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Earlier this month, the United States Department of Education opened an investigation into Harvard’s foreign funding, requesting information on gifts and contracts connected to various foreign governments, including China and Iran, as well as from a number of foreign companies. Harvard is not alone in receiving this scrutiny; Yale, Georgetown University, Cornell University, and MIT are all part of the government’s larger campaign to crack down on "academic espionage."
Harvard has been roiled with funding scandals this year, from the arrest of Chemistry Department Chair Charles M. Lieber for lying about Chinese funding sources to the exposure of the University’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein. These situations raise deep concerns about the ethics and intentions of the people that fund our institution and are given access to it. In light of these recent events, we agree with the premise of the Department of Justice’s probe: that Harvard’s system to evaluate its funding sources is imperfect, and is in need of improvement.
However, Harvard’s relationship with the Department of Education must be understood in the context of the Department’s broader backlash against institutions of higher learning. In her 2017 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, current Secretary of Education Betsy D. DeVos made a point of specifying that “the fight against the educational establishment” she has committed her Department to extends to colleges and universities. DeVos went on to condemn institutions of higher learning broadly, which she characterized as places where “the faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.” The Trump administration has also already targeted Chinese students at elite institutions of higher education, restricting student visas as part of a broad package of trade restrictions targeting Beijing. Because of developments such as this, we are cautious of fully embracing the Department of Education’s inquiry, though we think the specific concern raised is valid in nature.
The key issue regarding accepting financial contributions must be its impact on the academic work of our institution. Harvard should be open to accepting contributions from foreign governments so long as these contributions improve the quality of our institution. We do not believe that the foreignness of a funding source, in and of itself, should lead us to exclude donations. If Harvard receives money from a foreign government to study specific legitimate academic inquiries, we should welcome the contributions for the knowledge or good they will help produce.
However, if the foreign government in question contributes in the hopes of propagating some self-serving political counter-narrative, or does so for some other overtly political purpose by leveraging Harvard’s credibility, then the donation becomes problematic. Contributions for the purpose of whitewashing misdeeds and exerting influence must obviously be avoided.
In short, intention is key. Harvard must keep its contributions clean to facilitate its ability to do rigorous academic work. But ruling out donations simply because they come from another country runs deeply counter to the international, open spirit we believe the University should champion.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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