Foreign Money in U.S. Universities: Implications for Academic Freedom and National Security

Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Harrison McClary/REUTERS
Robert Daly

Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Ben Freeman

Director, Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, Center for International Policy

Ted Mitchell

President, American Council on Education


Executive Director and CEO, NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Speakers discuss the power yielded by foreign governments through large donations to U.S. universities, the proliferation of government-funded Confucius Institutes on campuses, and the potential threat to U.S. national security.

BRIMMER: Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s—to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, Foreign Money in U.S. Universities: Implications for Academic Freedom and National Security. My name Esther Brimmer. I’m executive director and CEO of NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. And I will be presiding for today’s discussion.

Now, international cooperation has been a hallmark of academic research for centuries. The exchanges of students, and scholars, and ideas are fundamental to intellectual inquiry and to innovation. In the modern era, governments have made funding research a strategic priority. Indeed, massive investments in research helped the United States win the Second World War, win the Cold War, and launch the information age with the creation of the internet. Today research funding comes from many sources, public and private. The theft of international—intellectual property can have real national security implications. This is a bipartisan concern. Does it matter that foreign governments are funding research in the United States? What are the implications for academic freedom and national security?

Well, today we have an outstanding panel to help us address these issues. On my immediate right is Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. On his right is Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. And on his right is Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars. Welcome.

So let’s begin by setting the stage for this issue. Dr. Mitchell, there is a long history of cooperation among higher education institutions and the federal government. What are the benefits and what has changed?

MITCHELL: Thanks for—thanks for having me. Thanks for leading this discussion. Thanks to all of you for being here.

A couple quick things. The American Council on Education, as I think many of you know, represents all sectors of American higher education—two-year, four-year, public, private. And so we’ve had a bird’s-eye view of these issues for over a hundred years now. And research funding from the federal government has been essential to the growth not just of the applied research endeavors that have done so much to change our economy and change the fabric of society, but the basic research. The basic research that is behind those applied advances that matter so much to us.

Over time, the balance between those two has shifted some, away from basic research toward more applied research. There’s nothing wrong with that because, after all, the applied research is bread and butter for all of us, whether it’s the internet or developments in bioengineering and biotechnology. At the same time, I think that we all have to keep our eyes on the seed corn, on the ability of American universities to do the basic research from which those applied advances apply.

The other thing that I would like to mention, Esther, is that in addition to research funding the federal government has been a very important contributor to international scholarly exchanges, where scholars from the U.S. go abroad and scholars from abroad, including China, come here. Student exchanges likewise. The Fulbright program, to do a headline that we all know, has been a federally funded program since its inception. And so as we think about foreign influence I hope that our conversation today would be one that would be broad, that would think about people, that would think about facilities, that would think about ideas, and would think about money.

BRIMMER: Thank you. Ben, how large an issue is this? What do you see as the impact of foreign financial contributions to academic research, and why is the U.S. government concerned? Why now? Is it an issue of money or from whom it comes?

FREEMAN: Great question, Esther. And thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for having us. And thank you to my fellow panelists.

I really think we probably would not be having this panel if not for the 2016 election, if the issue of foreign influence in American democracy hadn’t risen to the front pages of newspapers we, unfortunately, probably would not be here having this great discussion. And I say that as somebody who wrote a book on foreign influence before it was cool. (Laughter.) And my mother—

MITCHELL: But the book is still available.

FREEMAN: The book is still available. It’s The Foreign Policy Auction. My mother still hasn’t read it. So please, if you do, send a note to her. But that was written before 2016, before the issue came to the forefront.

And I really think the 2016 election, though that was about election interference and not directly related to this topic, I think that very much opened everybody’s eyes to this sort of Pandora’s box of foreign influence. And people started looking at what other avenues of influence might be out there. People started paying more attention to the Foreign Agents Registration Act. People started paying more attention to foreign funding of think tanks. And then folks started paying more attention to foreign funding at universities too.

And I really think foreign funding of universities, it’s sort of behind the curve in our understanding of how foreign influence works in America right now. And I think that’s an issue because this is actually a rather large space in terms of the size of it. Since 2013, for example, the Department of Education keeps records on foreign gifts. There’s over $12 billion of gifts in that database. And we have some recent examples that that number’s probably even low. There’s a lot that’s still underreported there.

And to put that in perspective, the regular foreign influence industry, the Foreign Agents Registration Act registrants, that industry is about a $400 million a year industry. So when we’re talking about foreign funding of universities, we’re talking about funding that is five or six times greater than those FARA-registered firms. So I really think there’s a lot of questions about how much money we’re talking about. But I think it’s more about where is that money coming from.

And we’ve all probably come to this issue in one way or another from our learning about Confucius Institutes’ impact on campus. And when we see that some of the biggest spenders on higher education are our frenemies, our near-peer competitors like China, and like Russia, and other countries, I think it is a concern about exactly where this money is coming from. And then secondly, are there any strings attached to that money I think is a very important question.

BRIMMER: And we’re going to dig into more about funding for a variety of things including research on campuses and the implications for campuses, and also look at some of the responses, because we will wrap up by talking about some of the solutions and actions for dealing with this.

But Robert Daly, for decades the United States has had clear mechanisms to manage classified research. But even now, non-classified research is considered sensitive. So what’s the stakes? What’s changed? Why—we used to care about the export of things and now we seem to care about the export of data.

DALY: I think what has happened is that China has emerged as a peer competitor. And we now have a relationships with China that is competitive globally and across various sectors. And so now it is not just a question for some in Washington—although, this is in play. This is still under debate, and we don’t have clear policies yet. But a question about whether, as the National Security Strategy says, universities have become a vector for the loss of strategically significant information to China, not through intellectual property theft, or not through espionage in laboratories, but through normal teaching and research activities. This is the broad and potentially, if not framed properly, extremely dangerous accusation or realization.

And if we think back—and to date, I still reject the idea that we’re in a cold war with China. But if you think back to the Cold War, I think it helps us to understand the concern. During the Cold War, you wouldn’t hear many people in universities, even very internationally minded sort of liberal academics saying that we should be training Soviet scientists in nuclear physics. Nobody thought that, because the threat was understood, and it was broadly socialized. So the argument now goes, it depends on your discipline, but something like: We’re competing with China to develop hypersonics. Why are we giving Chinese scientists, best and the brightest, Ph.D.s in aeronautics and astronautics? But it goes beyond that. It extends to the basic sciences because we—material science—because we don’t know where the clear breakthrough will come.

So there are direct security implications, like, you know, for weapons development. But there’s also a concern that you hear expressed frequently but not universally in Congress—as I say, this is debated—that because China is a peer competitor and it wants what it calls comprehensive national power around the world—and there’s a belief in some quarters that that happens at our expense. And if you believe that, then anything that is to China’s benefit is potentially to our detriment. Why should we be training up the best and the brightest from a rival at all, is the most extreme version of these concerns. Now, I think that that is—basing our policy on those fears leads us to enormous acts of self-harm.

So how do we find the right degree of vigilance that still preserves openness, internationalization, excellence of universities is a real policy dilemma. Because the risks are getting higher because of China. This is—the risks are real. But risk will never be zero. So how much risk can we tolerate is what we need to figure out in higher education now.

BRIMMER: And let’s go to that question about how we preserve the vitality of the American classroom, for which one million students come to the United States to enjoy, and the vitality of the innovation system that we have that includes bringing smart people here? But of course, today’s—let me ask the question this way. Today’s December 10. It’s International Human Rights Day. And if we actually go to Article 19, it actually talks about the—everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers. So how do we manage security, and what do we need to be concerned about in terms of academic freedom on campuses?

DALY: Well, I think it’s largely a question of enforcing and taking more seriously longstanding rules and practices on the American campuses that are often honored in the breach. You know, the concern with money is, to my mind, not so much where it comes from but, as you said, you know, how it was managed and how it’s used. And most departments, most schools have reporting requirements for faculty. You’re supposed to report all sources of money. But they don’t. And there’s an issue of university culture. University leaders do not like to say thou shalt not to faculty, because faculty are kind of unruly and they make that hard on you.

So part of defending academic freedom and getting this right, academic freedom isn’t just about freedom of speech and freedom to conduct research. It’s also about freedom from American government management. It’s about academic self-governance. But this is going to require, in my view, universities to do a little bit more governing, and to get their own houses in order consistent with existing rules for vigilance, best practices to make sure that you know where the money’s coming from, that that’s all transparent, and to know that foreign donors in particular, but even American corporate donors, know that this doesn’t buy them influence. This is simply an investment in a university for the university to conduct its research and teaching activities as it sees fit. And so I think we—I think universities have it within their ken to solve this without government management, but they’ve been a little lax.

BRIMMER: Ted, would—I know that ACE has been working with many of the leading associations in the field, including the Association of American Universities, AAU, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and other mechanisms. Would you comment a bit about—on how the campus communities have responded in recent years?

MITCHELL: Sure. And I think that we’ve done a lot of good work together on this issue. And so I think that the issue of laxity—I mean, we could debate sort of on a spectrum what lax is, but let’s not go there. I think more important is to step back and do a reset. I think that the academic community within the last several years—probably initiated by the 2016 election and thinking about foreign influence more broadly—the academic infrastructure has become more aware of the threats, whether those are threats from China on the sort of more pure espionage side, or capture of intellectual property, or the creation of mirror labs in China. You know, I think that the academic infrastructure has become keenly aware of that.

 Confucius Institutes. The academic infrastructure has similarly, I think, really awakened to the need for oversight for these and other arrangements. And so you’re seeing, with the help of other associations—not just in the U.S., but internationally—you’re seeing the transparency card being played in very important ways. So from the Hague we have a list of—a checklist, really—for institutions worldwide on how to manage their relationships broadly with China. We’re taking that up. In fact, I’m meeting with the head of Universities Canada later this afternoon, with my colleague Brad Farnsworth. And we’re going to be talking about the implementation of those guidelines.

So I think the first thing is: Do universities get it? Yes. Universities get it. Second, are universities trying to do all that they can to staunch the flow, the inappropriate flow, of information and data? I think we’re working on it. I think we’re getting there. Are institution—then, number three—are institutions concerned that there is a line that you cross between legitimate kinds of limitation and the limitation on core academic freedom and core international exchange? I think yes is the answer to that too. And we need to negotiate where that—where that line is, what crossing that line means for an institution, for an individual researcher, or even a faculty member who has some kind of exchange relationship.

Last thing I want to say, and I’m taking advantage of having the mic on, is that I think when we think even in the narrow sense about China, but in the broad sense about the international training of scholars, in the past we had a somewhat easy solution to that problem: Keep them. And I don’t want us to lose sight of that as a real potential for us as we go forward. We joke sometimes when the door is closed and the lights are off about stapling a green card to the student visas of the most active researchers in even sensitive fields.

DALY: I’ve heard members of Congress advocate that in the past year, and they weren’t joking.

MITCHELL: And the lights were probably on.

DALY: The lights were on.

MITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah. but I think as we talk about this, I think we should—we should remember that the reason that people are drawn to America is because, Esther, of this tremendous intellectual vitality that you’re talking about, and the academic freedom that’s involved and inherent in the academic enterprise in America. And add to that the capitalist enterprise that allows people to monetize many of their discoveries in a way that they can’t do in China, in Saudi Arabia, in—you know, you name—you name the country from whom we’re drawing very, very intelligent people.

FREEMAN: Can I just piggyback on that too? Because I think one of the most important issues when we’re talking about this is to not label all foreign funding as being bad, as being nefarious. And I think this is true across all the different areas of foreign influence research. And I mentioned all the other different areas too. I don’t think all foreign funding to think tanks is bad. I don’t think all registered foreign agents are bad. There are plenty of examples where foreign—I would dare to say that most foreign funding is quite beneficial to both us and to the countries that are giving that money. So I think it’s important, even though I threw out that $12 billion figure, I think most of that money is probably for very good purposes that most Americans would appreciate.

BRIMMER: And precisely as we go into a knowledge economy where the innovation and the exchange of ideas are crucial to the actual value we’re adding to the economy, the fact that we have such a vibrant system for innovation is extremely important, perhaps even more important than it’s perhaps ever been.

So what are some practical next steps? Indeed, leaders on campuses have been very active. Do we have enough communication across campuses? I know at NAFSA we work with many people who are in international offices. There are, of course, the legal offices that handle export control issues. Do we have enough communication among key actors, or are there more things we could be doing to help support that cooperation?

MITCHELL: So I’ll take a first shot at it. I think the easy answer is no. We can always—we can always do more. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m so pleased that we have a robust partnership across the leading associations in American colleges and universities who are talking about the same issues, who are working together on both position papers to help educate people on campus and off campus, but also these kinds of work-throughs. We worked together on a document on Confucius Institutes that we disseminated broadly across the institutions that have Confucius Institutes. And the response that we’ve gotten is that that’s been very, very helpful. So we need to gather the learning. We need to synthesize it. And we need to disseminate it as broadly as we can. And that’s a project that will never be over. We need to keep responding to changing circumstances.

DALY: I think your question also takes us off campus, however. You’ve mentioned several times, I think appropriately so, the innovation system. And that’s really what we’re talking about here, the universities as a key component in this. But it also affects national laboratories, corporate laboratories, who are having a lot of their cooperation and investment with China called into question, as to whether this is, in fact, undermining American security. And here, I think that we need the corporate and national laboratories, and the universities, to work with government, to work with Congress and the executive branch to try to define as narrowly as possible the areas which really have a discrete, describable national security component, rather than to cast broad aspersions about universities giving knowledge to the world, including to our enemies.

And there are a couple of pieces of draft legislation in the Senate and in the House, that I don’t think have moved much over the past year, that have frameworks for this. I know that the Office of the Science and Technology Policy Advisor is interested in this as well. And the general bumper sticker approach that we’ve begun to hear—and this, I think, was Secretary Gates’—was small yards, high fences, to try to define not broad disciplines but subdisciplines and actual emergent technologies as narrowly as possible, and then build a high fence around them. And these draft legislation calls for things like a rulemaking body such that scholars from countries of high strategic concern—and that means Iran, China, Russia, Cuba, North Korea—could not study those small fields beyond a certain level, whether it was postdoc, or however it was defined.

And this needs to be done not just for universities, but for corporations as well, so that they know that opening up an R&D center in China, or letting a scholar of Chinese origin, or Iranian origin, work in our R&D center in the United States is not going to be cast as an act of treason. And so I think this is becoming better and better understood on the Hill and in the executive branch. But we also, just to support what Ted just said, need to remember that the internationalization of American universities, until very recently, was seen as a vector for our influence of the world, right? We seem to have forgotten about that, that soft power piece.

Two weeks ago, just to give you one example, the FDA approved the first Chinese cancer drug for use in the United States after clinical trials. And if you go back and if you look at that Chinese lab the physicians who came up with this drug, they were almost all American trained. And they’ve had hopscotch careers where they were back and forth. And, yes, the company that will manufacture this drug, although they may license it in the United States, is Chinese, it’ll be curing cancer in America. We’re talking about curing cancer. And that’s a credit to what we achieved. And we need—there are lots of stories like this. There are actually more stories of that kind than there are of people actually stealing from classified labs in American universities. And we need some sense of balance.

BRIMMER: Indeed. Indeed, we find that just as we talk to our members that, indeed, the benefits are—that we’ve seen for decades—are still very much the case. Both the—both the innovation, but also contributions to local communities, through innovations from international studies and scholars.

But just to follow up on your point, to share with the group, just the update overnight on what’s going on down the road at Capitol Hill. Indeed, Congress this week is finalizing the National Defense Authorization Act. It does—and we understand from the markup last night—it does include elements of H.R. 3038, which is the Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019. I know maybe you’ve all been involved in that.

DALY: Which the AAU and the APLU and ACL support, right?

BRIMMER: They do. Exactly. Exactly. So we were all waiting to see if it was in there. We understand that it is in there. And just to—just for members to know that it would establish within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, they would lead an interagency working group of federal science, intelligence, and security agency sets. That’s one component. And the other would be a national academies led national science, technology and security roundtable. So that’s our understanding of what’s in the legislation at the moment. So we’ll see if that moves. Obviously the NDAA is something that does—we do expect to be a must-pass legislation. So we’ll be keeping our eyes on that. So that’s an important element about some things are happening in Congress.

Are there other things that should be happening either in Congress or with the executive—the executive branch as well? I mean, one question is, you know, if funding for research—maybe to go back where we started—if funding for research, federal and state funding, were higher, perhaps back to the levels it was a decade, might there be a different conversation about the reliance on foreign funding? What do you say?

FREEMAN: Yes, tentatively, though I think even in that hypothetical situation I don’t think anybody would reject a good foreign funding source. So even if we had those higher levels of domestic funding, I still think there would be a search for foreign funding too. And again, that’s not necessarily, I think, good or bad. I’ll leave that there.

BRIMMER: Are there other aspects of work that the executive branch could be involved in?

DALY: I think the executive branch right now could be convening. And I think that we need to make sure that academia is well-represented in these panels. You don’t just want the security agencies involved, because the security agencies always want risk to be zero. And the real question—the broad question, I think, that is raised for us by the rise of China in particular, but not just China, is how confident are we living with the vulnerabilities and the weaknesses that have always been inherent in our greatest strengths? Namely, openness, internationalization, academic self-governance, you know, political-cultural academic pluralism. There are vulnerabilities there. And they’re actually getting more worrisome as China gets more powerful, because China does play in this space. There’s no question about it. But if we can’t reduce risk to zero, are we going to have the confidence to go forward and, again, to out-compete, to out-innovate and, as you suggest, to reinvest I think is the right broad approach.


FREEMAN: Yeah, I think another issue for the executive branch is on the transparency side of things. I mentioned some issues with underreporting of this information. And we know a lot about where some of this money is coming from, and that sort of thing. But the Department of Education has recently started investigations of six universities. And their preliminary findings show that $1.3 billion in previously unreported foreign funding. And to put that in perspective for those six universities, one of which is my alma mater Texas A&M, that those universities have previously reported about $1.8 billion. So we’re talking nearly half of the money that DOE could track was previously unreported.

And I think we need to have a serious conversation about why that was happening. And DOE and others can, I think, do more for education on that front. And I think organizations like those of my fellow panelists here are doing just wonderful work on that and educating institutions about how to properly report. But I think that’s definitely an area for improvement because at the end of the day, for me, one of the most important issues is just having the public know where this money is coming from in the first place.

MITCHELL: So if I can—I do need to add onto the Department of Education’s work on foreign gift reporting. I think that it is absolutely true that institutions have paid, hmm, maybe second-tier attention to the gift reporting requirements. And so we’re coming to terms with that. And the investigations will be somewhat helpful in that. But I also think that the companion piece to transparency is clarity. And without clarity, transparency is a shot in the dark. And that’s been the problem in this foreign gift reporting realm.

The Department of Education has systematically refused to provide guidance to institutions about how to fill out the forms. And so while it’s been a second-tier issue, bad on us, there has also been a massive absence of clarity about the meaning of the law in its application. The law itself is actually rather broad.

FREEMAN: Very broad.

MITCHELL: Very broad, right? It’s $250,000 of gift, contract, or other transaction. What the heck does that mean? I’ll give you an example. There are a couple of foreign students attending university in the United States—a couple. And they pay tuition. Is that tuition payment an exchange under the law? Depends how you read the law. The Department has recently extended what it calls guidance that basically said: Oh, no, 250(,000 dollars) is wrong. It’s zero. Any dollar has to be reported from any foreign source for any purpose. I guess that’s clarity. (Laughter.) But that’s not going to lead to the kind of transparency that will be actionable on the campus basis.

So forget my gripes about the Department of Education for a second. We have a seven-page letter if you would like to read it to the Department on this section of the law. But let’s step back. Transparency, absolutely. Clarity has to be the other hand in the handshake. And that’s why it’s so important from a process side to engage the security agencies, the federal funding agencies, congressional committee staff, and the academy in developing guidelines that can be clear enough to provide real guidance to campuses, so that we, in turn, can be transparent about what’s happening on our campuses.

FREEMAN: Can I just piggyback on that piggyback?

BRIMMER: Actually, we’re coming up on 1:00.

MITCHELL: Oh, sorry.

BRIMMER: I’m going to open the floor to members for questions. But you can fold your comment in, because I’m sure we’ll get questions on what you say. But we know a tight ship on timing here. So it is 1:00. I invite members to ask questions. Remember, this is on the record. Please wait for a microphone, and stand, and identify yourself, and ask one question. Who’d like to start? Please.

Q: Hi. I’m Nelson Cunningham, McLarty Associates. Full disclosure, I’m on Esther’s board at NAFSA, and so—

MITCHELL: How’s she doing?

Q: Great. (Laughter.) Great. We just had the retention conversation the other day. Great. (Laughter.)

BRIMMER: Thank you. Thank you.

Q: So I have a window on these issues from the NAFSA perspective. And we—in the last year and a half, we’ve advised two of America’s research universities on their China strategies.

My question is this, and it goes to Robert Daly’s comment, that certainly in the ’60s and ’70s we would not have wanted to educate Russian scientists on nuclear physics—Soviet scientists on nuclear physics. But we have another example in our history where we benefitted hugely from foreign contributions, and that’s in the ’30s and ’40s, when we took the German, and the Hungarian, and the French, and the Polish scientists to America and made them a part of our fabric and benefitted hugely from that. So is the answer maybe not, gee, we’re just suspicious of foreign governments, but knowing the people better? Who is going to be part of the system that’s sending us and who is, frankly, fleeing the system from which they’re coming, so that we can then—we can make them—we staple the visa to their diploma, and they’re ours forever?

DALY: So this is the policy dilemma. I lean toward the approach that you’re suggesting. However, these people you’re describing, whose intentions we need to discern, there are a lot of them. (Laughs.) You know, we’ve got about 350,000 just Chinese students here now. And frankly, our—the agencies that would be involved in this, trying to make these distinctions, simply don’t have the capability. There’s no way they can find out who these people are and were in China. So this is where the policy discussion comes it. You know, we have this instinct that says: Every foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in a STEM field should be a green card stapled to their diploma.

Well, that sounds clear, but security immediately says: If you do that, you are showing them the broad and easy road for espionage into the United States, because you’re guaranteed to go in under deep cover, learn science, and then you can send everything right back to China. So where do you—how do you have that discussion? And this is why I say it comes down in the end, in part, to doing what we can to determine who these people are. That’s limited. But you’re really left with faith in the system and faith in the values. It’s—while mitigating whatever risks you can, you either, you know, believe in this process that you’ve just described as one of the very engines of our national strength, or you don’t, right? So you’re going to end up taking some risks.

What worries me in the conversation in Washington right now is that security is in command, especial in relation to China. And so in describing, you know, challenges or threats to the universities, we need skepticism about Chinese claims. We need vigilance. But there have actually been very few demonstrable harms to United States security that have come through the universities to date. Legitimate skepticism, but very few demonstrable harms. And that’s not to being weighed against the benefit we’ve had over the past forty years of all of China’s best and brightest coming here to build the United States as Americans. That’s really missing from this discussion.

And actually, it’s not just STEM students. It’s also award-winning short-story writers, and designers, and you name it. And so it’s an unbalanced conversation right now. What’s the right amount of vigilance that values openness becomes the question. But that’s not the form in which most leaders are asking the question right now.

Q: Hi. Jeff Bialos. I’m a lawyer in Washington. Hi, Esther, and a pleasure to be here today.

And, you know, I ascribe—I agree with a lot of what you just said, Bob. And I think the transparency focus of the panel is great. But two comments and one question, which is, look—and this comes from the perspective advising people in the university context with respect to the Huawei thing, because there’s a bunch of—you’ve talked about transparency and policies, but there are laws and rules now that unfortunately or fortunately, as the case may be, with Huawei, and 5G, and procurement bans, export control rules. And maybe if you can give some sense of, you know, the tensions I’ve sensed in the academy over this, and what to do. And some universities seem to have backed away entirely from some of those. It’s not just one company. It’s a range of these companies.

Second, just on your point, Bob, look, I think what we’re facing today is a subset of a broader issue, which is I think we’re heading toward techno-nationalism, a sort of—sort of a twenty-first century Cold War approach toward China. If you look at what we’re doing in 5G, if you look at foreign investment rules, if you look at the Commerce rules that will come out at some point which will broaden export controls to cover a bunch of dual use situations, that’s going to make it worse. And so that’s the question, I think, that’s not so easy to answer.

MITCHELL: I’ll take a shot. So I think that there is a—I want to go back to the—sort of the will of the university. And as reluctant as I am to try to put all of our institutions into one bucket, I think that there is real respect for the security issues that are at hand, and a real desire on the part of university leaders to be responsive to that, and to find this balance that we’ve—that we’ve talked about.

Huawei is a really interesting case, because I think that there is, in some institutional settings, Confucius Institutes might fit here too, there is an attempt actually to overshoot the target. And we talk about small yards. I think that that needs to be a lesson on the university side too. And whether it’s specific laws, or specific companies, or even specific countries, I think we need—we need to make sure that we are not overshooting the mark because of a fear that at some point we’re going to be called into account for something that we didn’t know we were going to be accountable for.

DALY: And it’s a dynamic situation, as you mentioned. The relationship is still unfolding. We don’t know where this goes. One of the things—and I’m sorry, this is a bit of a soapbox comment—but it seems that in our concerns about China—we’ve got, you know, justified concerns, justified skepticism. But we’re going into a defensive crouch about all this. And I feel like saying, you know, chest out, folks. This is still the United States of America. Invest, compete, let them eat our dust, and cooperate when we can. Where is this spirit? We seem to have very suddenly lost all of that in our discourse and in our fear about China. And we had that as our leading attitude not very long ago. And I’m not sure why we threw it overboard so very quickly, just as a matter of the culture in which we discuss these issues.


BRIMMER: Please. The microphone’s behind you.

Q: Thanks, hi. I’m Danny Weitzner. I teach in the computer science department at MIT.

I really appreciate the nuanced perspectives of all of you. And I guess I want to ask about what happens when we get beyond the small yards with tall fences, because my sense is we largely know what to do in those cases, or at least know how to figure out what to do. But it seems like the bigger problem is really that we are stuck in a kind of a Cold War competitive model, a national security competition model. But really, what we’re concerned about underneath, it seems to me, is economic competition. And we’re worried, whether or not it’s actually said, exactly to your point, we’re worried that may we are not going to do well enough, or maybe we need to put our thumb on the scale of that—of that—of that competition somehow.

And so it feels to me as if the core product of universities, at least technical universities, is well-trained scientists and engineers. And they are not in the little yards with the tall fences. They’re just—the most valuable thing we can send back to China is a well-trained scientist. It doesn’t matter what’s in their—it doesn’t matter what intellectual property is locked in their heads, right? What matters is that they can produce ten times that over and over. So I’m just wondering how you think we’re going to arrive at an actual strategic view on that question. Do we want to train these people or not? We can’t train them and remove 35 percent of their knowledge because it’s one of those fenced off yards. We just can’t. And we shouldn’t, I think.

So I’m wondering where we go in the open part of the world that you’ve all eloquently described as critical to what we do in this country. And, by the way, I think critical to our ability to have a—the extent to which we have a collaborative relationship with China, which we—it seems to me, we have to in some part. Unless we want to have a much more tense relationship. That it’s actually going to be those people who we send out fully empowered back to China who will be the ones who we can talk to and who will, perhaps, be the other side of that dialogue. So I’m just interested in the strategic view of, I guess, the harder part of this problem. (Laughs.)

BRIMMER: Thank you. Feel free to jump in.

MITCHELL: I’ll start, if you guys would take my back. (Laughter.)

You know, tell you, Bob mentioned values a little bit ago. And when talk about stapling green cards and so on, I think underneath that really is a different aspect of the chest out thing. If we really believed in the system that we enjoy and the system that we’ve invested in for a couple hundred years, then we have to believe that that has carrying power and strength. And so you talk about the 35 percent that we want to remove, well, what about the 35 percent that we just put in? And is there a way that we can emphasize that 35 percent in ways that we maybe aren’t yet. Maybe we’ve gotten too technical in the way we’re training scientists. Maybe, you know, in your department we should sit down and talk about how we’re talking to postdocs about the nature of their work, how it fits into the development of a free people, and where there are limits and lines about that. And so I mean, I am totally with the chest out. And it’s not just about the chest out on the economic competition. It’s the chest out about our way of life.

FREEMAN: Right. And I think I’ll piggyback on that to say I think part of this equation has to be not just what happens in the classroom but the entirety of their experience while they’re here. And when we’re sending folks back to China who have probably never seen some of the things they’ve seen on a college campus. (Laughs.) In many ways.

DALY: Good, bad, and indifferent. (Laughter.)

FREEMAN: But that’s certainly an experience that they’re not going to get in China. And for us, I think there is an immense value for us to export that back to China, and to have that cultural experience, to have that exposure to human rights, and have that nonacademic education I think is immensely valuable, and it has to be part of this equation.

DALY: Your university has actually made some key moves. It was the president of MIT who I think was the first, or one of the first, to publish a letter in the spring sort of standing up for internationalization. And that was an important backlash. I think there is a next step that the universities could take collectively. And that is, as I said, the demonstrable harms to our security are not being weighed against all the gains we’ve had from foreign, especially Chinese, students coming in. Somebody needs to describe, or capture, or quantify that. I’ve been looking—I can’t find data on how many American physicists of Chinese origin are working, or doctors of Chinese origin. It’s very tough to find this stuff. And universities would know the proper methodology to present the benefits that you were talking about that we can put out against, yes, espionage. Yes, subterfuge. Yes, influence. These things are happening. But we need this other measure. And that’s something that universities could do. And I think that may be a next step.

BRIMMER: Two things on that point. One, I’ll say that associations, including my own, is actually—is highlighting what some of the benefits are. And indeed, the benefits of having students and scholars here in the United States, being—making contributions in their classrooms, in laboratories, and even to their local communities. And I think that many of the work that we’re seeing is probably helping get the word out. And then also want to comment both—we talked about the letter from the president of MIT, and other presidents have also become really very active in encouraging students and scholars to come and participate.

I would note also that we are receiving questions online as well. And one is also from a university president. So I’d like to share the question, from Mark Schlissel, who’s the president of University of Michigan. And he asks: Rather than focusing on keeping research secret, how do you view calling for a national security strategy and establishing a set of priorities around investments and research pitched as national competitiveness. Comments?

MITCHELL: Good idea, Mark. (Laughter.)

FREEMAN: I also support.

DALY: I’m not quite sure I understand the proposal, as he’s just—so can you give us that again?

BRIMMER: I’m just reading—just about it. Rather than focusing on keeping research secret, how do you view calling for a national security strategy and establishing a set of priorities around investments in research pitched as national competitiveness?

DALY: Ah. Yeah, well, competitiveness policy is a big issue. This is also related to something that is now being debated. Senator Rubio has proposed essentially an American industrial policy. The competitiveness policy and industrial policy are closely related. Americans tends to be strongly opposed to industrial policy, except when it works. (Laughter.) And the Republican Party, frankly, sees this as a violation against sacred market orthodoxy. So this is a political discussion about planning, which tends to be government led. And that’s going to be a very—it’s a reasonable proposal, but it’s going to be a partisan fight.

MITCHELL: Let me add to my “yes” to Mark. I think that it’s a—I think it is vexed, to be sure. I would see a national competitiveness research agenda, I hope, as additive to the work that we’re already doing. I started off my comments talking about the balance between applied and basic sciences. And the last thing I think any of us would want would be for such an enterprise to be funded to the detriment of other areas of research. If we can do that in a targeted way, I think we’ve done a different version of the chest out strategy. If you’re in a car race. And let’s just for the moment put aside all of the other metaphors. If you’re in a car race, there are two ways to win. One of you put brakes on the other feller and the other is that you put your foot on the gas and go faster. And I think that this suggestion is a part of a put your foot on the gas strategy, to take this vast research enterprise that we have and to put it to work in the places where we think it needs to be aimed.

BRIMMER: Thank you. There was a question, gentleman at this table, and then the lady over there.

Q: Thanks. Jeremy Young. I’m a journalist at Al Jazeera.

Focusing less on science and more on political science, I’m wondering whether foreign governments are funding institutes, scholarships, faculty positions, public-facing reports at universities in order for their narrative to win out sort of in the intellectual debate that’s taking place in these academic spaces. And then, Ben, if this is a phenomenon that’s taking place, I’m wondering if you think it’s a positive one, as you talked before, or whether it’s negative, or somewhere in between.

FREEMAN: Yeah, I think it’s a great question. What we’re seeing more and more as we look through Foreign Agent Registration Act filings is that registered foreign agents are meeting with folks in academia more and more. They are meeting with professors on college campuses. In fact, there’s an example for Saudi Arabia where the national security director of a program at Syracuse University was a registered foreign agent for Saudi Arabia. That’s not my original reporting. I wish it was, sorry. (Laughs.) But we are seeing this interaction more and more.

I think there are a lot of issues to unpack there. I don’t think it’s all nefarious. But the issue that I have is when a foreign agent produces something—like an op-ed, or a report, or talking points, anything like that—they have to put on there what’s called a conspicuous statement that says, by the way, I work for this firm. We’re working on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia, for example. Whereas, if they’re simply consulting with a university professor who might write a report, or who they might just simply help write that report, there’s no disclosure there about that relationship.

And so I think in terms of academic transparency, I would hope that then the folks on campus that are having these meetings would report that would disclose that. There’s nothing requiring them to, though, now. So I think this is kind of a—it’s an interesting intersection of the sort of wild west of FARA regulation in the wild west of foreign funding at universities, too.

BRIMMER: But to what extent do universities own conflict of interest standards and other existing standards help in that area, to differentiate between normal research and issues that are of concern from any type of donor?

FREEMAN: Yeah. I think it’s sort of incumbent on the universities now for those conflict of interest standards to really pan out. I would very much love to not have to report on this. And I’m sure you would like not to as well, if these disclosures were met. There’s really no—there’s no set of common, you know, governing regulations for this right now. And I think we’re sort of figuring this out. And this nexus I think is something we’re going to see and hear a lot more about going forward.

BRIMMER: The lady there, yes.

Q: Thea Lee with the Economic Policy Institute and also the U.S.-China Economic Security and Review Commission. Thanks to the panel.

I actually want to follow up on the last question, because I think the question about sort of trying to stifle research is not quite as interesting or relevant in this context as the question about whether there’s an influence of foreign money, both positive and negative. There can be self-censorship that happens. If you get a large grant, you know, then does the research on, let’s say, Xinjiang, or on Taiwan, or other issues that are sensitive get influenced? And of course, that’s not just with foreign governments. That’s also with corporations. A lot of the places that universities receive their funding could come with some implicit strings attached, if not explicit strings attached. And I guess one question—I think it follows up on something that Esther raised earlier—is you know, have we made ourselves vulnerable by underfunding our own universities and our own research?

And to the point that Ben said, where you know, when somebody comes along and dangles a million dollars, or a couple million dollars, it becomes very hard to turn that money down, even if there’s a sense that there might be, you know, some limitations on academic freedom. And I think another issue it’s kind of related to is, you know, the presence of foreign-born students in a university. And we certainly see that with respect to the Hong Kong protests that are happening, whether it’s in Australia or other places, that there can be some pretty rough conflicts between students around some of these issues.

MITCHELL: Look, these are—these are—I think as you said quite well, these are issue that are not limited to foreign funding of research. There’s not limited to research. They’re not limited to foreign funding. They really span the entire exchange that universities engage in, between their core enterprise and people who would like to support it one way or another. Goes all the way to tuition dollars. And you mentioned foreign students, it’s true about domestic students as well. I think that these are—these are tricky issues. They are issues that do not lend themselves well to the blunt instrument of either state or federal policy. But they really do depend on a set of values and ethics at the institutional level. That’s an infuriating answer for lots of us who spend our time in the world of—in the world of policy. But it does mean that transparency is important. It does mean that when people cross a line, that needs to be exposed. And there need to be sanctions against individuals and institutions.

 We could put it into another frame and talk about admissions. We could talk about endowed chairs. This really does go across the work of a university. And I think that we need to train people as we think about leadership in these institutions to make hard decisions, sometimes decisions that on first glance run against the self-interest of the institution but in the long run are exactly what the institution needs. We have leaders in our—in our enterprise who have turned down endowed chairs in one area studies field or another, because they are clearly about supporting one narrative and suppressing another. That’s a right decision, even if there isn’t a $3 million endowment for the institution.

I will end by saying that it is also absolutely true that we are underfunding American higher education. We are underfunding our private institutions. State legislature after state legislature has cut funding for state institutions. Our famous land-grant institutions are suffering mightily. And so we need to provide the support that our nation deserves for those institutions.

BRIMMER: Yes. We have about four minutes. Yes, please.

Q: The follow up is—that’s, I think, exactly right—but around transparency or regulation, because individual universities have a hard time making some of those decisions, does that lead to a policy recommendation that the government should play a role in requiring the transparency and also maybe putting some limitations?

FREEMAN: Thank you for the original question too. And I think the answer is yes. I think because when we’re looking at this money I think we’d be naïve to believe that this amount of money wasn’t at least designed to buy influence, on some level. And it may not be bad influence. That may be the Norwegian government wanting us to do more deforestation research. It’s not necessarily nefarious. But it is designed to buy influence of some sort. And once we acknowledge that, I think then it becomes important to have transparency about that, and for the government to require that transparency.

And right now, I’m amazingly going to loop back to the point I was going to make, to piggyback onto Ted’s piggyback earlier. (Laughs.) Which is—which is about I think what the government can do a better job of is in the statute itself—the statute is so broad right now that it shares the same problem with the FARA statute right now. That to qualify as a foreign entity you might think, well, it’s just foreign governments. It is, but that’s not it. Foreign corporations. Well, it’s that too. It can literally be just a foreign individual. So it can be a foreign parent who is paying their tuition for their child at a university.

I run a transparency program. And I’m sorry, but I don’t want to know about that. (Laughs.) I really don’t care about that level of transparency. And I think the problem that creates is a firehose in the data and in the information that actually impedes transparency. I want to know about these nefarious actors. You know, I know want to know about some of these hostile foreign governments and what they’re doing. I care a whole lot less about what some parent is doing to fund their kid’s education.

BRIMMER: We have about two minutes. Do we—yes, last question.

Q: Good afternoon. I’m Herman Cohen.

My career in the foreign service was on Africa. And of course, African has the opposite problem. They send students here who don’t want to go back. For example, there’s an association of Nigerian medical doctors in this country. And there are ten thousand of them. And they’re badly needed in Africa. But my question is, how important to university finances are foreign student tuition?

MITCHELL: You can start.

FREEMAN: Well, I defer to you.

MITCHELL: Well, thank you. You’re all looking at Esther. (Laughter.)

BRIMMER: I was going to say, I will add a comment at the end, but our panelists first. (Laughs.)

MITCHELL: So foreign student tuition is certainly an important factor in institutional finance. It varies institution to institution, institution type to institution type. So when we look at Esther’s reports, and see where—whether the enrollment is going up or down, that matters to our institutions’ bottom line. But it’s not just the bottom line. A healthy institution is one that represents the diversity of opinion and background that our students will encounter as they go forward in their—in their lives. That certainly is important when we think about racial diversity. In a global world, I would argue, and our institutional leaders argue, it’s equally important about developing a kind of global citizenship and global perspective that our international students bring.

BRIMMER: And just to comment particularly on their contribution, NAFSA actually does compile the international student economic value tool. And of course, we recognize the important intellectual and cultural contributions of international students and scholars, but the financial contribution is significant. About $41 billion worth of value is contributed by international students and scholars to the United States, accounting for about 458,000 jobs. International education is the fifth-largest service export of the United States. It is extremely important to the United States economy as well.

So we are coming up on 1:30. Again, we know that the Council on Foreign Relations is rigorous in its time management. I would like you to please join me in thanking our outstanding panel for addressing the issues this afternoon. (Applause.)


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