OpinionSchools & Higher Education

US Department of Education is concealing foreign donations to universities

The top five recipients of Arab donations are Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and Northwestern.

Texas A&M University in Education City, Al Rayyan, Qatar. Credit: Alex Sergeev via Wikimedia Commons.
Texas A&M University in Education City, Al Rayyan, Qatar. Credit: Alex Sergeev via Wikimedia Commons.
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.

Anti-Israel protests at colleges nationwide have raised concerns about the potential role of Arab donations in the upsurge of antisemitism. However, the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) has made it difficult to assess the impact of these funds by intentionally obscuring data obtained from universities, misreporting information and altering previous reports.

Until 2020, the DoE paid little attention to university compliance, with institutions failing to report all donations above $250,000 as required. The Trump administration’s DoE found that specific foreign sources hostile to the United States were “targeting their investments to project soft power, steal sensitive and proprietary research, and spread propaganda.” It highlighted the lack of institutional controls to manage the risk “that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.” The department expressed particular unease about anonymous donations from China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Russia.

Rather than greater transparency, U.S. President Biden’s DoE has further obfuscated the threats by deleting dates, changing contribution amounts and erasing some donations altogether. Bowing to pressure from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the department withholds donor information from public disclosure reports.

Typically, the public only learns of donations when universities publicize them, usually boasting of a new program or professorship funded by a contribution. Notably, some substantial donations—like the $20 million donated to Harvard and Georgetown universities in 2005 by Saudi Prince Talal—never appeared in DoE reports.

According to a forthcoming update to AICE’s report, “Arab Funding of American Universities: Donors, Recipients and Impact,” and the latest DoE report (from 1981 through Oct. 13, 2023), four Arab nations—Qatar ($5.7 billion), Saudi Arabia ($3.3 billion), the UAE ($1.4 billion) and Kuwait ($1.3 billion)—accounted for 23% ($11.7 billion) of all donations ($51 billion) to higher education and 94% of the $12.5 billion donated by 14 Arab states and the Palestinian Authority. No information is provided, however, of how 73% (more than $9.5 billion) of these donations were allocated. Most of the others are attributed to financial assistance for students from their countries.

By far, the largest contribution was more than $284 million donated by the Embassy of Kuwait last year to the University of Missouri Kansas City for tuition reimbursement. Why that university? And how many students were covered by that amount?

Qatar donated 18 of the 20 next largest contributions; the two largest—more than $150 million each—were for the establishment and operation of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar near Doha. Qatar made eight donations to five other universities for the odd amount of $99,999,999 with no purpose listed. Only 7% of the Emirates’ donations list their purpose.

The top five recipients of Arab donations are Cornell (nearly $2 billion), Texas A&M ($910 million), Carnegie Mellon ($901 million), Georgetown ($899 million) and Northwestern ($692 million). In February, Texas A&M announced plans to close its program in Qatar, prompting the government-run Qatar Foundation, which contributed at least $386 million to the project, to accuse the board of reacting to a disinformation campaign to harm the foundation.

The only political donations were for a professorship in Palestinian Studies at Brown, attributed to the non-existent “State of Palestine.” In the April 2023 report, several grants came from “Palestine,” but four originated in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory.” This is also an inaccurate description since the territory is disputed and not occupied, and it is unlikely the donations came from an area not under complete Palestinian control. These donations disappeared from the October report, with the professorship being misattributed to England and Panama instead. The position was funded by the Munib and Angela Masri Foundation based in Nablus, which is not under Israel’s control, and, illustrating how such funding can be nefarious, the person hired is a supporter of the BDS movement.

The lack of transparency impedes efforts to ascertain the role of foreign funding in fostering antisemitism on campuses. One reason to doubt its impact is that outside of Middle East Studies, some of the most vitriolic critics of Israel are in the humanities and social science departments, like gender studies, which are not known for attracting Arab funding. Those faculty don’t need foreign money to shape their views, which are rooted in the ideology of the oppressed and intersectionality, and view Arab governments (but not the Palestinian Authority or Hamas) with contempt.

Also, Arab funders are primarily interested in advancing their national interests, improving their image, influencing U.S. policy and educating their citizens to advance their economies (hence the large amounts of money to cover tuition and expenses). Fostering hostility towards Jews or Israel may undermine those interests.

Qatar has gone out of its way to cultivate relations with Jews in the antisemitic belief that Jews have the power to sway the U.S. government in their favor. Similarly, the Saudis are discussing normalization with Israel and want Americans to forget the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (44% of their donations were made after his death).

Universities have an incentive to be solicitous of Arab donors, potentially leading to self-censorship. Concerns arise as to whether Middle East Studies departments refrain from criticizing Arab governments and the extent to which funding influences classroom teaching. We have disturbing anecdotal evidence, but DoE reports provide no clues.

The bottom line is, as the Trump DoE study suggested, what we don’t know about foreign funding may hurt us.

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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