Ethics & Public Policy Center

Following the Foreign Money

Published in National Review Online on March 26, 2008



Through Freedom of Information Act requests and discussions with officials at the Department of Education, I have obtained a comprehensive list of gifts originating in foreign countries to American colleges and universities (as reported under Title 20, Section 1011f of the U.S. Code, “Disclosures of foreign gifts“). By law, all disclosure reports filed under Section 1011f are considered public records, and today, National Review Online is making them available to readers, here.

I post this material for two reasons. First, Congress will soon be facing an important decision regarding foreign-gift-disclosure requirements for American colleges and universities. Second, some recent large gifts to American schools originating in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have raised legitimate concerns about foreign influence on American higher education. Given the size of our higher-education system and the variety of potential questions raised by the records I am releasing today, the best way to uncover further problems is to make this material available to mainstream reporters, bloggers, student newspapers, alumni, and concerned citizens throughout the country.

Before discussing the important decision bearing on foreign-gift disclosures facing Congress, some background information on the potential significance of these gift-disclosure reports might prove useful. Any remarks on specific newly released gift reports must be regarded as provisional and speculative. My purpose here is not to reach definitive conclusions about any specific gifts, but simply to point to potentially fertile areas for investigation.

Troubling Gifts
To treat all or even most foreign gifts to American colleges or universities as somehow nefarious would be a serious mistake. America's institutions of higher education — with their superb programs in science, medicine, and engineering — rightly benefit from the largesse of America's foreign friends and allies, many of whom have benefited directly from the technical expertise developed in these institutions.

On the other hand, there are reasonable grounds to fear that some foreign donations may purchase undue influence over the way in which highly controversial subjects are treated in American lecture halls. For example, Virginia congressman Frank R. Wolf recently sent a letter of concern to Georgetown University president John J. DeGioia regarding a $20 million donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal to Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (the second largest gift in Georgetown's history). A second $20 million gift from Prince Alwaleed to Harvard University has raised additional concerns.

Shortly after 9/11, Prince Alwaleed famously pledged to donate $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund. Yet because the gift was attached to a statement calling on the U.S. to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause,” Alwaleed's gift was spurned by then-mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Harvard and Georgetown have evinced no such reluctance. Alwaleed clearly means his gifts to shape American views on the Middle East, and there are legitimate grounds for asking, as did Rep. Wolf, whether such gifts might compromise the content of scholarship at Harvard and Georgetown. (For more on concerns raised by Alwaleed's gifts, see “Saudis give big to U.S. colleges.”)

In an earlier piece in this space, “Saudi in the Classroom,” I showed that questions about undue Saudi influence on American education go beyond colleges and universities. Evidence suggests that various Saudi-funded institutions are able to use congressionally mandated university programs of “public outreach” as an unmonitored channel to gain influence over American K-12 education.

Forming Judgments
How do we differentiate between questionable foreign influence and legitimate support for that which is best in American higher education? By itself, the information contained in federally mandated foreign-gift disclosures does not allow us to discern the difference. These reports can only raise questions for reporters, students, and other concerned individuals to pursue. To fairly judge individual gifts will require additional information about its stated purpose and how it is actually being used, and this can only be obtained through inquiries at the institutions in question. Personally, I begin with the assumption that most foreign gifts to U.S. universities are benignly intended and do substantial good. On the other hand, since some foreign gifts do indeed raise legitimate concerns, how do we begin to make sense of the records I'm posting today?

Failure to Report?
The first question we can ask is whether all institutions that ought to be reporting foreign gifts are in fact doing so. The University of Michigan reported a number of foreign gifts between 1992 and 1996, yet appears not to have reported any gifts after that date. Is this because the university has received no large foreign gifts since 1996, or because it has failed to report them? Or is there another explanation for the absence of reports over the past 12 years?

Questions like these are best pursued by local bloggers and reporters at college newspapers, who can find out whether their school is aware of foreign-gift-reporting requirements and perhaps obtain an on-the-record statement confirming that no foreign gifts of $250,000 or higher have been received within a given period.

Section 1011f permits the Attorney General, at the request of the Secretary of Education, to bring a civil action to force compliance with foreign-gift-reporting requirements. But to bring such an action, the Secretary would first need some indication of non-compliance. Here is where the public might be able to help. Sunlight on this matter is likely to result in compliance well before resort to a lawsuit.

Missing Names
Looking over these records, it immediately becomes clear that while the vast majority of institutions report the identity of foreign donors, a few withhold that information. Some schools withhold the donor's name, but at least indicate whether the foreign donor is an individual, corporation, or foundation. While there are a few intriguing blanks under the category “Giftor Name” scattered throughout these records, several institutions repeatedly report large gifts without including the identities of the donors. Harvard and Columbia Universities stand out for their numerous foreign gifts reported without named donors.

It would be interesting to learn more about why donor names are left off the gift reports from these schools — and again, local reporters and bloggers, students and alumni may be best positioned to obtain further information. Since the majority of schools report donor names, it is all the more striking that these elite Ivies have not. On first read, it seems difficult to tell from the wording of Section 1011f whether the specific identities of
donors must be revealed by law. Given cases like the Alwaleed donation, this would seem to be an area in which Congress could make the law tighter and/or render its existing requirements more explicit.

The UAE and U.
As an example of reports that raise intriguing questions worthy of follow-up, let's look at some gifts from the United Arab Emirates to Harvard University. Let me emphasize again that my comments here do not reflect settled conclusions, but are meant only to suggest lines for further inquiry.

It was widely reported in 2004 that Harvard University had returned a $2.5 million gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates. (See here, here, and here.) The gift had originally been earmarked to fund an endowed professorship in Islamic religious studies at Harvard Divinity School, but was held up when students at the Divinity School alleged that the institution making the gift had hosted speakers claiming that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Zionists, and that Israel was behind 9/11.

Reports indicated that Harvard agreed to return the gift in 2004. So it is intriguing that in 2005 we see two $1-million gifts from the UAE to Harvard (without any donor name) and an additional $1.5 million contract between Harvard and the UAE. We then see an extremely large gift of $14,586,957 from an unnamed “non-government” source in the UAE to Harvard University in 2006.

While there may be nothing untoward here at all, further investigation seems appropriate. Were the gift reports of 2005 merely a kind of bookkeeping indication of the gift that passed through and was then eventually returned to the UAE, as promised? Or are we dealing with completely separate and subsequent gifts? A skeptic might wonder whether the gift reportedly returned was somehow quietly re-gifted later on. But of course there may be no connection at all between the gift famously returned to the UAE and the later gifts to Harvard from unnamed donors. In any case, more information would be most welcome.

Missing Information?
One reason that it's so difficult to know what to make of the reported gifts from the UAE to Harvard — or of any of the other reported gifts — is that the Department of Education data contain no indications of restrictions on the use of gifts. Section 1011f indicates that any restrictions regarding the use of gifts — for example, to establish a center or to fund new faculty positions — ought to be disclosed. As far as I can tell, no such restrictions are indicated. For example, we know that Prince Alwaleed's gifts to Georgetown are directed toward the Center of Muslim-Christian Understanding, yet nothing of the sort is indicated in the records I've received. I am currently trying to obtain more information from the DOE on gift restrictions.

Congress Decides
Although we are only just beginning to investigate the significance of foreign-gift disclosures, Congress is now considering seriously misguided legislation that, at best, would be redundant, and at worst would radically dilute current gift-disclosure requirements.

Congress is soon likely to re-authorize the Higher Education Act. The House and Senate have passed very different versions of HEA, particularly Title VI of that Act, which governs the system of federal subsidies to university programs of Middle East studies and other area studies. The Senate bill is a carefully worked out compromise between both parties, led by Senators Kennedy and Enzi. That bill incorporates a number of urgently needed reforms that restore oversight to a program whose unsupervised character has rendered it liable to abuse by foreign donors (as I argued in “Saudi in the Classroom“).

In contrast, the House version of Title VI, a product of the Democratic majority, almost totally guts the Senate's Title VI reform proposals. The House offers a single provision purporting to deal with the problem of undue foreign influence: a requirement that foreign gifts in the amount of $1 million or above be publicly disclosed, if specifically directed toward a Title VI center.

Section 1011f already requires disclosure of foreign gifts in the amount of $250,000 or above, and covers gifts to any part of a college or university, not merely to area-studies centers. What House Democrats advertise as new protections against the undue influence of foreign donors will actually weaken the existing law, both by raising the disclosure threshold from $250,000 to $1 million, and by radically narrowing the scope of gift reports.

The House's bogus version of Title VI “reform” must be rejected. The only good the House bill may have done is to direct our attention to existing foreign-gift-disclosure records — which no one, to my knowledge, has asked for or published until today. My guess is that the House Democrats did not intentionally move to weaken existing foreign-gift-disclosure requirements, but simply acted in ignorance of existing law, which seems largely to have evaded public notice.

Today, the public gets a first look at the Department of Education's extensive records on foreign gifts to American universities. Given lingering concerns over large gifts from Middle Eastern countries to American institutions, the public needs time to investigate these records. In the meantime, the Democratic version of HEA Title VI “reform” ought to be rejected in favor of the Senate's bipartisan bill.

 – Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.

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