Congress, Biden must crack down on universities’ Chinese gravy-train

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) issued its 2023 report to Congress on Nov. 14. The report included 30 recommendations of “particular significance.” Its third recommendation identified proposals to “address China’s state-sponsored influence and interference” now affecting America’s universities.

Released a day before President Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, the report addresses a wide range of China’s challenges to the U.S. and offers important legislative recommendations for protecting America’s interests.

The report is particularly notable for the unanimous support it received from all USCC commissioners for its recommendations. For reference, its chairman served as chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and its vice chairman was a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) before becoming a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Trump administration.

Six of the commissioners were appointed by Democratic congressional leaders and six were appointed by Republican congressional leaders. In short, this is a genuinely bipartisan commission.

The USCC urges legislative amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 that would require enhanced foreign gift and contract disclosures by universities, going back at least 10 years. It would require that those records be shared with the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and that an interagency review regularly identify security risks posed by the financial ties between universities and China.

In a sign of the seriousness of the threat, the commission calls for a complete end to federal financial assistance for universities that fail to comply with these disclosure requirements over three consecutive or nonconsecutive years. Finally, the report recommends that the U.S. Department of Education evaluate the “adequacy” of the current $250,000 threshold for foreign gifts and contracts reporting by universities, indicating that an even lower reporting threshold might be appropriate.

The USCC’s proposed reforms would significantly strengthen foreign financial disclosure requirements and penalties for compliance failures by universities. These reforms aren’t likely to be welcomed by universities long addicted to significant foreign financial arrangements with friend and foe alike.

Many of our most prominent universities have often failed to disclose massive contributions from China, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, as the Education Department revealed in its Oct. 2020 compliance report. Other significant foreign financial ties have also been hidden by universities.

Only weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced a settlement agreement with Stanford University over Stanford’s failure to disclose foreign financial involvement in its research programs, even as the private university was successfully applying for significant federal research grants, including grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Other reports reveal that UCLA likely received at least $30 million in federal research grants even as its former director was quietly setting up a similar AI center in China. The FBI, NSF and other agencies are almost certainly continuing to investigate similar disclosure failures by multiple universities receiving significant federal research grants.

Yale University thought so little of its statutory disclosure requirements that it failed to report all foreign gifts and contracts from 2014 to 2017, even though it received around $375 million in reportable foreign funding during that period.

The Justice Department revealed the inadequate institutional controls over undisclosed foreign involvement by prominent faculty at Harvard as well, as illustrated by the charges against Charles Lieber, chair of the chemistry department. Lieber received $50,000 a month from China’s Wuhan University of Technology and a $1.5 million award to establish a research lab at Wuhan University.

Stanford, Harvard and Yale’s failures, although shocking, are hardly unique.

China has identified our universities as “soft targets” for its ongoing effort to acquire our latest research products and intellectual property. FBI Director Christopher Wray has described China’s counterintelligence and economic espionage threat as “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality.”

This is no time for President Biden or Congress to pretend that China’s threat has diminished.

At last week’s summit in San Francisco, the leadership of several important American companies paid top dollar to dine with President Xi at a “welcome banquet” organized by the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S. China Relations. Access to China’s markets is, understandably, a goal of American industry. Xi can be expected to pressure those same business leaders to urge Congress and other U.S. policymakers to deemphasize America’s current heightened concerns with China’s continued belligerence toward the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies.

Churchill was right that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” But until Xi orders an end to China’s hostile acts against America, including targeting the critical research and talent developed at our universities, Biden and Congress should move quickly to implement the bipartisan USCC’s important foreign financial disclosure reforms for universities to protect the national security interests of the American people.    

Paul R. Moore, a former assistant U.S. attorney who served as chief investigative counsel at the U.S. Department of Education, is a senior fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute.

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