Republicans press education secretary on China's foothold in US universities

During the Trump administration, the Education Department opened investigations into schools including Harvard and Yale

Reps. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., pressed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona for answers about his department's plans to investigate China's financial foothold in the U.S. university system.

"The American public deserves to know that their money is not being compromised by Communist China and other adversarial nations," the Republicans wrote in the letter sent on Wednesday. "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."

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"The previous administration modernized the reporting process and found over $6.5 billion in unreported gifts and contracts and opened 19 university investigations. However, the Department has closed only four of those investigations to date. Moreover, you have not started or provided status updates on any other investigations into foreign gifts or contracts," the letter continued.

The lawmakers demanded information including the number of staff analyzing the Higher Education Act's foreign gift and contract disclosure requirements, the total amount of reported foreign gifts and contracts in the Jan. 31 reporting period, and whether the Department has opened any related university investigations. Banks and Foxx asked Cardona and his staff to respond to them within two weeks.

In this Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, Connecticut State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona speaks with Berlin High School students while on a tour of the school. (Devin Leith-Yessian/Berlin Citizen/Record-Journal via AP)

In this Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, Connecticut State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona speaks with Berlin High School students while on a tour of the school. (Devin Leith-Yessian/Berlin Citizen/Record-Journal via AP) (AP)

"The lack of progress we have seen on this issue since your confirmation as Secretary is alarming, and we are concerned the Department is not treating threats from China and other adversarial nations seriously," Banks and Foxx wrote to Cardona.

The investigations hinge on Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which requires schools to report foreign gifts and contracts over $250,000. During the Trump administration, the Education Department opened investigations into schools including Harvard and Yale over unreported foreign funds from countries including China.

This isn't the first time Republicans have demanded answers on the topic. In 2020, House Republicans demanded information from former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about what they said is the Chinese Communist Party's "investment in American colleges and universities to further its strategic and propaganda goals." 

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Banks has focused on the issue for quite some time, including by raising concerns about Huawei research partnerships at U.S. universities in 2018. Banks is also the author of a bill called the "Protect Our Universities Act."

"Under this law, students from nations deemed a threat – China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea – will need to apply for a waiver granted by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to participate in sensitive research projects funded by the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, and Department of Energy," Banks' office said in a press release.

Fox News' inquiry to the Education Department was not returned at the time of publication.

Fox News' Gregg Re and the Associated Press contributed to this report.