An investigation by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) in 2020 found that many academic institutions were not abiding by the rules requiring them to report gifts from foreign sources. It was especially interested in contributions from China for both security and political reasons, but also highlighted unreported gifts from Arab governments. The DoE recommended greater transparency because of the concern “that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.” After a small improvement in reporting gifts in the last DoE report by the Trump administration, the latest disclosure by the Biden DoE is even less transparent and allows universities to hide the names of Arab (and non-Arab) sources of nearly $8.5 billion in gifts since 1986.
The Trump DoE found that some of the foreign sources of funding that are hostile to the United States “are targeting their investments (i.e., “gifts” and “contracts”) to project soft power, steal sensitive and proprietary research, and spread propaganda.” The higher education industry’s solicitation of foreign sources, it disclosed, “has not been appropriately or effectively balanced or checked by the institutional controls needed to meaningfully measure the risk and manage the threat posed by a given relationship, donor or foreign venture.”
“There is very real reason for concern,” the report concluded, “that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.” The department expressed particular unease about reported donations listed as anonymous from China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Russia.
Universities objected to the DoE requirement to provide the donor’s name and address, insisting this would “violate institutions’ commitment to donor confidentiality and would preclude institutions from accepting anonymous gifts from foreign sources.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos insisted, however, that if colleges and universities “are accepting foreign money or gifts, their students, donors and taxpayers deserve to know how much and from whom.”
The January 2014 to June 30, 2020, “Foreign Gift and Contracts Report” published by DoE included a category “Giftor Name.” There were no addresses, only the country from which the donation originated, and few individuals were listed; most gifts came from governments or governmental institutions. Some giftors were not listed at all such as the donor (the Munib and Angela Masri Foundation) from the “State of Palestine” to Brown University to create a chair in a professorship in Palestinian Studies. (A separate issue is why the DoE lists this non-existent state that is not recognized by the U.S. government.)
In a Response to Public Comments that is undated but apparently issued after the DoE investigation, the department said it would require the name and address of foreign sources, but agreed to withhold the information from the public disclosure report. Consequently, the latest report covering all public records through June 1 removed the “Giftor’s Name” column. It does contain the name of some foreign government entities, such as the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission. The source country, but not a more specific donor, is given for nearly 75 percent of all contributions, which represent 90 percent of the total amount universities received from foreign sources.
In The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East I documented Arab efforts to fund universities to influence U.S. Middle East policy, in some cases to apologize for radical Islam and terrorism, and in others to promote anti-Israel propaganda. The public data, however, does not support the more hysterical claims that this funding has contributed to anti-Semitism on campus or the BDS movement. The relatively small number of professors who hold positions in more political fields that are funded by Arab donors and support BDS can potentially reinforce anti-Israel student activity. The evidence, however, is anecdotal rather than empirical. Most faculty who agitate against Israel do so without Arab funding as motivation (many are not in Middle East-related fields). The truth, at least from what is reported, is that most foreign gifts are apolitical.
So, who is giving the money and where is it going?
More than 80 percent of all Arab funding comes from three countries: Qatar ($4.3 billion), Saudi Arabia ($2.1 billion) and the United Arab Emirates ($1.1 billion). Of the top 25 largest donations, all but two (from the UAE) came from Qatar. The largest was a $151 million contract reported in July 2020 to cover the budget for the establishment and operation of the Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar.
Some 258 institutions in at least 46 states (missing Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Nevada) and the District of Columbia have received Arab money. The top 15 recipients, however, received 30 percent of the gifts and 68 percent of the funds. Cornell is by far the largest beneficiary with 127 transactions worth more than $1.5 billion. It is followed by Georgetown with $725 million, Carnegie Mellon with nearly $674 million, Northwestern with $561 million and Texas A&M with more than $580 million.
Only 17 percent of all gifts list a purpose. Of those, 86 percent were for some type of financial aid or scholarships for students. A total of 65 gifts were for unspecified research activity. Some of the others include training of dental residents and a custom educational program funded by the Saudis, a medical residency for a Qatari national, a neurorecovery therapeutic program supported by the UAE, and an endowed chair for new approaches in neurodiseases funded by a donor from Lebanon. Only two of the foreign gifts had a political purpose—two contributions to Brown for the Palestinian Studies professorship. Given the high percentage of contributions for tuition and fees, it is likely that many of the unreported and unidentified gifts are for similar purposes.
At least $3.5 billion in gifts have gone unreported, so we don’t have a full picture of the situation. According to the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), most of those donations support American universities with campuses in Gulf states. In addition, ISGAP reported that Middle East Studies Centers have received nearly $1.2 billion from Gulf nations. This information is not in the foreign-gifts report. As I’ve documented, these centers, which educate high school teachers, are often highly politicized and use non-academic materials from sources such as Aramco and the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission. Ironically, some of the most problematic faculty receives money from the U.S. government through the Title VI program to support these centers.
The bottom line is that there is virtually no transparency for the public to know the sources or purposes of foreign funding for colleges and universities making it difficult to assess the impact on campus culture, course instruction or national security. The DoE’s own investigation warned of the danger from the solicitation of foreign money and the lack of documentation. The Biden administration has taken a giant step backward by withholding information it collects on donors and raises questions about whether it will enforce compliance with the reporting requirements.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”