- Federal agencies should beef up protocols for identifying colleges at high risk of inadvertently sharing technology, research and other sensitive information with foreign entities, a Congressional watchdog said in a report Tuesday.
- The Government Accountability Office developed eight similar recommendations for the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the FBI. They suggest the agencies regularly evaluate factors that place universities at risk and share their evaluations with appropriate government offices.
- Tuesday’s report is a public, pared-down iteration of one released in March, which the GAO confirmed will not be released. The private version of the report discusses how federal departments coordinate and share information about potential leaks in higher education to foreign countries.
Policymakers across the political spectrum have grown increasingly concerned about foreign meddling in U.S. affairs, particularly from China.
In higher ed, this has partially manifested as a federal crackdown on foreign gifts and donations made to colleges.
The Trump administration began a campaign based on Section 117, a previously obscure portion of the Higher Education Act that requires colleges to report foreign gifts and contracts totaling $250,000 or more in a year. Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Education mandated an extensive new checklist to report these transactions and opened investigations into more than a dozen high-profile universities’ practices, some of which have not been resolved publicly.
Federal officials have also feared foreign entities are trying to steal American research and technology, which prompted the Trump administration to create the China Initiative through the U.S. Department of Justice. The China Initiative intended to counter Beijing's theft of intellectual property.
The Justice Department ended the program in February, following criticism it stoked racial profiling, particularly of Chinese scholars.
The GAO report says 2 million foreign students and scholars studied at U.S. colleges in 2019 and often contribute to research, which hostile foreign entities are targeting.
To mitigate such risks, the federal government regulates the transfer of sensitive information and items, such as technology or source codes, to foreign sources. These are known as “deemed exports.”
The GAO reviewed how federal agencies find foreign students and academics at U.S. colleges who attempt to evade the controls on these exports. It notes that federal agencies contact institutions to help prevent unauthorized disclosures to foreign sources. But these agencies have also not fully assessed which institutions might most be at risk, which would help them decide which colleges to reach out to, the GAO said.
Further, some of the agencies have not even identified factors that would help determine which colleges are most at risk, the report said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement had only identified one factor to help identify and rank colleges at risk. The report does not name that risk factor.
The GAO compiled a list of 10 factors that could indicate a college is most at risk, including if an institution has a high level of research activity and receives large amounts of federal funding.
The list is not exhaustive, the GAO said, but it suggested the following risk factors:
Risk factors related to foreign students or scholars
• Studies or conducts research at a graduate or postgraduate level.
• Studies or conducts research in a sensitive field.
• Receives research or scholarship funding from a foreign entity of concern.
• Is a citizen of a foreign country of concern.
• Is associated with a foreign entity of concern.
Risk factors for U.S. colleges
• Has doctoral programs with high research activity.
• Has export-controlled items or technology on campus.
• Receives large amounts of funding from federal agencies.
• Uses or is developing a technology that a foreign adversary is targeting.
• Collaborates on research with foreign entities of concern.