign gifts and contracts under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

    "We are reviewing the request and preparing to respond to it," Peart told reporters.

    Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain made a similar confirmation. He said that the school had received a "Notice of Investigation" from the agency and was also preparing an answer.

    Last year, the department also sent letters to several other schools. They included Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Cornell University, Rutgers University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland. Department officials wrote that they were seeking records dating back as far as nine years ago. Their requests included records of agreements with groups and governments in countries like China, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

    A year ago, a U.S. Senate committee on investigations described foreign spending on U.S. schools as "a black hole." It revealed that fewer than 3 percent of 3,700 higher education institutions that received foreign money reported receiving gifts or contracts over $250,000.

    But some experts argue blame for this "black hole" should not fall on colleges and universities alone. In July, the American Council on Education, or ACE, which represents hundreds of colleges and universities, wrote a letter to the Education Department. ACE's senior vice president for government relations, Terry W. Hartle, pointed out the rules governing these gifts are over 30 years old. He added that the department has never made an effort to make the rules clearer.

    "It is...unfair to enforce requirements that do not exist in writing," Hartle wrote.

    I'm Dorothy Gundy.
    And I'm Pete Musto.

    Pete Musto adapted this story for VOA Learning English using materials from Reuters, the New York Times and NPR. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


    Words in This Story

    contract(s) – n. a legal agreement between people or companies

    transparencyn. the quality that makes something obvious or easy to understand

    deservev. used to say that someone or something should or should not have or be given something

    networkn. a system of lines, wires or other technology that are connected to each other

    sanction(s) – n. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country or by not permitting economic aid for that country

    appropriateadj. right or suited for some purpose or situation

    institutionaladj. describing an established organization

    bondn. the amount of money that someone promises to pay if a prisoner who is permitted to leave jail does not return later for a trial or to prison

    undisclosedadj. not made known to the public

    significantlyadv. in a way that is large or important enough to be noticed or have an effect