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U.S. Turns Up Heat on Colleges’ Foreign Ties

A letter notified Stanford University that it had joined an unpopular club: It was one of at least a dozen colleges under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over foreign gifts and contracts.Sent in mid-August to President Marc Tessier-Lavigne of Stanford, the notice appears to have been prompted by the arrest of a visiting Chinese researcher on charges of hiding her ties to the Chinese military on her visa application. But the nine-page document refers to Stanford’s numerous ties to China, from a joint research center at Peking University to its hosting of a Confucius Institute, a Chinese-funded language and cultural center. It even takes note of a photo posted on the university website of students and professors posing in front of a Korean War-era Chinese monument, calling it a “particularly bizarre (and extremely indecorous) image for Stanford to highlight,” given the American servicemembers killed in the war.At the heart of the letter is a sweeping records request: for documentation of all foreign gifts and contracts for the past decade, no matter the amount; for the latest contact information for all visiting Chinese researchers and scholars over that time; and for details of any links visitors had to the Chinese government or military — something that the government, not universities, screens for in the visa process.The investigatory notice sent last month to Stanford, and a similar one to Fordham University, represent a ratcheting up of scrutiny of American colleges’ ties abroad, specifically to China. (In a statement, a Stanford spokeswoman said that university “takes very seriously its obligations concerning foreign influence” and was “surprised by the unfounded allegations in the letter to the contrary.” A Fordham spokesman said the university was cooperating with the investigation.)

Just as we had a get-on-the-China-bandwagon movement, now will we have a rush to get off?

But the letters are far from the only sign of how higher education has been caught up in the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive posture toward China. In recent weeks, federal officials have ended the Fulbright exchange program in Hong Kong and mainland China, forbidden Chinese diplomats from visiting college campuses without U.S. government permission, and designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, in Washington, D.C., a “foreign mission” of China.Such moves are part of a “steady drumbeat” by the administration against China, one that has seemed to grow louder ahead of the presidential election in November, said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Centers. Each new action is just another “tap-tap-tap of the drumstick on the drum.”College leaders agree the government has legitimate concerns, and they say want to work with federal agencies to resolve those. But as the election nears they instead find themselves defending even the tamest and least risky ties, which could have a chilling effect for years to come.“Just as we had a get-on-the-China-bandwagon movement” of the last decade, said James A. Millward, a China scholar at Georgetown University, “now will we have a rush to get off?”Wariness of higher education’s relationship with China is not new. Director Christopher Wray of the FBI has consistently sounded the alarm about foreign governments, Beijing in particular, taking advantage of campuses’ open research environments. Early in the Trump administration, the White House placed restrictions on visas for Chinese graduate students. And the U.S. Congress has blocked colleges that host Confucius Institutes from receiving certain Defense Department grants, a bipartisan strategy that led dozens of the institutes to close.But the flurry of recent announcements and policy directives have left many academics with the sense that demands are coming at them from all sides, and with little coordination. “There’s been a rapid change in temperature” in the relationship between China and the United States, said Philip H. Bucksbaum, a professor of physics at Stanford and president of the American Physical Society. “It’s affecting science.”Higher-education associations had supported legislation, approved by Congress last year, to set up an interagency working group within the federal government to better coordinate intelligence and synchronize governmental actions to combat foreign influence in research. (The same measure also created a roundtable of officials from academe, government, and industry, run by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, to advise the government on these issues.) But a year later, educators complain they see little sign of coordination, with individual agencies seemingly developing policy in an ad hoc manner.“If you look at the behavior of government agencies, it seems like anyone who has access to a pressure point on China is using it,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education.If anything, the scope of government efforts has expanded. For the first time last month, the State Department directed concerns about China to college governing boards. In a letter, Keith J. Krach, the under secretary for economic growth, energy, and the environment, urged colleges to disclose all Chinese investments in their endowments and to divest from any companies with ties to human-rights violations. The letter warned colleges that they could take a hit if mainland Chinese companies were delisted by American stock exchanges. Government officials have said Chinese stocks could be removed because they do not follow federal-audit transparency requirements.Krach, a former chairman of Purdue University’s board of trustees, said it was important for colleges to take a hard look at their ties to and investments in China. He singled out trustees for his message because “when you’re on a governing board, you have a fiduciary duty and a moral obligation.”Still, Krach said he did not believe that American colleges should break all ties with China, but instead be more thoughtful and transparent about their collaborations. “It’s time to put a stake in the ground. And I think that is true for universities.”College officials said they do take such issues seriously. Before the pandemic, concern about foreign influence was “the top issue for university research VPs,” said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. “It’s still a top issue.”In particular, the arrest of a number of researchers across the country for failure to disclose ties with Chinese universities or companies have led many institutions to tighten policies about outside contracts and potential conflicts of interest. Notably, Charles Lieber, chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department, was charged with failing to report a contract with the Wuhan University of Technology that paid him a monthly stipend of $50,000.The University of Florida previously had a policy governing outside contracts and other agreements, but it wasn’t wasn’t always consistently or effectively enforced, said David P. Norton, the university’s vice president for research. The limitations came to light after the National Institutes of Health in 2019 questioned the conduct of two faculty members who received NIH funding but had not disclosed outside research support or affiliations. Both resigned.Florida has since revamped its reporting process. Rather than putting the burden on individual department chairs to vet and approve external agreements, a central campus committee, with members with specialized expertise in international partnerships and conflict of interest, meets weekly to go over potential contracts. Although all outside arrangements must be approved, “anything involving a foreign entity gets lots of scrutiny,” Norton said.The committee also examined all existing faculty collaborations, scraping some and renegotiating others, so that they were institutional partnerships, not agreements with individual researchers. That way, the university assumes the risk, Norton said.Still, some of the tensions between government and academe arise from a basic culture clash. In national security, and even in business, information is closely held and proprietary, while higher education, with few exceptions, is built on a foundation of sharing knowledge.For decades, only research deemed classified or secret has been walled off, and that has been a small share. The rest has been viewed as open, to be shared across campuses and borders. But recently there has been “an emerging gray area of research that’s not considered classified but is sensitive,” said Farnsworth. Researchers and administrators are often confounded by this gray area and are looking to the government to more clearly delineate the boundaries. If there are to be new standards for international research, they want to know what the guidelines are, he said.Federal officials also need to more clearly lay out the areas of risk and alert colleges to specific vulnerabilities, said Smith of AAU. It’s not enough to issue general warnings, he said. “Universities are not going to be the position to run the kind of checks that our intelligence agencies can.”College leaders also worry that little differentiation is made among degrees of risk. In contrast to American research being obtained by the Chinese military for its own ends, exchange programs like Fulbright serve to increase understanding between the two countries, leaving many to question the purpose of its abrupt cancellation. Higher-education associations have challenged the Education Department’s investigation into Stanford and other institutions as overreach and a fishing expedition. And characterizing all students from China as spies, as President Trump is alleged to have done, risks alienating the largest group of international students on American campuses.“The big issue here is how to recognize real threats and take appropriate action to address those risks, without deeming any contact with China to be criminal in nature,” said Frank Wu, president of Queens College.The lack of nuance in the discussion about China, would be unacceptable in other contexts, said Wu. “You had all these white people who cheated to get their kid into college,” he said, referring to the Varsity Blues admission scandal. “Does that mean that every white parent cheated? One of the great frustrations is that it is impossible to try to have a rational conversation.”But Salvatore Babones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney whose expertise is Chinese economy and society, said that universities have been “compromised” by their work with China and may be too willing to overlook its policies on national security and human rights to continue the relationship. For example, he pointed to a number of American academics who co-authored papers on facial recognition and artificial intelligence with researchers at Chinese companies that sold surveillance technology to the Chinese government. China has used such technology in its crackdown in Xinjiang, where it has imprisoned Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in internment camps.University leaders, Babones said, “have been seduced by big money and big research.”Educators counter that academic and research ties with China are more important now than ever. As the quality of China’s universities and labs has flourished, the research relationship between China and the United States is stronger and more mutually beneficial than at any previous time. When Farnsworth first began working with Chinese institutions in the 1980s, research collaboration between the two countries was “kind of philanthropy.” China has become a powerhouse in many areas of research, especially in the sciences. Deteriorating relations between the United States and China could leave American researchers on the outside of important collaborations.What’s more, American universities argue that if they pull away from China, they will lose the ability to put pressure on Chinese universities and the government to be more open and transparent.

Nine in10 Chinese students stay in the U.S. after earning doctorates, a critical source of top scientists, researchers, and professors. “We could lose a generation of talent.”

But Babones argues that such assumptions no longer hold. “For years, we said if we engage we’re throwing a rope to China and pulling them up. And we were. But today universities are being sucked down by China. The old argument that we’re going to liberalize China by engaging them, that old story is failing.”So far, no college has fully broken off ties with China, but observers wonder, what contracts are not being renewed? What partnerships are not being struck? Before the pandemic, Bucksbaum, the physics-association president, said he knew of colleagues, particularly those who work at federal labs, who were forbidden to go to China for conferences or other work-related trips.Disengaging with China could also have consequences for American colleges at home. Even as China has improved its own universities, it still sends some of its brightest students to America, 370,000 at last count. Nine in 10 Chinese students stay in the country after earning their doctorates, a critical source of top scientists, researchers, and professors. “We could lose a generation of talent,” Bucksbaum said.There are already signs of the pipeline’s erosion. Bucksbaum said many physics departments have experienced significant declines in international applicants to doctoral programs. And recent data analysis by Georgetown’s University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology found a 75 percent increase in successful applications from American residents to Canada’s main skilled-immigration program since 2017. All of the growth, Georgetown researchers found, was from non-citizens, many of them American-educated. “We’re still winning the talent-recruitment game,” Smith said of American colleges, “but we have to be careful not to mess it up.”Some college officials said they were holding out for November, hoping that a possible change of administration could lessen the heat on academe and its relationships with China. But Farnsworth threw cold water on that idea, saying that he expected a Biden administration would probably also have concerns about China. “Both sides see China as a threat and a competitor.”Farnsworth said he recently was talking with a top international-education administrator at a major research university. The administrator told him that he couldn’t imagine his international strategy without China, but that a growing amount of his focus was on “putting out fires.”“We’re just as committed to China as ever,” the administrator told Farnsworth, “but the costs — the political costs, economic, reputational — are rising.”

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