This piece was originally published in The Hill.
In August 2022, thanks to an investigation by the Daily Beast, a University of Maryland, College Park professor was revealed to have received a six-figure grant from Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce company, to build surveillance software. This would be concerning enough, but to make matters worse, the professor was at the same time receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to conduct similar research. While it isn’t illegal for U.S. postsecondary institutions to receive contributions from foreign entities, the incident raises troubling questions about the money entering our education system. It’s especially concerning when these institutions are doing similar work for different governments, directly or indirectly: the Chinese government uses Alibaba to track Uighurs, for example.
Recognizing the need for greater transparency on this issue, the Trump administration published a memorandum, which the Biden administration endorsed, to ensure that researchers “with significant influence on the United States R&D enterprise fully disclose information that can reveal potential conflicts of interest.” This was a step in the right direction, but preventing similar national security concerns in the future will require involvement from Congress. The most important area for reform is Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The law requires postsecondary institutions to report to the Department of Education the contributions they receive from individuals and institutions from foreign countries.
As currently written, Section 117 would not have tracked this contribution from Alibaba.The reporting threshold for contributions is $250,000 individually or in aggregate, meaning that Alibaba’s $125,000 donation could legally have gone unreported, and the University of Maryland could have decided not to report the contribution to the Department of Education at all. We only know about this conflict of interests because of the Daily Beast’s reporting. What else could we be missing, even from universities following the law?
Click here to read the full piece in The Hill.