The University of Oklahoma may have evaded a federal requirement to report foreign donations by channeling more than $1 million in Chinese government funds for its Confucius Institute through the private OU Foundation, an OCPA investigation has found.
Federal law mandates that institutions receiving Title IV student assistance funding must report gifts from or contracts with foreign entities in excess of $250,000. Those reports are then listed on an online Foreign Gifts and Contracts Report. Between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2017, OU listed several gifts or contracts from government agencies in Kuwait, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the Bahamas, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Denmark, and China.
The Chinese funds were attributed to groups like the Chinese Academy of Science, but no donations or contracts were listed from the Hanban, the agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education that funds Confucius Institutes at 103 American colleges and universities.
Those Confucius Institutes have been embroiled in controversy for allegedly presenting distorted views of Chinese culture and history and for even potentially engaging in espionage or monitoring of Chinese students in the United States. Both the FBI and CIA have essentially labeled Confucius Institutes as propaganda organs of the Chinese government, operating within but somewhat separate from universities like OU.
OU has hosted a Confucius Institute since 2006. Theoretically, annual funding from the Hanban should have been among those gifts or contracts reported under the Title IV requirement, but a study by Rachelle Peterson of the National Association of Scholars, which has investigated Confucius Institutes, showed that just 16 of the 103 hosting colleges and universities had filed the required reports, and that OU was not among them.
“The records you requested are not maintained by the University of Oklahoma as there are no responsive documents,” OU open records officer Sharon Hsieh told OCPA. “The records are maintained by the OU Foundation which is an independent not-for-profit corporation, and therefore not subject to the Oklahoma Open Records Act.”
So all Hanban funding for the OU Confucius Institute flows not through the university’s publicly available funding channels but through the private OU Foundation.
Peterson said she was not aware of any other schools channeling Hanban funds through a private foundation.
“If OU is intentionally running foreign gifts through a private foundation in order to avoid filing disclosure reports with the Department of Education, the university is clearly violating the spirit of the law if not the text of the law itself,” she said. “Such behavior leaves one wondering what university President David Boren is trying to hide.”
University spokesman Rowdy Gilbert said “it is common practice for private gifts (foreign and domestic) to flow through the OU Foundation, a legally separate corporation that is administered and operated exclusively for the benefit of the university. Other foreign sources, unless they are for the payment of OU-provided tuition, fees, goods, or services, would also flow through the Foundation.”
Hsieh did reveal that the OU Confucius Institute received “initial startup funds of $100,000 from Hanban in 2007.” She said Hanban has subsequently given $945,958 to the special Confucius Institute fund maintained by the OU Foundation. She said the university provides funding to pay half of the CI’s director’s salary and the full salary of the director’s assistant.
The total of $1,045,958 paid to OU by Hanban since 2007 might not have met the annual reporting requirement of $250,000 in any given year, but it remains significant that funding for the controversial Confucius Institute has flowed through non-public channels at a time when many have questioned the propriety of allowing a sometimes hostile foreign government influence or even control a portion of the curriculum of an American university.
Gilbert told OCPA last month that OU’s relationship with its Confucius Institute is different from those which have elicited FBI concern. He said OU’s Confucius Institute “is primarily focused on helping Oklahomans learn the Chinese language” and that “the same rules of transparency and academic freedom that apply to all departments at OU also cover the Confucius Institute.”
Peterson has proposed a series of reforms that would blunt or even remove the Hanban’s influence, and by extension that of the Chinese government, on American campuses. In an opinion piece in The Hill in February, she urged colleges and universities to close their Confucius Institutes.
Failing that, Peterson suggested, colleges can shift funding for Chinese language instruction from the Hanban to federal funds already available under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. The $250,000 annual reporting requirement should also be lowered to $50,000, which would likely have caught all of OU’s Hanban funding since 2007 had those funds not been concealed behind the OU Foundation firewall. She also proposed that the Department of Justice sue schools like OU that may have found ways to evade the reporting requirement.
“Confucius Institutes are propaganda machines masked as educational endeavors,” Peterson said. She said DOJ can and should investigate them for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. CIs could also be investigated for alleged discriminatory hiring practices, she said.