MIT strategized with White House to kill bill with more scrutiny on foreign funding: FOIA

Hidden foreign funding from Israel's enemies may help explain "tepid" response of universities to campus antisemitism following Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, transparency group says.

Published: January 25, 2024 11:00pm

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sally Kornbluth is the lone university president who has not resigned among three who told a congressional committee last month that calling for Jewish genocide does not inherently violate campus conduct codes.

That may not last, given the revelation that MIT's D.C. director worked with the White House nearly three years ago to ensure that high-dollar foreign donations to universities – including from countries that seek Israel's eradication or marginalization – wouldn't be subject to heightened federal scrutiny.

Federal watchdog Protect the Public's Trust obtained communications between MIT's David Goldston, a Capitol Hill veteran who served as House Science Committee chief of staff 20 years ago, and Office of Science and Technology Policy leaders from 2021 through a Freedom of Information Act request, and shared them with Just the News.

The emails show them strategizing over several months to remove a provision from the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act that would task the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), an interagency group led by the Treasury Department, with reviewing foreign gifts to and contracts with universities of $1 million and up for national security threats.

The cooperation illustrates the Biden administration's efforts to remove roadblocks to foreign funding for higher education. It ended the Trump administration's much-loathed investigations of undisclosed foreign funding under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, 19 of which remained open as of President Trump's last day in office. The page is currently empty.

Universities have received $43 billion in foreign gifts and grants since 1990, according to a review by transparency group Open the Books last summer. About one in four donations came from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and China, governments that are "adversarial to our foreign policy positions and the American way of life," CEO Adam Andrzejewski told The National Desk.

Department of Education records show that Qatar, which has reportedly harbored leaders of the terrorist group Hamas, disclosed $5.4 billion given to American universities from Harvard to D.C.'s George Washington University under Section 117. Harvard received $218 million in foreign funding in less than two years, The Harvard Crimson reported in September.

The Heritage Foundation detailed other gifts in its annual China Transparency Report released Thursday. 

Georgetown received a $10 million gift in 2016 from a Hong Kong-based foundation financed by a Bangkok-based entity that the feds connected to the Chinese government. It refused to make the contract public to back its claims about the academic independence of the "U.S.-China Dialogue" initiative, The Washington Post reported in 2020.

Universities have "traditionally been reluctant to provide transparency" despite a "significant portion" of the foreign money coming from "regimes hostile to the U.S.," PPT Director Michael Chamberlain, a former Trump education communications official, told Just the News.

"The very tepid response of many universities" to antisemitic incidents on campus after Hamas attacked Israeli civilians Oct. 7 "has naturally led to a chorus of questions about whether this hesitance to confront antisemitism may have been, at least in part, rooted in institutions’ receipts from foreigners opposed to Israel," he said.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Association of American Universities, Association of American Medical Colleges and American Council on Education asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ditch the CFIUS provision on the eve of markup in 2021. Ranking member James Risch, R-Idaho, had championed the provision.

But the emails obtained by PPT suggest that MIT's Goldston was already acting on the university groups' behalf with the Biden administration. 

"The higher ed groups have been in discussion with the majority staff [Democrats], which is trying to get some changes into the managers amendment, but those are likely to be insufficient," Goldston told Kei Koizumi, then-acting director of OSTP, four days before the April 20 opposition letter was sent. 

The administration needs to tell "Democratic members ASAP" if it has problems with the CFIUS section, "which it should," Goldston wrote. "With Administration involvement, at least behind the scenes, it’s conceivable the provision could get knocked out. "

The language would burden CFIUS "with matters of little national importance (in addition to deterring useful university gifts and collaborations)," he told Koizumi. The opposition letter said vague terms would create a "significant disincentive for philanthropic giving from foreign sources to support U.S. university research efforts."

Koizumi responded 38 minutes later: "We are on it. Thanks. Can say more by phone." 

Jurisdictional squabbling between the Foreign Relations and Banking committees led to contradictory bill provisions that authorized and banned CFIUS from a role in university reviews, Axios reported in May 2021, though the legislation still required universities to disclose large gifts. It easily passed the Senate the next month.

That October, Goldston discussed the "CFIUS provision in USICA we are extremely concerned about" with OSTP's Jason Matheny, who is now president and CEO of the RAND Corporation. Despite the contradictory provisions, "we are hearing that efforts to keep the [pro-review] provision in the bill are heating up," he said in bold.

Goldston gave Matheny a list of "talking points" including that the pro-review language will lead to "false accusations about lack of compliance" and could deter "beneficial" gifts and contracts that will go to "other countries instead." He offered to send the university opposition letter too.

Five days later Matheny responded: "We flagged this for the Hill as one of OSTP’s main objections. We hope they'll cut the provision." Just the News couldn't find any comparable provision in signed legislation.

Goldston and MIT didn't respond to queries on what CFIUS review might expose about its foreign donations and contracts, including any funders they wouldn't want to be publicly associated with, broadly oppose Israel or fund terrorism.

"There's really no valid reason" to oppose CFIUS review other than "you don't want the transparency," Ian Oxnevad, a Middle East specialist at the National Association of Scholars, told Just the News. He noted some funding involves "sensitive dual-use research" with military capabilities.

It's "nonsense" for universities to claim that a lengthy CFIUS review would dissuade foreign funders because typical university funding projects already take so long, Oxnevad said.

His group supports another set of bills scaring higher education groups, the Deterrent Act. Its House version (HR 5933) passed last month, while a Senate companion (S 3362) is pending before its Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

It would lower Section 117's reporting threshold to zero for gifts or contracts from foreign countries "of concern," including China, and require a waiver from the secretary of education for public institutions to sign contracts with those countries. 

The reporting threshold for all other countries would fall to $50,000 from its current $250,000. Private institutions with endowments exceeding $6 billion would have to report investments and holdings with foreign countries of concern.

The American Council on Education told its members — university presidents — that the GOP-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce ignored "the major concerns" raised by itself and several other groups.

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