Public and private colleges and universities have long enjoyed independence from federal governing bodies over the nature of their operations. In the last few months, however, higher education has become the center of controversy relating to several developments integral to national interest.
Federal lawmakers and related agencies have advanced their probes into U.S. institutions as conflict in the Middle East continues to boil over domestically, raising fresh concern about the prominence of antisemitism. Additionally, souring relations between the U.S. and China have instigated lawmakers to draw an antagonistic eye toward U.S. research due to its potential to compromise national security.
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More investigations launched into college, university antisemitism
After what many considered a disastrous hearing for the presidents of Harvard, UPenn, and MIT, the heat placed on higher education for not adequately protecting students from antisemitism became a wildfire. The Committee on Education and the Workforce, which conducted the hearing, launched a formal investigation into the three schools.
Now, the House Ways and Means Committee has launched a probe into those schools, as well as Cornell University, going so far as to threaten to relinquish their tax-exempt status.
“Ultimately, as the U.S. House Committee with primary jurisdiction over tax-exempt institutions and the treatment of their endowments, we are left to wonder whether reexamining the current benefits and tax treatment afforded to your institutions is necessary,” Rep. Jason Smith and committee chair wrote.
Underscoring these House probes is the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ broader investigation analyzing whether colleges and universities nationwide violate the Department’s Title VI shared ancestry clause relating to antisemitism. While it began by investigating six colleges and universities in November, it has since added 22 more as of this article’s publication date. Schools include the University of North Carolina, Drexel University (Penn.) and Brown (R.I.).
Claudine Gay and Liz Magill, the two presidents who tested before Congress, have since resigned, leaving President Sally Kornbluth of MIT as the last to retain her position. However, the pressure against her leadership is high. MIT is the only institution in the U.S. under investigation by the two House committees and the Education Department.
While Kornbluth has vowed to comply with the federal probes and enhance its initiatives to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia, she has also recognized the work needed to create a more amicable campus environment.
“We cannot expect discipline and policies to magically resolve all or even most difficulties that emerge in how we relate to each other in speech,” she said, according to CNN. “We need to rely on each other for decency and compassion.”
A closer eye on U.S.-China relations
Back in November, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) issued a report to Congress that recommended amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965, granting Congress and federal agencies deeper oversight of how U.S. institutions interact with China. The reforms would tighten foreign financial disclosure requirements and strip federal financial aid to any institution that fails compliance over three consecutive or nonconsecutive years.
The proposed changes aim to amend Section 117 of the HEA, limiting the types of entities U.S. colleges and universities are allowed to interact with and giving the Department of Education more latitude in monitoring U.S. colleges and universities. For example, the report suggested that the Department analyze all China- and Hong Kong-origin gifts and contracts received by U.S. universities over the past 10 years. The currently required disclosure threshold for gifts and contracts valued at $250,000 or more per year will also be reviewed and possibly lowered.
The USCC urges the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States should receive expanded oversight over U.S. institutions’ transactions with foreign entities involving research contracts. Moreover, the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence should be given access to review gift and contract records.