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Harvard Maintains Public Ties to Foreign Foundations Under Scrutiny in Education Department Probe

The Department of Education is currently investigating Harvard's financial ties to several foreign governments and foundations.
The Department of Education is currently investigating Harvard's financial ties to several foreign governments and foundations. By Thomas Maisonneuve
By Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writer

At least three foreign foundations to which the Department of Education requested Harvard disclose financial ties have been publicly linked to the University in the past.

In a Feb. 11 letter, the Education Department asked the University to disclose information about contracts and gifts from the governments and citizens of China, Iran, Russia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. It also requested disclosures about gifts from the Alavi Foundation; Huawei Technologies; Kaspersky Lab; the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development; the Skolkovo Foundation; and ZTE Corporation.

Christopher M. Hennessy, a spokesperson for the University, wrote in an email that Harvard accepts donations “in good faith.” Harvard retains full control over how funds will be used and prohibits direct donor involvement, according to Hennessy.

The Alavi Foundation — which former Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi founded in 1973 as the Pahlavi Foundation to promote the study of Persian and Islamic culture in the United States — lists a total of $606,500 in donations to Harvard between 1985 and 2014 on its website.

At least two such donations publicized on the foundation’s website were to Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, with one earmarked to fund a tutoring program. The website also displays a copy of a 2009 letter from Steven C. Caton — a Harvard anthropology professor who at the time directed the Center for Middle Eastern Studies — to the Alavi Foundation, which credits the foundation with “subventing Dr. Ahmad Mahdavi-Damghani’s salary for the upcoming academic year.”

On its website, the Alavi Foundation emphasizes that it has “no affiliation with any government, let alone the government of Iran.”

The Foundation and Caton did not respond to requests for comment, and Mahdavi-Damghani could not be reached for comment.

The Qatar Foundation — founded in 1995 by then-emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser to “realize their ambitions for the future of Qatar” — and its subsidiaries appear to have had partnerships with multiple Harvard schools in the past decade.

Arabian Business Industries reported in 2012 that the Qatar Foundation joined forces with the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School to establish a graduate law school at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar. The Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce — a non-profit — reported in 2016 that the Qatar Foundation’s Education Development Institute had partnered with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to launch a leadership program specific to teaching and learning in Qatar Foundation Academies.

The website for bint Nasser, the current chairperson of Qatar Foundation, also lists a 2016 visit to Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute to “discuss ways of collaboration between the institute and Qatar's Biomedical Research Institute.” The 2015-2016 Annual Report of the Qatar Foundation also lists a partnership between the Biomedical Research Institute and Harvard Medical School, entitled “Cancer Biology and Therapeutics Program.”

The Moscow Times reported that Harvard Graduate School of Design Professor Mohsen Mostafavi designed the main research facility at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in 2012. Mostafavi, who served as the Dean of the Design School from 2008 to 2019, has also been listed as a member of multiple boards at the Skolkovo Foundation, including the Skolkovo Town Planning Board and the Urban Council Board.

The Skolkovo Foundation is a Russian-government-funded non-profit intended to bolster technological innovation and entrepreneurship in Russia.

Harvard Law School professor Roberto Unger also praised the Skolkovo Foundation in a 2013 video on their website. “I have studied the work of Skolkovo with enormous admiration,” he said in the video.

In 2012, The Telegraph also named “on-going Russian-US partnerships between the Foundation and NASA, Boston's MIT and Harvard University.”

Viktor Vekselberg — the Russian billionaire who chairs the Foundation’s board — facilitated the much-celebrated 2007 repatriation of the Russian Orthodox bells that once hung in Lowell House back to Russia. Vekselberg reportedly paid several millions of dollars to transport and replace the bells.

The Skolkovo Foundation, Mostafavi, and Unger did not respond to requests for comment.

Harvard has not yet been publicly linked to the telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE Corp., which are both based in China, or to Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cybersecurity firm. The three firms did not respond to requests for comment.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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