Universities Can Be Global or Serve the National Interest. But Not Both.

Campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The Department of Education cracks down on alleged foreign funding of Yale and Harvard.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Education had opened investigations into Harvard and Yale for allegedly failing to disclose billions in donations from foreign governments. The department claims that American universities received as much as $6.5 billion in unreported gifts from countries including China and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign governments use donations to influence the work of professors and gain access to intellectual property. China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which figures into the investigation, has funneled money to 3,000 university faculty members. In return, Beijing requires them to turn over intellectual property to which they have access, as well as to sign agreements preventing them from disclosing the results of work conducted under Chinese patronage. Meanwhile, Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes, which ostensibly support Chinese studies in the U.S., have reportedly engaged in censorship and espionage of American students and professors.

Section 117 of the Higher Education Act requires universities to disclose foreign contributions exceeding $250,000. If Harvard and Yale failed to comply, that indicates either a disregard for the law (which was enforced only loosely before Trump took office) or a tacit acknowledgment that the funding compromises the integrity of the institutions. In any event, it is clear that American universities do not see themselves as American.

That is not entirely surprising. Harvard and Yale were founded prior to the American Revolution. Primarily focused on ministerial training, they were colleges that educated American leaders but had no strong connection to the government. Universities were considered citadels of knowledge independent of their societies. Since they did not conduct scientific research for roughly the first two centuries of their existence, Harvard and Yale had only an indirect impact on the American military and economy.

This changed during World War II. As American colleges transformed from institutions of teaching, somewhat similar to today’s boarding schools, to research centers in the mold of German universities, academic work became more vital to the nation’s welfare. In addition to holding seminars on Plato and the like, Harvard, Yale, and their counterparts now conducted research with international ramifications. Policymakers identified those institutions as assets in the war effort. Accordingly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created two organizations charged with martialing the nation’s resources in research and development (R&D): the National Defense Research Council, and the Office of Scientific Research and Development.

These agencies achieved remarkable feats by contracting R&D to university labs. Researchers at several universities, including Chicago, Columbia, and the University of California, collaborated on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory developed intricate radar systems. Owing to those successes and others, such collaboration became a common feature of American academia after the war.

To this day, universities enjoy massive tax benefits and subsidies in the form of Pell grants and federal loan programs. Each year the government provides more than $150 billion in research grants, which professors have used to develop lasers, FM radio, and global-positioning systems, among myriad other technologies.

But this collaboration created a tension for universities. Since 1155, when Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa issued the Authentica Habita, granting academics the same privileges and immunities as the clergy, academic freedom has been central to the university. This freedom requires that faculties be independent from political and commercial forces, lest those forces inhibit the pursuit of knowledge. In a statement in 1940, the American Association of University Professors listed “full freedom in research and in the publication of the results” as a core tenet of free inquiry.

Federal funding, however, directs researchers and limits their ability to disseminate work, undermining free inquiry. Sensitive military research cannot be published, and the government has discretion to prevent collaboration with foreign academics. Regulations limiting the export of sensitive technical information and software to non-U.S. persons, for instance, limit the free flow of information and ideas — a fundamental feature of academic research. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine notes in a report that these challenges grow more acute as “research and education become more and more globally interconnected, university campuses are increasingly international, [and] communication via the Internet is instant and worldwide.”

In the pre-global U.S., these two facets of the university, free inquiry and research of service to (and funded by) government, could be reconciled insofar as the government allowed the former in return for the latter. As Jonathan R. Cole, a sociologist and former provost of Columbia, put it in The Atlantic, in the postwar era the government “granted great autonomy to universities in exchange for the production of new discoveries, increased human capital, and more enlightened citizens.”

However, as universities went global, those two missions increasingly conflicted. Foreign partnerships and overseas campuses, ostensibly in the service of free inquiry, undermined the role of universities as assets to the U.S. military and economy. It turns out that academic freedom includes the liberty to collaborate with geopolitical foes.

The gulf between university administrators, who openly solicit foreign donations, and U.S. government officials, who have expressed outrage at this practice, shows their competing conceptions of the university to be irreconcilable.

Harvard and Yale lay claim to a transnational mission to develop and disseminate knowledge. With international faculties and student bodies, these cosmopolitan institutions prioritize free inquiry above national allegiance. In that context, academics accepting foreign money are not only blameless but laudable, because they advance intellectual progress. While as American citizens we might object to the transfer of knowledge abroad, university officials qua university officials do not.

Under the “national interest” view held by the DOE and various policymakers, Harvard and Yale exist to serve U.S. citizens and the government. Accordingly, the fruits of their research must be deployed in a manner conducive to American welfare. Faced with that fact, policymakers and university administrators must agree on the framework that will govern universities in the 21st century. Harvard and Yale can either remain institutions fundamentally oriented toward the national interest, as they have been since World War II, or unwind their partnerships with the government and become supranational entities. They cannot have it both ways.

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