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The top Republicans on three House committees, including one that has been investigating foreign influence on U.S. higher education, asked Harvard and Yale Universities and four other institutions that have received tens of millions of dollars from China and other countries for records of any contracts, agreements or gifts with those nations.

However, Terry Hartle, the senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, quickly called it an “unwarranted partisan fishing expedition aimed solely at schools in blue states in an election year.”

Money American colleges and universities get from foreign sources has been under scrutiny, with the Education Department announcing investigations into Harvard and Yale in February on whether they have complied with a federal law requiring disclosure of certain foreign gifts and contracts. The department previously launched investigations into six other universities -- Cornell, Georgetown, Rutgers and Texas A&M Universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Maryland -- in relation to their disclosure of foreign funding.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee had written the Education Department in May asking for all documents in the department’s investigation “to help us better understand the depth and breadth of foreign influence and investment in U.S. higher education.”

Following up on Monday, the Republican lawmakers wrote in separate letters to the presidents of Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Delaware, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale that they are concerned “many countries use donation agreements or contracts (agreements) with IHEs, professors, or researchers (recipients) to leverage their money into some type of benefit, or quid pro quo.”

For example, "Qatar deems all its donations to recipients to be 'strategic' and 'trade secrets' and precludes the recipient from disclosing the amount or purpose of the donation," said the letters to the universities from James Comer, the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, Virginia Foxx, his counterpart on the Education Committee and Jim Jordan, who holds the same position on the Judiciary Committee.

“Most concerning, some recipients alter their decision making based on the donations received,” the letters said, noting that two universities with contracts with Jilin University in China denounced reports the coronavirus pandemic could have been caused by negligence in a lab in Wuhan, China, a claim China rejects and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has said runs counter to the scientific evidence.

While they are hardly alone in having relationships with Chinese businesses, a Republican aide said lawmakers focused on the six universities because they received large amounts from anonymous foreign sources. In a letter to Harvard president Lawrence Bacow, they noted the university has declared 31 anonymous gifts or contracts totaling $101 million since 2015, from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia.

“To help us better understand foreign influence and investment in U.S. higher education,” the lawmakers asked for unredacted records of gifts, contracts or agreements from foreign sources. The Republicans made similar requests to the five other university presidents, citing the tens of millions of dollars their institutions have received from anonymous foreign sources during the same period.

According to the letters, University of Chicago has declared 30 gifts or contracts totaling $23,059,862 from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia; the University of Delaware has declared six gifts or contracts totaling $28.6 million from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia; New York University has declared 15 gifts or contracts totaling $40.4 million from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia; the University of Pennsylvania has reported 92 gifts or contracts totaling $62.2 million from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia; and Yale University has declared 18 gifts or contracts totaling $22 million from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia.

Spokespeople for the universities were not immediately available for comment. But Hartle said it is unrealistic to expect them to comply by an Aug. 10 deadline the lawmakers set. “It requires that boxcars full of data be submitted within one week and doesn’t even suggest that the confidential information being demanded will be kept confidential,” he said.

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