Education Department Withdraws Emergency HEA Section 117 Information Collection Request
February 11, 2020

The Department of Education (ED) last Thursday ended its attempt to put in place on an emergency basis new requirements for foreign gift and contract reporting under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act. However on Monday, the department resubmitted a proposal for an expanded information collection request (ICR) with just one change: It removes the request for unredacted “true copies” of contracts and gift agreements from covered institutions.

ED and the Office of Management and Budget have agreed that the department will use the notice and comment rulemaking process to address the desire to collect these true copies.

This revision, combined with other changes made earlier in the process, has resulted in a new ICR that is somewhat improved over what ED initially submitted Sept. 6. ACE responded in November to that proposal, stressing that the original ICR was a dramatic enlargement of federal oversight that reached well beyond the scope of the law.

Since September, ED has backed away from some of the more problematic provisions in the original ICR. For instance, it clarified that colleges and universities don’t have to report contracts with foreign entities that involve the purchasing of goods and services or the leasing of facilities and that institutions do not have to report tuition payments from foreign students. ED also deleted a question about whether foreign funding has a direct or indirect influence on a program or curriculum, and removed another one asking institutions to certify compliance with certain anti-terrorism requirements.

After ED released a revised ICR on Dec. 17 along with a request for emergency processing, ACE submitted two comment letters—one opposing the emergency processing request as unnecessary in the absence of an actual emergency, and one opposing the revised ICR because it continued to seek information without statutory authority. 

The new ICR released Monday still includes the requirement to submit the names and addresses of anonymous individual donors, a provision ACE and others in the higher education community oppose. ED says it will protect the identity of such donors, but it is not clear that promise of confidentiality can be kept once the documents are in federal possession. ACE also opposes the requirement of supplying to ED true copies of contract and gift agreements that ED will now address under a separate rulemaking process, due to concerns over maintaining the confidentiality of these documents. ACE and other associations will be submitting comments about these remaining concerns.

Since 1986, higher education institutions have been required by Section 117 to report gifts from or contracts entered into with a foreign government or nongovernmental foreign source with a value of at least $250,000. Until recently, Section 117 did not appear to be a priority for ED enforcement. But with increased scrutiny by Congress and the administration over potential foreign interference in U.S. research efforts—particularly from China—the department has stepped up efforts to monitor whether institutions are in compliance.

ED likely will try to have the new ICR procedure in place in time for the next reporting deadline, July 31, 2020. However, the notice and comment process for true copies of gift agreements and contracts may take longer.