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department of education foreign gifts
Students on the campus of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. The university is among institutions around the world that have shared more than a quarter of a billion dollars in grants from the U.S. government since the 2017 budget year. Credit: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Foreign gifts to U.S. universities are getting new scrutiny as the government says it’s worried about foreign meddling, with the U.S. Department of Education cracking down on universities it says have failed to report receiving money from abroad.

The department gave Harvard and Yale 60 days to produce a list of contributions they receive from foreign governments and other donors, an order U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said was about transparency.

“If colleges and universities are accepting foreign money and gifts, their students, donors and taxpayers deserve to know how much and from whom,” DeVos said in a statement.

The United States, too, gives money to universities abroad. Here’s how much and to whom:

Federal budget documents show that 3,259 grants worth $284.4 million in U.S. taxpayer money has gone to foreign universities since the 2017 budget year. This does not include spending by private donors.

The U.S. government has given 3,259 grants worth $284.4 million to foreign universities since the 2017 budget year.

Some of the grants were for medical and scientific research. The National Institutes of Health accounted for $93.5 million of it. The rest was from the State Department ($81.2 million), the U.S. Agency for International Development ($85.1 million), and other sources.

Among other things, this money paid for graduate programs in American studies, English-language instruction and American experts to speak at universities abroad.

Representatives of U.S. universities and colleges say international support is generally a good thing.

“A U.S. policy goal for most of the past decade has been to stimulate international cooperation in scientific research, the reason being that if scientists in other countries and U.S. scientists were working on similar issues we would make better progress by working together,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the nation’s biggest higher education association, the American Council on Education.

Hartle said his organization does not oppose the U.S. government going after potential foreign espionage or intellectual property theft. But he also said that there has been a shift under the Trump administration from encouraging international scientific cooperation to expressing skepticism about it.

The Education Department said Harvard, Yale and other U.S. universities failed to report gifts they received from governments and other sources in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries, which is required by law.

Foreign money might compromise institutions’ independence and academic freedom, the department said. It said foreign donors may be trying to steal scientific secrets or spread propaganda.

Many Americans may not be aware that money flows both ways, said John Haupt, a graduate associate at the University of Arizona who has written about this topic.

“The biggest question for me is what is the purpose of the U.S. giving this money, and it always goes back to the nature of public diplomacy,” Haupt said. “You want to balance your hard power and your soft power. The soft power is drawing citizens of a country to your culture, your values, your way of doing things.”

He added: “To what extent do we perceive it as a threat versus how it can benefit us all?”

The grants conferred by the U.S. government include some to “deepen understanding about American culture and values,” the budget documents show. That includes through a program that encourages young people in other countries to study at U.S. universities. It also paid for resource centers, often on university campuses abroad, that provide information and programs about American history and culture and the equipment and materials to supply them.

“To what extent do we perceive it as a threat versus how it can benefit us all?”

American money went to scholarships for students at universities abroad, and paid for renovations, computers and software, furniture and virtual reality headsets. It has underwritten conferences, campaigns against gender violence and programs to improve agricultural practices and encourage girls to go into math, science, technology and engineering fields.

Many universities were funded to train journalists, including in Afghanistan, Algeria, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Croatia, Ghana, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Mexico.

The biggest single recipient of U.S. money to foreign universities was the American University of Afghanistan — so named because it follows an American-style education system — which received $21 million. Afghan universities collectively got $47.8 million.

The American University of Iraq received $5 million out of $8 million overall that went to higher education institutions in Iraq. Pakistani universities split $17.4 million, and nearly $20 million went to universities in Uganda.

Makerere University’s School of Public Health in Uganda was given $7.6 million to improve health care; Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, $4.5 million to train health professionals and expand research. Universities in Brazil got $6.6 million; in South Africa, $2.6 million.

It wasn’t just to institutions in developing nations that the United States gave grants. Nearly $16 million went to Canadian universities, more than $13 million to British ones, $3.7 million to Israeli schools, $2.7 million to German institutions and $2.2 million to Australian universities.

While much of the focus of U.S. investigations appears to be funding from Chinese sources, the amount of U.S. money that went to universities in China and Hong Kong was a comparatively small $772,040.

This story about Department of Education and foreign gifts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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