In 24-odd years working at the American Council on Education (ACE), Terry Hartle had never spoken with national security agencies. But in the last three years, the senior vice president of government and public affairs has been talking with them regularly, allaying fears about foreign-funded ideological influence on U.S. universities and underscoring the benefits of global research cooperation.
"That's the world we're living in now," he said. "The challenge in the last two or three years is that American perceptions about research funded by foreign entities (at U.S. universities) have changed, there's an anxiety."
He thinks those concerns are overstated, however. "A vast majority of such research is proper and appropriate, that's unquestionable; we won't tolerate anything that isn't," he said. Ten days earlier, The Associated Press (AP) reported that the U.S. Department of Education was investigating funding to Georgetown University and Texas A&M University from governments and businesses in Qatar, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The department's move is part of a larger effort to monitor the flow of funds to U.S. colleges, the AP reported, and it's one in which more colleges are expected to be pulled into. Additionally, separate bills have been introduced in Congress that seek more protection for academic research and that increases scrutiny of funding and participating students. However, higher ed groups are concerned that oversight could further strain international student enrollment.
For instance, on June 18, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced the Protect Our Universities Act of 2019, which calls for an interagency task force led by the Department of Homeland Security to identify research it considers sensitive. It would then require background screening for students from China, Iran and Russia to participate in that research. Other actions include preventing technology from certain companies to be used in such projects.
'A lot simpler in the 1980s'
These developments haven't exactly come as a surprise to Hartle. However, he's concerned by what he sees as a lack of clarity in the Education Department's guidelines for colleges on reporting foreign funding. It's an issue ACE has raised with the department several times this year, but to no avail. And he's concerned research at American universities will suffer as a result.
Since January, ACE, which represents more than 1,700 leaders of colleges and industry associations, has twice written to, and once met with department officials to request clarity on how institutions should report foreign funding. They have yet to hear anything that parses the reporting requirements, which were written in 1986 and have since been modified by the Ed Department through guidance on two occasions, Hartle said.
The part of the regulation in question is Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which says U.S. bachelor's degree institutions must report contracts and donations from each foreign source that totals $250,000 or more, alone or combined.
In the first of those letters, ACE, along with five other higher ed associations, outlined four areas in which they were seeking clarification:
- The value and volume of gifts needed to reach the dollar amount triggering the reporting requirement;
- The definition of an institution of higher education;
- When it is sufficient to report only a gift’s country of origin;
- And how institutions should submit corrections or amendments to previous reports.
That uncertainty raises questions. "If you get two or three grants from one country that don't total $250,000, does that have to be reported? What happens if three faculty members at a university create their own nonprofit to conduct research, and that organization receives money from a foreign source? Does the university have to report that?" said Hartle, citing examples of areas where regulation is muddy.
Georgetown and Texas A&M's filings in this regard "may not fully capture" those details, say letters sent to them by the Ed Department, the AP reported. The department has ordered them to share their financial records.
"The issue here isn't that Georgetown and Texas A&M did research that put national security in danger, they just may not have reported stuff they should have," Hartle said. "But the law isn't clear, (because) research funding streams were a lot simpler in the 1980s than they are today."
A need for 'sophisticated evaluation'
Concern over foreign funding has emerged elsewhere. In February, a Senate subcommittee report also criticized the Ed Department for "a glaring lack of oversight" on foreign funds flowing into universities, Emily Benavides, deputy communications director for Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), wrote in an email to Education Dive.
Sens. Portman and Tom Carper (D-Del.) wrote in the bipartisan report that the Ed Department doesn't undertake regular oversight to determine whether schools are complying with foreign gift reporting requirements. They were referring largely to the Confucius Institutes, a Chinese cultural education program run through K-12 schools and colleges in the U.S., saying the investigation found the institutes were promoting messaging from the Chinese government, which has been criticized for infringing on academic freedom.
A separate report issued around the same time from the Government Accountability Office acknowledged the concerns but said in the case of the institutes, U.S. colleges often can control the messaging.
Hartle and other higher ed observers are critical of the Trump administration's focus on foreign funds in research. They agree colleges must ensure U.S. interests aren't undermined. But at the same time, they feel fears of such an undermining are overblown.
"Even what Confucius Institutes were doing was a significant part of education's soft power," said Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. "We (the U.S.) do the same thing, the (United Kingdom's) British Council does the same thing. We just don't happen to like the Chinese these days."
That doesn't mean concerns about how China handles intellectual property rights aren't valid. "That's not a joke, it's real," he said. "But this country (the U.S.), as it often does, takes a problem and solves it by beating it with a sledgehammer rather than through sophisticated evaluation."
Sen. Hawley also plans to submit the text of his bill — focused on national security-related academic research — as a Senate amendment to the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is currently being reviewed in the House and Senate.
The bill is similar to legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and included in the House NDAA, ACE explained in a post on its website this week.
Like Hawley's, it calls for the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a list of research projects it deems to be sensitive and would require students from China, Iran and Russia to go through extra screening to participate.
Concerned with the proposal, ACE wrote, it and other higher ed groups have pressed Congress to instead use existing regulations to protect research.
The Ed Department has not yet responded to questions Education Dive sent by email on Monday regarding requests for clarification to Section 117 as well as its probe of Georgetown and Texas A&M.
Global impact on academic talent
Such legislation runs the risk of triggering a further decline in graduate and research talent to the U.S., as STEM fields tend to be a draw for international students, said Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of global engagement, research and intelligence at Studyportals, a student recruiting firm.
"They are already building bridges creating innovation here in the U.S., and many of them continue to keep connections around the world to build research excellence," he said. "For high-impact research, global engagement is a given."
What will suffer are international collaborations and global research, said ACE’s Hartle.
"Science is globalized, it's very common for the best science in the world to involve several countries," Hartle said. "It's very hard to put the genie back in the bottle and say, 'You shouldn't share scientific information across institutions.' It will make it very challenging for top institutions."
ACE and other higher ed groups are supporting the Securing American Science and Technology Act, which was included in the House NDAA. The bill would create an interagency task force headed by the White House National Science and Technology Council, as well as establish a roundtable at the National Academies to engage with stakeholders on research issues.
"Foreign corporations and governments want to work with our universities. For universities, it's a chance to do research and it's money that keeps research running," Hartle said. "It's a system that benefits America, American universities and the foreign governments and companies that engage in it."