The U.S. Education Department has opened investigations into foreign funding at Georgetown University and Texas A&M University as part of a broader push to monitor international money flowing to American colleges.
Both universities are being ordered to disclose years of financial records amid concerns they have not fully reported their foreign gifts and contracts to the federal government, according to letters sent to the schools Thursday and obtained by The Associated Press.
The inquiries are part of a broader campaign to scrutinize foreign funding going to universities and to improve reporting by schools, according to a Trump administration official familiar with the effort.
More schools probably will face questioning as federal officials focus on an issue they see as crucial to transparency and national security, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the investigations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Federal law requires U.S. colleges to report contracts and donations from foreign sources totaling $250,000 or more, but past filings from Georgetown and Texas A&M “may not fully capture” that information, according to the letters.
As an example, department officials wrote, both schools should have reported funding related to branch campuses they operate in Qatar, an oil-rich nation in the Mideast that hosts the outposts of several U.S. colleges.
The records being sought by investigators go far beyond Qatar, though, and include dealings with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and specific companies in those nations.
Investigators ordered both schools to disclose funding from Huawei or ZTE, the Chinese tech giants that some U.S. officials call a threat to national security. Georgetown is being asked to detail money it received from any sources in Saudi Arabia or Russia, including Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cybersecurity company.
The letters warn that Georgetown and Texas A&M could face legal action and financial penalties if they’re found to have broken the rules.
If investigators find a violation, it can be referred to the U.S. attorney general’s office for action “to compel compliance and to recover the full costs’” of the investigation and enforcement, according to the letters.
Georgetown officials said the school is reviewing the letter and will cooperate with the inquiry. The university said in a statement that it “takes seriously its reporting obligations and provides all information as required by the Department of Education every six months.”
Texas A&M issued a statement saying it takes compliance and security seriously. “We just received the document today from the U.S. Department of Education and are reviewing it. We are fully cooperating with the inquiry.”
The crackdown follows complaints from some lawmakers that the Education Department hasn’t done enough to review foreign funding to colleges. The issue has gained attention amid heightened tensions with China and some other nations.
In February, a bipartisan panel in Congress urged U.S. colleges to cut ties with the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language program funded by a branch of the Chinese government. Some critics say it is a threat to U.S. national security and academic freedom.
The same panel found that 70% of U.S. schools receiving $250,000 or more from China to operate Confucius Institutes failed to report the funding, and that the Education Department failed to provide adequate oversight.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairman of the panel, told the department in January to issue updated guidance and improve its oversight practices. On Thursday, he applauded the agency for taking action.
“When U.S. schools take money from foreign governments, the American people deserve to know about it,” he said.
Colleges have complained that the rules are unclear. In January, the American Council on Education, which represents dozens of college chiefs, asked for clarity on several aspects of the law and noted that the last guidance on the topic was issued in 2004.
The group said schools have been given no guidance on how to correct errors in their filings, for example, and said it is unclear if university foundations, which often house colleges’ endowments, are subject to the rules. The letters to Georgetown and Texas A&M both say the schools should have reported funding from their foundations and other nonprofits they control.
Foreign funding information that schools submit to the Education Department often provides little detail about where the money comes from and none about how it’s used. Typically schools report only the amount of money, the date of the agreement, the country it came from and, sometimes, a specific source within that country.
According to data submitted by Georgetown, the school has received more than $415 million from abroad since 2012, including $36 million last year.
Nearly all of Georgetown’s foreign money reported for 2018 came from sources in Qatar, including $33 million from the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit that has a partnership with Georgetown to support the school’s campus in Qatar.
Data filed by Texas A&M show that the school has received $285 million from foreign sources since 2014, including $6.1 million last year. All of Texas A&M’s reported funding from last year also came through a partnership with the Qatar Foundation.
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