‘Very real reason for concern’: Arab donors hide $8.5 billion to American universities

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Cornell is by far the largest beneficiary with 127 transactions worth more than $1.5 billion. (Shutterstock)

By Mitchell Bard, JNS.org

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.”

Donation from ‘State of Palestine’ not listed

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.

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