NAICU Washington Update

Foreign Influence on Campus Continues to Receive Attention from Congress and the Administration

June 18, 2020

With recent increased concern about foreign influence on college campuses from Congress and the Trump Administration, both have taken a closer look at how institutions are interacting with foreign entities. 

In the administration, the Department of Education tried to fast-track foreign gift reporting, and has gone so far as to investigate institutions for their compliance, especially looking at their ties to China.  Additionally, the White House is considering banning Chinese students from receiving visas to study in the United States.  Meanwhile, Congress has considered several bills looking to “Get Tough on China,” as Senate leadership has intimated. 

Section 117 Foreign Gift Reporting 

Under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act (HEA), institutions are required to report gifts from foreign entities of $250,000 or more. This provision has been in HEA for decades, but has no related regulations, and has had limited guidance on how to comply.  

In February, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) denied the department’s emergency request for approval of new Section 117 foreign gift reporting on procedural grounds. Despite this setback, the department continued working on the reporting requirements and portal, which will now go live in early July.  The first deadline for institutions for the new reporting is July 31. The official announcement is expected to be made through the agency’s Federal Student Aid Information for Financial Aid Professionals portal soon. 

The higher education community asked the department to delay the implementation of Section 117 reporting requirements because of institutional closures due to the coronavirus. With campuses closed, it will be difficult for various offices to coordinate to meet the new information requirements. 

Senate Legislation 

The Senate recently passed by unanimous consent the Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States (CONFUCIUS) Act, which references the Chinese language and cultural institutes funded by the Chinese government across the United States. The bill requires institutions to have strict contracts with Confucius Institutes or risk losing funding from the department (excluding Title IV student financial aid).  Contracts must “protect academic freedom at the institution; prohibit the application of any foreign law on any campus of the institution; and grant full managerial authority of the Confucius Institute to the institution, including full control over what is being taught, the activities carried out, the research grants that are made, and who is employed at the Confucius Institute.” The bill has not been introduced in the House of Representatives. 

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), former head of OMB, has introduced the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, a bipartisan bill to protect American research and intellectual property developed at U.S. colleges and universities from being stolen by foreign governments.  With regard to foreign gifts, the bill proposes to lower the threshold for reporting foreign gifts under Section 117 of HEA from $250,000 to $50,000, creates a searchable public database of foreign gifts to colleges, and penalizes institutions for improperly reporting with a fine of up to three times the amount of the unreported gift.  

The bill also proposes to address federal grant fraud by mandating a standardized government grant application process with cross-agency information sharing, and by punishing individuals who intentionally fail to disclose gifts or other support from foreign entities with penalties including fines and imprisonment. 

Additionally, the bill amends the State Department’s authority to deny visas to “certain foreign nationals seeking access to sensitive technologies,” and requires the Student and Exchange Visitor Program sponsors to “have safeguards against unauthorized access to sensitive technologies and report to State if an exchange visitor will have access to sensitive technologies," according to Sen. Portman’s press release

Finally, the bill creates a Federal Research Security Council at OMB with representation from research and education agencies to coordinate the protection of federally funded research, including the sharing of intelligence regarding specific countries.

Democrats and republicans in both chambers share concern over foreign influence on campus. As more bills and administrative actions are taken, that concern seems to be increasing rather than abating.

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