(JNS) After decades of ignoring how foreign governments were using donations to universities, the Department of Education (DoE) finally launched an investigation in 2020 and published a report that 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 report concluded, “There is very real reason for concern 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.
When I wrote a report on the funding by Arab universities in 2021, 258 universities had received contributions worth nearly $8.5 billion since 1986. The study concluded: Now that the danger has been identified by the Trump administration’s focus on foreign funding of universities, the question is whether the Biden administration will pursue the investigations with equal vigor or revert to the prior policy of ignoring noncompliance with reporting requirements.
Sadly, the Biden administration appears to have no interest in the subject and has made things worse by providing less information to the public about who is contributing to universities and how the money is being used.
The total contributions by Arab donors between 1986 and October 2022 have now reached nearly $11 billion. More than 10,000 contracts and gifts were spread across 273 institutions. And these figures grossly underestimate the total. My report documents numerous unreported donations, such as gifts of $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown universities in 2005. In its 2019 and 2020 reports, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) identified nearly $3 billion in unreported funds, primarily from Qatar.
Until 2020, the DoE listed the country of the giftor but not whether a government source was the funder. Unless the university reported the donor, the gifts could come from individuals, companies, foundations or other sources within the country. The latest report indicated that 37% of the donations were from government sources, and 12% were not. More than half (51%)—worth more than $6.7 billion (62% of the total)—provided no information on whether they came from a government source. More than 90% of the funds contributed from Arab sources—nearly $10 billion—have no specific donor listed. Even more disturbing, only one-fourth of all contributions, totaling almost $2 billion, specified the purpose of the donation.
One of the gaping loopholes in the reporting requirement is that universities have been able to keep the specific sources of the donations they receive private.
Donors from four countries contributed 95% of all Arab giving and 23% of all foreign funding to universities. The top donor by far is Qatar, with 1,056 donations worth $5.2 billion (48% of the Arab total), followed by the Saudis with 5,735 donations worth $2.9 billion (28% of the total), the UAE with 1,159 donations worth $1.3 billion (12% of the total) and Kuwait with 1,177 donations worth $858 million (8% of the total).
Given the total of its contributions, it is not surprising the largest gifts and contracts have come from Qatar. In fact, of the top 25, all but three (from the UAE and one from Saudi Arabia) came from Qatar. The largest was a $151 million contract reported in July 2020 to cover the budget for the establishment and operation of Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar. Cornell received $137 million and $149 million the following two years for the same purpose. From 2012-19, Qatar signed contracts with Cornell each year for the peculiar amount of $99,999,999. Other significant transactions from Qatar included ones for $95, $88 and $83 million to Texas A&M for an unspecified purpose; $84 million and $77 million to Carnegie Mellon (and $74,130,684 per year from 2016 to 2019); and eight other contracts worth more than $50 million each to Cornell. The UAE made two $75 million gifts to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The largest Saudi gift was, strangely, to the University of Idaho for student tuition and fees.
Besides those universities, others that hit the motherlode in the Middle East include Georgetown ($830 million), Northwestern ($648 million), four campuses of the University of Colorado ($578 million), Pennsylvania State University ($254 million), Harvard ($228 million) and George Washington University ($201 million).
Some may wonder about Israel’s contributions. The government, individuals, and companies made at least 925 donations (gifts/contracts) worth $303 million dating to 2003. As in the case of the Arab donations, few of those from Israeli sources (8% worth $22 million) describe their purpose.
The non-existent “State of Palestine” made 19 contributions worth $9.3 million. This is troubling because it gives credence to the Palestinian narrative and is contrary to U.S. policy which recognizes no such state.
Two other restricted contracts to Indiana University of Pennsylvania were from the “Palestinian Territory, Occupied” and none from the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). That same school, with an enrollment of 8,832, received all but five of the donations; three others went to Harvard and two to Brown. Each gift to Brown of $643,000 in 2020 was to support a professorship in Palestinian Studies within Middle East Studies. No purpose was listed for the Harvard gifts. Ten donations to Indiana were restricted contracts for tuition and fees for students from “Palestine.” The others were undocumented.
The DoE reports are not clear about the actual donors of the money. It appears none came from the P.A. itself. If any did, that would be a scandal given that the P.A. relies mainly on foreign aid to subsist and spends approximately $270 million on salaries for terrorists in Israeli prisons and families of suicide bombers. Palestinians would rightly wonder why their money was spent in the United States.
The assumption has long been that Arab funding has had a malevolent impact on the academic study of the Middle East, particularly concerning Israel and radical Islam. Evidence supports this, which I documented in my book, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East. It is impossible, however, to make judgments based on the raw data provided by the DoE since only 25% of the contributions list a purpose and 86% of those that do say the money was for financial aid or scholarships for students from the donor country. These donations totaled less than $2 billion, meaning there is no public record of how 82% of foreign contributions were used.
In general, providing Arab students with scholarships to attend American universities is a positive way to introduce them to the United States and our democratic values. More than 34,000 students came from 11 Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority in 2020-21; more than half of the total were Saudis. While many Arab students are campus provocateurs engaged in promoting BDS and demonizing Israel, it would take a lot more investigation to determine which and how many are on campus thanks to the largesse of their governments and whether any are encouraged or paid to be political activists.
Out of more than 10,000 donations, only three were identified with a political purpose—two $643,000 contributions to Brown in 2020 from a giftor in “The State of Palestine” to provide support for a professorship in Palestinian Studies within Middle East Studies and one for $67,969 for the same purpose from the UAE. The report did not identify the donors, but an official from Brown acknowledged the Palestinian contributor was the Munib and Angela Masri Foundation. Beshara Doumani, a supporter of the anti-Semitic BDS campaign, was named the first occupant of the position. Doubmani has since also become the president of Birzeit University, which is known for the activism of students associated with terror groups such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The relatively small number of professors who hold positions in more political fields funded by Arab donors and support BDS, such as Doubmani, can potentially reinforce anti-Israel student activity. The evidence, however, is anecdotal rather than empirical. Most faculty who agitate against Israel do so without needing Arab funding as motivation.
When DoE published its report on foreign influence, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said too many colleges and universities are “underreporting or not reporting at all” and emphasized that if they “are accepting foreign money or gifts, their students, donors and taxpayers deserve to know how much and from whom.” More importantly, they should be informed about the use of the funds.
Universities are not transparent and must be held accountable. Unfortunately, the Biden Education Department has no interest in doing so.