Senate Defense Bill Targets Security and Foreign Influence at Colleges and Universities
June 24, 2019

Congressional members from both parties have expressed heightened concern in recent months over security and foreign influence at higher education institutions, specifically around China.

The Senate began work last week on the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the bill which authorizes defense and intelligence programs for the year. This legislation also can include congressional directions to the Department of Defense on various issues. Over the past two years, the bill has addressed concerns over security and foreign influence at U.S. universities, and it appears to do so again this year. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has introduced the Protect Our Universities Act of 2019​, which he is expected to try to add as an amendment to the NDAA. His bill is similar to legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) that was included in the House NDAA. It would require the Department of Homeland Security to create a list of “sensitive research projects” that require additional screening for university students from China, Russia, and Iran.

ACE, along with other higher education associations, has expressed concern with this proposal and urged Congress to use existing regulations to protect sensitive research. In addition, ACE and other groups are supporting the Securing American Science and Technology Act​, a bill that was already included in the House NDAA that would create an interagency task force headed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as establish a roundtable at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematics to engage with stakeholders on these important issues.

The Senate is expected to wrap up work on the NDAA by the July 4 recess.

ACE Requests Clarification on Foreign Gift and Contract Rules

On a related note, Congress has been looking closely at a section of the Higher Education Act (HEA) on foreign gifts and contracts and how colleges and universities comply with the requirement. 

ACE, along with six  other presidential higher education associations, sent a letter​ June 21 to the Department of Education (ED) requesting a response to a January 2019 letter​ seeking clarification on Sec. 117 of the HEA​, which requires reporting on foreign gifts and contracts for higher education institutions.  

The January 2019 letter focused on four areas: the dollar amount that triggers the reporting requirement, the specific definition of an institution of higher education, when it is sufficient to report the country or the individual foreign entity, and how institutions should submit corrections or amendments to previous reports. 

The Associated Press​ reported last week that ED has begun investigations into foreign funding at several universities as part of a “broader push to monitor international money flowing to American colleges.” An anonymous Trump administration official told the AP that more institutions likely will face questioning as federal officials “focus on an issue they see as crucial to transparency and national security.”​