Biden Education Secretary Faces Questions on Progress Combatting Chinese Communist Influence

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona testifies before the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on June 16, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is facing questions from top House Republicans on what progress, if any, President Joe Biden’s Democrat administration has made in combatting Chinese Communist Party influence in America’s educational institutions.

A letter sent Wednesday from Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN) and Virginia Foxx (R-NC) to Cardona presses the top Biden aide on details of disclosures and enforcement required by federal law of large gifts from foreign governments and entities to American educational institutions.

“We write to express concern and request information regarding the Department of Education’s (Department) administration of Section 117 of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which requires higher education institutions to disclose large gifts and contracts from overseas sources to the Department,” Banks, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), and Foxx wrote to Cardona. “As you know, information about these financial arrangements gives both Congress and the federal government valuable insight into possible security risks and conflicts of interest posed by foreign governments’ financial ties to U.S. colleges and universities.”

The letter quotes the Education Department’s office of general counsel as saying that the law’s disclosure mandates and “robust enforcement” measures are “essential”:

Hostile governments and their instrumentalities have targeted the higher education sector for exploitation to infiltrate cutting-edge American research projects, influence curricula, and gain access to systems and information available through overseas “campuses” that receive less rigorous oversight than their domestic counterparts.

In 2018, the letter from Banks and Foxx continues, the federal government appropriated $149 billion of taxpayer cash to American universities and colleges. “The American public deserves to know that their money is not being compromised by Communist China and other adversarial nations,” the lawmakers wrote.

“Examples of the threats posed by our adversaries to American universities are well documented. Confucius Institutes, once present at hundreds of American universities and colleges, have been used by Communist China to control curriculum, censor political debate, and oversee teacher hiring, event selection, and speaker engagements,” Banks and Foxx wrote, continuing:

In 2020, a Harvard University professor who received more than $15 million in grant funding from the National Institute of Health and the Department of Defense was indicted for concealing his role as a “strategic scientist” for the Chinese government which paid him a $50,000 monthly stipend, over $150,000 in living expenses, and provided him $1.5 million to establish a research lab in China. Further, a federal grand jury recently expanded charges against a Stanford University researcher alleged to be a member of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The FBI warned colleges a decade ago about how hostile actors use campuses for spying, propaganda hubs, and faculty recruitment. Unfortunately, too many institutions failed to take this warning seriously.

The letter notes that former President Donald Trump’s administration, through “modernized reporting practices,” uncovered more than $6.5 billion in unreported foreign “gifts” to American education institutions and opened 19 separate investigations into various universities over their foreign ties.

“However, the Department has closed only four of those investigations to date,” the lawmakers wrote:

Moreover, you have not started or provided status updates on any other investigations into foreign gifts or contracts. We are concerned by these facts, considering it was conveyed to Congress that career civil servants at the Department and other agencies were supportive of Section 117 compliance and oversight.

The letter concludes with a series of in-depth questions for Cardona on specific actions—or lack thereof—the Biden Education Secretary has taken with regard to Chinese Communist Party and other foreign influence investigations and enforcement in American universities and colleges. Those questions are as follows:

  • How many full-time equivalent staff do you have analyzing section 117 of the HEA’s foreign gift and contract disclosure requirements? Has this number changed in the last six months?
  • Did the January 31, 2021, reporting period find any previously unreported gifts or contracts and, if so, what was the total amount?
  • What was the total amount of reported foreign gifts and contracts and how many new filers were a part of the January 31, 2021, reporting period?
  • Have you opened any university investigations or subpoenaed any documents related to section 117 compliance?
  • How do you intend to complete the 15 open university investigations? Please provide written observations from the investigation review as was done in the October 2020, Institutional Compliance with Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965, “OGC report.”
  • What range of corrective measures do you have to force noncompliant institutions to disclose foreign gifts and contracts?
  • What interagency memberships are you working through and what agreements do you have in place to respond to potential adversarial nation security threats?

The letter does not include a deadline for response, but urges “timely” answers from the Biden official to these questions. Part of why this is significant is this is the beginning of a broader oversight push from House Republicans into the Biden administration on matters like these—and Cardona refusing to answer these questions down the road could lead to subpoenas and a showdown with Congress assuming the Republicans retake the majority in either the House or Senate next year.

They are also important as the U.S. Senate just passed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s bill that would fund universities and research institutions by hundreds-of-billions of dollars extra. That bill, originally called the Endless Frontier Act but renamed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, may come up in the Democrat-run House soon. Some Republicans in the Senate like Sens. Marco Rubio (FL), Ron Johnson (WI), John Kennedy (LA), and others along with House Republicans led by Banks and his RSC have criticized the effort for a lack of safeguards to protect the fruits of this extra spending from falling right back into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party—the very entity proponents of the measure say the bill is designed to counter.

If research from that bill fell into Chinese hands, should this plan pass and become law, then the Democrats in Congress—and the Biden administration, particularly people like Cardona—would be faced with a severe scandal and crisis later in this term.

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