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Education Department probes Stanford’s reporting of Chinese financial gifts

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Concerns regarding Stanford’s funding from Chinese sources were raised in a report by the Department of Education (ED) investigating the underreporting of foreign money by U.S. universities. 

The report, published in October, reviews the compliance among U.S. universities with Section 117 of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which requires academic institutions to report foreign contracts and gifts over $250,000 each calendar year.

Investigations by the ED found that “many large and well-resourced institutions of higher education have aggressively pursued and accepted foreign money while failing to comply with Section 117 of the HEA,” according to the report. “At the same time, higher education industry trade organizations have argued against donor transparency and sought to block disclosure of strings attached to foreign funds.”

Stanford was among the 12 universities investigated by the ED under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos since June 2019. The University “has reported over $64 million in unidentified, anonymous Chinese donations since May 2010 (when Stanford ceased reporting foreign donor names),” according to the report.

In an investigation letter addressed to University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Aug. 10, the ED asked the University to provide a list of all previously undisclosed foreign gifts and contracts from 2010, along with detailed records and a written explanation for Stanford’s decision to discontinue its disclosure of foreign sources’ identities after 2011. 

But Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda said that Section 117 does not require “the reporting of names of donors during the years those gifts were received,” and the University had already filed required reports and information in compliance with the HEA. 

Along with the October report, the ED made available a database of foreign gifts to and contracts with universities that process U.S. federal student aid. According to the database, Stanford has reported a total of $76.8 million in foreign gifts since 2012 in its most recent filings, including $9.8 million in contracts from Saudi Arabia and $3.5 million in gifts and contracts with Chinese sources.

The ED investigations also reviewed foreign interference in academic freedom and potential threats to national security due to foreign sources of funding.  

The August letter demanded records pertaining to the case of Chen Song, a visiting scholar at Stanford’s neurology department who had been charged with visa fraud in July. A statement by the Department of Justice accused Song, a Chinese national, of having concealed her ties to the People’s Liberation Army of China. 

The letter also requested a list of all visiting or temporary Stanford scholars “from or affiliated with” China-based universities and educational entities, in addition to the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese military. 

It expressed concerns about Stanford’s “deep entanglements” with China, including the Stanford Center at Peking University (SCPKU) in Beijing and Stanford’s Confucius Institute — a worldwide Chinese language program that has become controversial due to its sponsorship by China’s Ministry of Education. 

Miranda said that the Chinese government is in neither direct nor indirect control of Stanford’s academic activities on campus or in China, and the University protects its academic freedom. 

The Confucius Institute “is governed by an agreement that clearly provides that Stanford controls all academic decisions, including what is taught and who is teaching it,” Miranda said, adding that similarly the programming and operation of SCPKU are not under the control of the Chinese government. 

Miranda told The Daily that Stanford is continuing to cooperate with U.S. authorities on Song’s ongoing criminal case and that he cannot make any further comments at this time. 

Concerns about China’s growing influence and potential espionage on university campuses, both highlighted in a Hoover Institution report last year, led to closer scrutiny by government agencies. The current U.S. administration has taken steps to restrict visas for certain Chinese students amid calls for more drastic actions such as preventing Chinese nationals from studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the U.S. 

Critics have argued that this increased scrutiny has resulted in xenophobia against Chinese scholars. Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell wrote in March 2019, without naming China, that the University “must … ensure that attentiveness to national security concerns does not bleed into something more insidious: a questioning of people within our community based on their country of origin or their heritage.” 

Stanford is “vigilant to concerns about U.S. national security,” and its international engagement follows University policies and complies with federal regulations, according to Miranda. Meanwhile, the University will continue to “support the conditions that foster the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, including the exchange of people and ideas with domestic and international collaborators.”

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