Chinese money is flooding into American higher education — with little transparency


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China, like many of our global adversaries, is attempting nothing short of espionage via America’s colleges and universities — buying its way into influencing teaching, stealing our intellectual property and manipulating US foreign policy.

This issue came further into focus when it was revealed the University of Pennsylvania received millions of dollars in secretive Chinese and foreign donations — even as the university’s Biden Center for Foreign Policy was home to scores of mishandled classified documents.

Since President Biden’s inauguration, Penn has received more than $50 million in foreign funding, including more than $14 million in anonymous gifts from China and Hong Kong. That’s on top of the more than $60 million Penn received since the Biden Center launched in 2017.

Concurrently, the Biden Center became home to what some have called a “national-security-council-in-waiting.”

The Penn Biden Center has been a focal point of the University of Pennsylvania’s foreign donations.

Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was the center’s director from 2017 to 2019. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl and White House counselor Steven Ricchetti both served as managing directors. Biden appointed Amy Gutmann, former Penn president, his ambassador to Germany. And the list goes on.

It’s unknown how much of the Chinese donations made it to the Biden Center or what influence that money had. But there can be little doubt the Chinese Communist Party must find a lot to like about the Biden team’s decision-making.

Consider the Biden Department of Justice decision to end the “China Initiative” — a program the Trump administration launched to counter national-security threats China poses to the United States. Among other key revelations and outcomes, the initiative led to the arrest of Charles Lieber, the Harvard chemistry department chair whose work the CCP secretly funded and who is accused of academic espionage.

As the Defense of Freedom Institute has detailed, the Biden team also scaled back enforcement of the federal law that requires colleges and universities to report any foreign money or contract worth more than $250,000 to the Department of Education.

Despite being on the books for 50 years, this simple transparency requirement has often been ignored. Reviews of just 12 higher-ed institutions conducted while I was secretary revealed more than $6.5 billion in previously unreported foreign contributions.

Penn Biden Center
The University of Pennsylvania received over $50 million in Chinese donations.
AFP via Getty Images

That’s likely just scratching the surface of how much undisclosed foreign money has been injected into American academia. An earlier Senate report found that nearly 70% of schools that were home to a Confucius Institute — the Chinese government-funded propaganda machines masquerading as educational outposts — failed to properly report their Chinese-government funding.

While there’s nothing inherently inappropriate about foreign-sourced gifts, there is a significant reason for concern if these gifts are not disclosed, as required by law.

Unfortunately, the higher-ed lobby has made it no secret it opposes true transparency. The American Council on Education — the lobbying organization for colleges and universities — praised the Biden administration in an open letter for ending the investigations we launched into schools that were skirting the law and failing to report sources of foreign money.

One major cause for concern is the high correlation between foreign gifts, especially from our geopolitical adversaries, and American universities that are home to major research laboratories, including those with Department of Defense contracts.

Fortunately, Congress shared this concern and included a provision in the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act that would require more stringent disclosures from foreign-funded researchers. Notably, the Biden White House made no mention of this bipartisan transparency provision in its fact sheet about the law.

To all these problems, the solution is clear: greater transparency and accountability. Universities, especially those that are publicly funded, should make crystal clear what foreign funding they accept and what, if any, strings or expectations are attached.

The president should demand the University of Pennsylvania set the standard by releasing details of its entanglements with China without delay. And the American people should continue to question why adversarial foreign countries are so heavily invested in American universities and why our schools are so eager to accept foreign funds.

Betsy DeVos served as the 11th US secretary of education and is the author of “Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child.”

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