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Tuition of Terror? How Much Does Qatar’s Money Affect American Academia?

13 March 2024


Mid East Journal

2024-03-13 0050

Is Qatari terror money funding US universities?

In 2020, an investigation by the US Department of Education revealed billions of dollars in unreported foreign gifts to American institutions of higher education from foreign countries.

  • Most of the donations found came from Qatar, which donated $4.7 billion to American universities between 2001-2021.

  • As processes for reporting improve and more funding is revealed, the universities failing to reveal funding are under scrutiny, with many political and educational leaders predicting an erosion of democratic norms on campuses.

Independent since 1971, Qatar lies between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran. Before the discovery of oil, its economy depended on fishing and pearl diving. Now, with a GNP of $229 billion, it is one of the world’s wealthiest countries and one of the most significant donors to institutions of higher education in America.

At the height of globalization, foreign funding and partnerships with nations like Qatar could be an encouraging move for American institutes of higher education. But in recent years, studies have revealed just how deep Qatari funds are flowing into the coffers of American academia—with the majority of it going unreported for decades.

With billions of dollars in hidden funds coming from a country with historically anti-American values, there is a big concern for what lies beneath this financial network of donors and recipients. It poses a risk to campus ecosystems regarding conflicts of interest and academic freedom and transparency. Many critics argue that foreign donations could exert undue influence on academic institutions, compromising their autonomy and integrity.

A History of Unreported Funding from Qatar

In 2012, a project titled Follow the Money headed by ISGAP (The Institute for Global Antisemitism & Policy) Director Charles Asher Small examined illicit funding flowing from foreign governments, foundations, and corporations into US universities. The findings were presented to Congress in July 2019, when the existence of sizable funding from foreign sources (many of whom adhere to anti-democratic and anti-Semitic ideologies) were revealed for the first time. It was a shocking lesson for the US Department of Education (DoE)  to learn the details of billions of dollars in funding from foreign sources—primarily from Qatar—which had never appeared in the DoE’s reports.

Discovering the billions of dollars in unreported funds to institutions of higher education did more than just raise eyebrows. It led to the launch of a federal government investigation in 2019. According to the Institutional Compliance Act in Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, universities that receive federal financial assistance are required to disclose any gifts received from foreign sources which, alone or combined, are valued at $250,000 within a single calendar year. This law aims to increase transparency around foreign money entering into US higher education. Clearly, it was being ignored.

Secretary of Education DeVos initiated 12 civil investigations to ensure institutional compliance with Section 117. The investigation included the following schools:

Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Rutgers University, Cornell University, University of Maryland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Yale

University, University of Texas, Case Western Reserve University, Fordham University, and Stanford University.

Since 2019, these investigations have pressured institutions to “catch up” on their reporting. The DoE established an online portal in June 2020 to streamline the process, and in just four months more than 7,000 transactions were recorded totaling roughly $3.8 billion—the largest donations coming from Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Close to 60 of the colleges and universities that filed through the portal had never submitted reports between the years 1986 and June 2020.

A summary of the DoE’s findings published in October 2020 disclosed previously unreported funding to universities, amounting to $6.5 billion in foreign gifts and contracts.

The more unreported funding that is uncovered, the more educational and political leaders realize there is a growing problem. Even as university presidents collect billions of dollars for their campuses, they don’t know enough about the depth of their donations from foreign funders. During the House of Representatives Education Committee’s hearing with presidents of UPenn, MIT, and Harvard, Representative Elise Stefanik started a line of questioning that shed light on this. Although each president claimed philanthropy from Qatar does not create conflicts of interest nor influence the way they run universities, they were also unaware of how much money they received from the country.

Why (And How) Do Funds From Qatar Go Unnoticed?

Although it has been the law since 1965, before the DoE’s investigation in 2019, it was previously lax in holding schools accountable for reporting. The “Follow the Money” report helped shed light on how a failure to pressure administrators to submit this information in the past led to major a lack of adherence to the law. It shed light on the need for the DoE to reinforce these obligations as a condition for accepting foreign money as well as creating guidelines for more conscientious reporting.

Countries like Qatar are also able to cover up their influence by using third parties to deliver funds to schools in the US. Before 2020, the DoE only required universities to list the country where the donations come from, without specifying whether it was a government source or a private funder. When collaborating on projects, for example, professors are often paid salaries for joint initiatives from a US university that received direct funding from Qatar. Foreign companies are also utilized to transfer money from Qatar to various universities.

How Much Does Qatar Donate to Universities In America?

It is just emerging how deep-seated this network of undisclosed money is. However, Qatar has embedded itself in several top universities in the United States. In 2020, it was revealed that at least 100 American colleges and universities received approximately $13 billion in undocumented contributions from foreign governments, many of which are authoritarian countries.

As the DoE improves its documentation process, the numbers keep growing. In April 2023, it was reported that American universities and colleges have received $19 billion from foreign sources that were not documented and undated, with total donations amounting to approximately $47 billion. The latest DoE report, published on October 13, 2023, revealed the most up-to-date updated total amount is $22 billion, with total donations reaching $51 billion. Top donors from this list include Arab countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Egypt.

Just how much of this comes from Qatar? Between 2001 and 2021, the Qataris donated at least $4.7 billion to universities in the United States. The top 10 universities that benefited from Qatar’s money included:

  • Carnegie Mellon University: $1.4 billion

  • Cornell University: $1.2 billion

  • Harvard University: $894 million

  • MIT: $859 million

  • Texas A&M: Just over $500 million

  • Yale University: $495.8 million

  • Northwestern University: $402 million

  • Johns Hopkins University: $402 million

  • Georgetown University: $401 million

  • University of Chicago: $364 million

According to the 2023 report by DoE, Qatar continues to provide one of the largest sources of funding, donating almost $5 billion to US campuses. It is followed by Saudi Arabia, which has donated approximately $3 billion, and the UAE and China which have each donated over $1 billion.

The top recipients of Qatari funds have something in common: they all have flagship locations in Qatar’s “Education City,” receiving funding in return for their collaborations, including:

  • Carnegie Mellon: Received $740 million in funding to establish a computer science and technology branch in 2004.

  • Virginia Commonwealth: Received $103.5 million in funding to establish a Fine Arts branch in 1997.

  • Texas A&M: Received $696 million in funding to establish an engineering branch in 2003.

  • Cornell University: Received $1.7 billion in funding from Qatar to establish a Medical branch in 2001.

  • Northwestern University: Received $601 million in funding to establish a Journalism branch in 2008.

  • Georgetown University: Received $760.5 million in funding to establish a Political Science branch in Qatar in 2005.

How Does Qatar’s Funding Influence Universities And Students?

Does all of this funding represent a tuition of terror? In an age of globalization, it seems on the surface like a virtue to collaborate openly with international universities that value the American education system. However, many professionals believe schools that promote open societies still need to approach financial ties to authoritarian states with caution, since it is not unfathomable that they leverage this donated money for influence.

It is no secret the Qatari government’s values, for example, differ considerably from America’s. Although the Qataris have a vision of modernization, the quasi-absolute monarchy has illiberal practices and its laws do little to protect workers’ rights, women’s rights, or freedom of the press. Qatar’s financial networks have a reputation for breaking banking laws and are also known to support terrorist organizations, and funding groups like Hamas. 

Soft Power Versus Hard Power: The Impact of Qatari Donations on American University Culture

The financial ties between foreign countries and American academia can take a variety of forms, including research collaborations, consulting relationships, the development of satellite institutions, or the sponsorships of student scholarships and initiatives on campus. While some claim Qatar is developing its ties with the American system of higher education to promote soft power, i.e., improving its relationship with Western powers, advancing its role in the Middle East, and influencing its own citizens—others believe the country’s financial and political networks expect their payments to US universities to leverage direct outcomes.

According to a study conducted by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy in 2023, there is a direct correlation between the institutions receiving undocumented contributions and:

  • Increased political campaigns silencing academics.

  • Increased speech intolerance: the termination of speakers and scholars, as well as investigation, censorship, demotion, or suspension of these speakers.

  • More organized efforts or campaigns aimed at imposing sanctions on academic researchers.

These outcomes illuminate how foreign government agendas infuse American educational programming both at home and abroad. This includes the scrutinizing or cancellation of activities, control of intellectual property and research, removing researchers from positions, or suspension and termination. There have also been instances where foreign donors’ stipulations reflect a considerable bias being into the classroom via curricula. Instances when course agendas and content are manipulated to shape classroom learning and discussions are not uncommon, especially regarding Middle Eastern studies.

Previous Incidents of Terror States Funding American Universities

In the years following 9/11, US schools began receiving substantially increased funding from Middle Eastern countries, amounting to billions of dollars. Today, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have become the largest donors to US institutions of higher education.

In 2018, money flowing from Saudi sources started to attract attention and concern. The newfound scrutiny came after the killing of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, when critics insisted that colleges needed to investigate the flow of funds coming from regimes with poor human rights records. At the time, students in colleges including MIT asked their president to cut ties with such donors. Citing a photo of the school’s president shaking hands with Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS), the powerful Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the students noted that such relationships could also harm the school’s reputation and “provide the MBS regime with a veil of normalcy.”

The Antisemitic Climate on College Campuses And Funding From Qatar

When some of the most prestigious US universities are receiving large and sustained funding from the same entities providing large and sustained funding to Hamas’s terror-inciting leadership, it is not surprising to see a simultaneous rise of antisemitism on college campuses.

A report by Network Contagion Research Institute revealed that from 2015-2020, institutions that accepted money from Arab donors in the Middle East had 300% more antisemitic incidents than institutions that did not. More specifically, campuses with undisclosed funds from Qatari donors had, on average, 250% more antisemitic incidents than those that did not receive such funding. Over the years it has also been revealed that there’s a direct connection between donations from Qatar and the presence of pro-Palestinian groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), on campuses.

Disturbing Campus Responses Following October 7th Attacks

Most recently, responses from universities following the October 7th terrorist attack in Israel reflect a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. Heated anti-Israel protests since October 7th have led to increasing antisemitic rhetoric, visible support for terrorism, and violent encounters. Many student groups seemed somehow prepared for this in advance, with organizations such as SJP organizing protests and spreading anti-Zionist material as early as October 8, well before the Israeli Defense Forces activated its ground operation in Gaza.

Jewish students have spoken out about their fears and need for safety, calling out university leaders for their complacency in the face of campus antisemitism and in some cases suing universities for tolerating and even promulgating Jewish hate. Many have documented that growing antisemitic instances have been ignored, or worse, defended by university staff— within the “context” of “freedom of speech.”

Steps to Increase Donation Transparency

The obscurity of the transfer of funds that increased dramatically since 9/11 is clearly a cause for concern. By failing to report these third-party transfers, Qatar can avoid scrutiny over its academic influence. Universities that have failed to reveal the origin of donations from Qatar will attract ongoing skepticism, suggesting university officials deliberately ignore regulators so that they do not obtain insight into the ongoing academic investments and potentially unctuous donor behavior.

Especially since so many of these donations have gone unreported, critics say there needs to be more scrutiny regarding the influence gained by these billions of dollars. Without more information, analysts cannot measure the effects of the donations – or even know if funding contracts have been completed, allowing the DoE to conduct compliance investigations.

Moving forward, experts have suggested that the US government should enact reforms to make more transparent the influence stemming from foreign donations. They advocate that this should be done by:

  • Adding a provision to Section 117 mandating the disclosure of grantees who have connections to Qatar and other countries found to have funded organizations deemed by the US government to be terrorist organizations

  • Establishing conflict-of-interest review boards at universities to regulate foreign funding sources and block those that threaten to compromise academic integrity or national security

  • Enacting further transparency by requiring full public disclosure of all foreign contracts or donations received by American universities.

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