RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Department of Education announced late yesterday that it is investigating two elite U.S. universities - Yale and Harvard. The government says the schools failed to report hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign gifts and contracts. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner is following this and joins us in studio.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right, tell us more. What exactly is the Education Department saying Harvard and Yale did wrong?
TURNER: Well, it's saying they violated a part of the Higher Education Act, specifically Section 117. And it says colleges and universities have to report to the U.S. government any contracts or gifts from foreign sources if they're worth more than a quarter of a million dollars. In the case of Yale, the department says the school failed to report at least $375 million in foreign gifts and contracts and chose not to report any gifts, apparently over the last four years. The department says it is also concerned that Harvard hasn't fully disclosed all foreign gifts or contracts.
MARTIN: And is this really just limited to Harvard and Yale?
TURNER: Not even close.
TURNER: We should say both schools, Harvard and Yale, confirmed to NPR they have received these notices of investigation. They are preparing to respond. But the government has already been looking into other schools, including Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell, Rutgers, MIT, Maryland. This is a widespread problem. The department says since July of last year, its enforcement efforts have triggered the reporting of about $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed foreign money.
MARTIN: OK. So Cory, explain what the Trump administration is really worried about here.
TURNER: Yeah, a few things - espionage, certainly - it wants to protect U.S. intellectual property and research. It also wants to make sure foreign governments aren't exercising, you know, undue influence. Its chief concern here seems to be China. Remember, it was just a week or so ago that the chair of Harvard's chemistry department was arrested for allegedly lying to Defense Department investigators about lucrative research contracts he may have had with the Chinese government.
And I should also say, Rachel, there was a Senate investigation last year that found nearly two-thirds of U.S. schools that received more than that quarter of a million-dollar threshold from what it calls a propaganda arm of the Chinese government actually failed to then properly report it. So as a result, basically, the Senate brought the hammer down on the Ed department for not enforcing the law. And so now Ed is bringing the hammer down on schools.
MARTIN: So where's the line, though, Cory? Explain the line between gifts that then open the door to espionage and gifts that are just gifts, something less nefarious.
TURNER: I think the challenge here is that line is not even remotely clear. There is just a lot of gray area. One example is a central focus of that Senate investigation from last year. They looked into what are called these Confucius Institutes that are on dozens of U.S. college campuses. And they're funded, essentially, by the Chinese government. And they're meant to promote Chinese language and culture. And they're essentially a really powerful expression of China's soft power here. But it also clearly made Senate investigators really nervous.
MARTIN: Right. So what are the schools saying? I mean, how are they defending this?
TURNER: Well, you know what? No one denies that this is a problem, that they need to disclose this stuff. They told me, though - you know, one reason there's such a need for this money is because state funding for higher ed really hasn't fully rebounded since the Great Recession. I also heard from a few folks saying like, look, when it comes to cutting-edge research, scientific development, collaboration is important. And that collaboration is often international.
I also want to say one more thing, which is a few folks told me that, look - you know what? - the department is also to blame here because this law has been on the books since the 1980s and the Ed department has never bothered to enforce it or to clarify, to create any sort of rules to make clear to schools this is what you need to do and this is how you need to do it. So there's plenty of blame to go around.
MARTIN: NPR's Cory Turner.
Thank you, Cory.
TURNER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.