OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Universities soak up $13.1 billion in Arab funds

Even so, while many want to draw direct connections between such funding and the toxic atmosphere on campus, the evidence is tenuous.

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Credit: PPPSDavid/Pixanbay.
Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Credit: PPPSDavid/Pixanbay.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
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.

According to my report, Arab Funding of American Universities: Donors, Recipients and Impact, American universities have accepted nearly $55 billion in foreign funding; nearly one-fourth came from donors from, and the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Qatar is by far the largest source, donating nearly $6 billion. The $13.1 billion total is spread among 288 institutions in every state but Alaska. We know very little about how the money is spent because of the combined efforts of universities and the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) under President Joe Biden to conceal the information about the donors and the purpose of their donations.

The data goes back to 1981, but that is misleading. Although Arab governments made their first contributions to the defunct Ricker College in Maine in 1969, roughly 70% of the funds have been distributed in the last decade. More than $1 billion (about half from Qatar) was donated last year.

We do know which universities receive the money, but we rarely know what it is used for. Cornell is the largest recipient of Arab funds with more than $2.1 billion. At least $752 million was for the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. Another $9 million was used for unspecified research. That means $1.4 billion—more than half the money it has taken from Arab sources—is unaccounted for.

This is the norm. Nearly three-fourths (8,958) of the contributions, worth almost $10 billion (76% of all Arab funding), have no description. Georgetown is the second-largest recipient of Arab funds ($934 million), but not one of its 96 donations lists a purpose.

We know this scant information from reports published by the DoE. Universities must tell the DoE about donations of $250,000 or more, but they have only sometimes done so, and the DoE has been lax in enforcing the law.

The anti-Israel campus protests have renewed interest in whether universities are being influenced by Arab donors who may be hostile towards Israel. Traditionally seen as champions of free speech and critical thinking, universities compromise their values by accepting funding from countries with poor human-rights records and limited freedoms (not just from the Middle East). Qatar has drawn particular attention because it supports terrorism, radical Islam and the anti-Israel propaganda media outlet Al Jazeera.

Though many want to draw direct connections between Arab funding and the toxic atmosphere on campus, the evidence is tenuous. It is difficult to determine whether Arab funding influences faculty or whether it flows to faculty whose views are already compatible with the donors. We do know that universities receiving Arab funding have faculty who are apologists for radical Islam and vitriolic critics of Israel who support the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Most of what we know about the purpose of Arab funding comes from universities boasting about receiving gifts, many of which go unreported to the DoE. One example is Georgetown’s Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The university publicized anti-Zionist Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s $20 million donation to the center, which an anti-Israel apologist for radical Islam ran.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) asked whether the center “has produced any analysis critical of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example in the fields of human rights, religious freedom, freedom of expression, women’s rights, minority rights, protection for foreign workers, due process and the rule of law.” He also wanted to know if the center “has examined Saudi links to extremism and terrorism” or produced any critical study of the “controversial religious textbooks produced by the government of Saudi Arabia that have been cited by the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and non-governmental groups for propagating extreme intolerance.”

These are questions that should be asked today of recipients of Arab funding.

Based on the DoE report, the only donations with a clear political purpose were those made to create a Palestinian professorship in Palestinian Studies (more on that in my next column). The chair was given to Beshara Doumani, a supporter of the anti-Semitic BDS campaign who uses his classroom to push his political agenda by, for example, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing.”

Many donations, such as Qatar’s for the medical center, have meritorious intent; nevertheless, it is naive to think the donors don’t have more selfish interests. As former English diplomat John Kelly observed: “They expect a return upon their donations to institutions of learning and their subsidies to publishing houses, whether it be in the form of subtle propaganda on behalf of Arab or Islamic causes, or the preferential admission of their nationals, however unqualified … or the publication of the kind of sycophantic flim-flam about themselves and their countries which now clutters sections of the Western press and even respectable periodical literature.”

Gifts to American universities are also designed to enhance the image of the Arab states and their rulers. Saudi Arabia, for example, wanted Americans to forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought ties with prestigious universities to promote his image as a progressive leader who is modernizing his country and to offset the negative attention he has received for his alleged role in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Harvard University’s Grif Peterson observed that a financial relationship with institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard “allows Mohammed bin Salman to project an image of being a Western-leaning progressive leader” and gives “legitimacy to this growing power base that he’s creating.”

Arab states are primarily motivated to support universities to enhance their image, train their citizens, and discourage criticism of Islam rather than disparage Israel or Jews, which would be counterproductive and likely produce a backlash against them.

I have seen no evidence that Arab funding to universities is related to the campus intifada. Some members who joined Faculty for Justice in Palestine groups are from universities and departments receiving Arab funding. But take Columbia, the scene of some of the worst protests; it has never received a single dollar from Qatar, according to DoE.

As I noted in an earlier column, the principal campus antagonists are not from fields likely to receive Arab funding. They are faculty in the social sciences and humanities with little or no relation to Middle East studies, and have bought into intersectionalitycritical race theory, and anti-colonialism.

Donors typically are allowed little or no control over how their money is spent. Universities know, however, what they can and cannot say to avoid alienating their donors. Faculty are hired and promoted under these unspoken conditions. Consequently, Arab donors know that positions they fund will be given to academics who share their worldview and are more likely to be anti-Israel and committed to teaching a sanitized version of Islamic and Middle Eastern history. Furthermore, the chances are nil that a candidate will be hired for a position if they are critical of radical Islam or pro-Israel. Young professors sympathetic to Israel often conceal their views for fear of being denied tenure by peers with opposing opinions on Israel.

Even seemingly benign donations send a message to donees and potential donees that money is available to those who do not criticize Arab regimes. All universities are interested in keeping their patrons happy; hence, even donations for politically innocuous purposes, such as health research, come with an implicit quid pro quo.

Arab funding provokes worries about the education of future decision-makers, such as those attending elite universities and prestigious institutes, and how it might influence U.S. policy. The Trump administration’s DoE expressed particular unease about anonymous donations from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and said institutions lacked control over the risk “that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.” It also was concerned about investments to “spread propaganda.”

The Biden DoE, however, has not pursued this line of inquiry. Instead, it has obfuscated the threats of foreign funding and made it difficult to assess the impact by deleting dates, altering previous reports, misreporting information and erasing some donations altogether.

The report concludes with three recommendations for addressing concerns about Arab funding:

  • Establish clear guidelines for foreign funding, ensuring national security and academic freedom are protected.
  • Require universities to report the names of donors and the purpose of all foreign funding, including previously unreported donations, and make this information available to the public.
  • Investigate the impact of Arab funding on teaching, curricula, faculty hiring, outreach programs, academic freedom and national security.
The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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